Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Dairy farmer says the good weather has been the equivalent of a milk price rise

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Mary Kinston

April 2017 at home in Kerry was fabulous with weather conditions I have rarely seen in the decade I have been here.

The ground conditions and the ease of management made me feel like I was back in New Zealand. We had just 20ml of rain during April and minimal rainfall continued into May.

The impact on pasture quality and milk production has been notable although it has kept us, like many others, verging on a feed deficit for a prolonged period of time.

To put these rainfall levels into perspective, over the previous five years I had recorded an average rainfall of 92ml for April so it was a substantial change to what we've been used to.

Where farmers held their nerve on their somewhat short supply of pasture, combined with a slightly longer rotation, cows responded well to meal, having held production at consistent levels in and around 2kgMS/cow for a prolonged period which is a great result.

On top of this cows have been content at pasture and have maintained body condition score with clean glossy coats.

Lower than desired milk butterfat results have been a concern but where acted on in recent weeks by the inclusion of hay, straw or silage into cows' diet, the response has often been limited, which rules out major concerns for dietary upsets in cows.

In respect of the pasture, grazing residuals and the clean out of paddocks has been excellent. This was a far cry from what was being achieved in March. Combined with slightly lower pre-grazing yields, cows have been grazing on nothing but quality pasture.

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There was some debate about the merit of fertiliser application in dry conditions, but where the evening and morning dew was apparent, responses to fertiliser held up and it has generally been a worthwhile exercise.

While grass growth was disappointing at times, it was often enough to sustain the cows with meal.

I noted during my weekly grass walk that cracks in the soil were starting to appear in places and this prolonged drying is mother-nature's way of improving soil drainage which we often miss in the wetter parts of the country.

Considering all the above, it's no surprise that, in general, cows are submitting well for mating, with many on target for greater than 90pc at three weeks with minimal intervention.

All in all, I am full of optimism for the year ahead as the weather has had as much if not more of an impact on profit as milk price, especially in this part of the country. However you can't help wonder what's ahead.

The long term weather situation is anyone's guess, but it is interesting to note that up to May 17 we received a cumulative total of 358ml of rain - during the previous five years we averaged 592ml to May 31.

The question is whether 2017 will be a dry year or will there be a period of catch up as totals return to average.

Given the recent weather a few lads on drier ground and areas were questioning the merits of drought management techniques.

If dry weather is sustained, one option to consider is extending your rotation to 30 days and holding this longer rotation until pre-grazing covers lift. Continue to apply fertiliser where grass is green and growing.

However, when a farm is moisture-stressed - ie the land is somewhat brown in appearance - there's no point applying fertiliser until after substantial rain of greater than 25mm

One tonne per hectare of grass dry matter requires 200-250t/ha of water absorbed by the roots. This corresponds to a depth of water of 25mm/ha whether taken up from soil reserves or falling as rainfall.

Pasture quality

Future pasture quality will be interesting. Tight grazing residuals promote long term pasture quality by removing the seed heads which were starting to initiate with stem elongation.

However, grass will tend to seed having been slightly moisture-stressed, so there is potential to see short seed heads emerge into pastures in future weeks.

These will hopefully be easily corrected through grazing rather than requiring the topper.

A drop on milk production is on the horizon, especially as cows conceive to service and this often occurs from mid-June onwards, especially once the fourth week of mating has elapsed.

While this is a natural reality of the lactation curve of a 365 calving interval, every year it appears almost unexpected as we all hope to prolong high production levels into the summer.

Ultimately, as long as it's not excessive, it's a good sign that cows are getting back in calf.

Taking all the positives into consideration, 2017 has serious potential to heal the bank account battle wounds of 2015/16, and maximise productivity on farm.

As ever, though, it will all depend on the weather.

Mary Kinston is a discussion group facilitator and consultant, and farms with her husband in County Kerry

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