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Independent.ie

Wednesday 18 July 2018

'We took a big hit in the first year' - 200-acre dairy farmer on the switch to once-a-day milking

The benefits of once-a-day milking for Catherine and Liam Millerick have been many, but it's not suitable for everyone

Liam and Catherine Millierick with Teagasc OAD advisor Brian Hilliard
Liam and Catherine Millierick with Teagasc OAD advisor Brian Hilliard

Martin Ryan

'We should have done it 20 years ago - it has exceeded our expectations" is the considered opinion of Catherine Millerick on the biggest change to the daily routine of running a dairy farm in South Tipperary.

Having read about once-a-day milking (OAD), Catherine and her husband, Liam, became interested in the improved quality of life which it could provide, without loss of income, and they decided to look into it further.

Fifty farmers, who travelled from areas as far and wide as Donegal and Cork were guests of Liam and Catherine when they hosted an open day on OAD at their farm at St Johnstown, near Fethard on Thursday.

They came to learn how the system works on a 200-acre holding, as interest in the labour-reducing milking system continues to spread countrywide.

Behind the running of the open day was Dungarvan-based Teagasc advisor Brian Hilliard, one of the four Teagasc specialist advisors on OAD, who believes that it will have a place on many more dairy farms, but who stresses that success on par with the Millericks will pose some challenges.

How they got into OAD

Catherine and Liam were very open with the visiting farmers on the pros and cons of OAD in the sun-drenched conditions on the farm last week.

"Having researched as much information as we could, we had a discussion with Frank Murphy, Moorepark and looked at different breed crosses, but his advice was to go all-out on whatever we decided," Catherine told the farmers.

She explained that it was not an overnight decision and they planned with care when deciding to convert their New Zealand Friesian herd to crossbred with Jersey, a process which was planned from 2009.

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"We felt it was going to be the same money but less work. We were fed up with the system and wanted some change. There was a new enthusiasm once we decided to go for it, although some people thought that we were crazy introducing Jersey and OAD," she said.

'We took a big hit in the first year'

OAD was introduced into their herd of 80 cows in the autumn of 2013. The herd has since been increased to 123 cows.

They are milked at 6.30am in an eight-unit double-up milking parlour system. "We took a big hit in the first year - we were down €30,000 - because the herd was 40pc heifers, but we were lucky it was a good year for milk price in 2014 and that cushioned it," she said.

"We did lose 20pc of the herd. The cows that it didn't suit did not adapt to the new system. They just went dry, it was like they were telling us 'if you are not going to bother milking us twice a day, we are just not going to bother giving it to you'," she explained.

The cows they thought would be good were the ones that it did not work out for.

"We are often asked how to know a good one. You don't really because there is no way of knowing in advance which cow is going to be suited to it and which one isn't. It's a case of going and seeing yourself," she said.

Neither is the system suitable for everyone, stressed Liam, pointing out that it does require very good grassland management to make it work properly because "it is a step up and it is not going to work for someone who is not a good twice-a-day milking dairy farmer".

The couple pointed out that they were very fortunate to know Gillian O'Sullivan from Dungarvan and Donal O'Loughlin from Ballymacarbery who gave them great advice and encouragement when they visited their farms, after which they were convinced it was a "no-brainer and the biggest thing was to get it into our own heads that it would work".

Finished at 9am with the milking done for the day

They now enjoy "being finished at 9am with the milking done for the day, and the rest of the day is our own" - and there is no going back to the more traditional system.

The introduction of heifers to the herd is now generally smooth and some that perform at less than their potential in the first year can be much better in year two, so they are usually held for two seasons before culling.

They don't find any disadvantage with the Norwegian-Jersey cross progeny. Heifers are reared for replacements in their own or other herds and they have a ready market for the bull calves at around €50/hd.

In 2017, average production was 378 kg fat and protein, at 5.35pc bf and 3.94pc pr with SCC at 104 delivering an average milk price of 44.9 c/l.

Overall, they find that OAD involves less labour for easier managed herds and "extends working life as a farmer" which also means that it is easier to get suitable labour.

With "no reason to change back" they are convinced that more farmers in the area will consider OAD in the future for a better lifestyle without reducing their profit margin.

"You will have to be patient and plan because it did not happen overnight for us either," they explained.

‘OAD can be as profitable as twice-a-day milking, but has to be done well’

Comparison of the Pioneering Once A Day in Ireland (POADII) group average herd with the average herd in the Glanbia area has put OAD into perspective for the discerning dairymen.

Fat percentage at 4.81pc, protein of 3.90pc, and milk price of 32.2 c/l in 2016 outperformed the Glanbia averages at 4.11pc, 3.51pc, and 27.6 c/l respectively, while SCC was slightly higher than the Glanbia average of 165 at 197 and milk solids at 357kg slightly lower than Glanbia’s 372kg.

These facts were presented at the open day by Brian Hilliard from Teagasc, Dungarvan, who, with three other Teagasc advisors, are providing specialist advice on OAD.

His belief that there is considerable potential in the system was reinforced by interest at the first national conference on OAD at The Horse and Jockey Hotel, Co Tipperary earlier this year.

The conference in January, which was planned for 80 farmers, attracted an overflow attendance in excess of 200.

“OAD can be as profitable as twice-a-day milking under good management, but it has to be done well. Higher milk price is adding up to 5 c/l from the higher fat and protein, while lower labour demand is reducing the cost of production,” he explained.

“Grassland management is very important. If cows on OAD go back (in production) because of bad grass and so on, it is hard to get the yield back up again,” he said.

He pointed out that there is also an advantage for cows where a long walk to pasture is involved with less walking contributing to virtually no lameness in herds on OAD.

His advice is that it is mainly for very good dairy farmers and will not suit everyone, but there are many it will suit — and a big increase in uptake can be expected as the benefits become more obvious.

Yield drop

“Expect the cows to drop a lot (in yield) the first year, but it will bring up some of the loss by the improved milk solids which can be worth about 5 c/l on average,” he says.

“OAD must be planned for well in advance and it is not something to decide overnight,” he added.

Twenty-five OAD herd owners nationwide have now formed their own discussion group known as POADII, meeting four times a year. Three of the meetings are on the farms of members and the fourth at a central venue for overall discussion.

The members are scattered over Kerry, Cork, Wexford, Wicklow, Mayo, Galway, Clare and Sligo, mostly with a range of herd sizes but a lot in common to support each other.

In addition, they now have a WhatsApp group for almost daily contact, advice and solutions.

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