Is it time to cancel some cows' winter holidays?

Dairy farmers are being encouraged to consider alternatives to traditional calving patterns

cows in a farm. Dairy cows in a farm.
cows in a farm. Dairy cows in a farm.
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

An estimated 23pc of cows in the liquid milk herd are taking a long holiday every winter.

That was one of the key messages from dairy specialist Joe Patton at the Teagasc Winter Milk conference in Navan where he encouraged farmers to consider split calving patterns as an alternative to the traditional spring calving method.

Late spring calvers are productive at peak, while cows calved in September and October provide a more sustainable milk supply through the year, said Mr Patton.

"Late spring calvers or summer calvers peak high when there's a peak production in factories and drop really quickly, whereas October calvers give us sustained milk production through the year.

"If you take the number of litres from November to February, a June calved cow will give you 2,200 kilos of milk and an October calved cow will give you 3,200 kilos," he said.

He added that if you have a liquid milk contract feed costs for September/October calved cows are less than late spring calved cows and that late spring calved cows should not be used just to meet a contract.

"You need fewer October calvers than you do late calvers to fill the contract. The annual feed costs of a June calver has the same feed costs of an October calved cow but we need more June calvers to meet our contracts.

"On a whole farm basis it's cheaper from a feed point of view to have fewer October calvers than it is to allow spring calvers to become lax and left on," he said.

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Mr Patton added that there are further benefits of looking into the optimal calving patterns rather than relying on late spring calvers to fill contracts.

"September to November calved cows drive good milk production through the winter, whereas with May-August calved cows there are issues of low solids and being over conditioned.

"We should not be using stale, straggler cows from the spring to fill our contracts. It would make more sense to have fewer herds using more September/October cows to supply that type of milk.

"It's important we start talking about calving pattern. We have to start measuring these things.

"We have to be conscious that there are targets and efficiencies to be gained from the optimal pattern," he said.

Mr Patton went on to discuss examples of optimum calving patterns depending on the type of liquid contract a dairy farmer has.

"If we take a 50pc contract what we're looking at is two compact blocks centred on early February calving and starting in early October with a finish in about 10 weeks. We are hollowing out the middle of the year and during the summer months are free to produce plenty of milk.

"If you have a 70pc contract, to achieve that we would have to start a little earlier. Start around September 10 with about 55pc calving in autumn overall," he explained.

However, in the case where farmers are on 25pc contract models, he questioned whether calving in autumn was worth it.

"This 25pc contract is an interesting group. We're talking about 100 cows needing to calve 15 calves in the autumn for the optimum.

"If you're in a situation where you're calving 15 cows or less in the autumn you have to start asking questions about critical mass and if it is worth your while? You need to decide what's the best for your farm," he said.

Mr Patton added that if we want to increase our milk production and overall efficiency, that fertility and culling empty cows should be focused on more by dairy farmers.

"We have to start looking at culling like it isn't such a bad thing. We need to start looking at culling and replacing those stocks with better fertility genetics coming through,"he said.

While there are plenty benefits to split calving, Mr Patton explained that it involves four extra hours of labour per cow as it is a more complex system.

At present the number of winter milk farmers in Ireland stands at 1,700, which is 10pc of dairy farmers.

This is compared to 3,359 producers registered in 2001. On average farmers receive a 7.5-8c per litre premium for producing winter milk, which for most is not enough.

While Mr Patton said that it could be worthwhile bringing in a scheme to increase the producers of winter milk in Ireland, he stressed that since there's no shortage of liquid milk through the winter that there may be no point in "robbing Peter to pay Paul"

"As it stands whatever value is available to fund a scheme would have to be returned by the market. Winter milk can't be paid premium unless there's increased production," he said.

He added that spring calving is fine but that co-ops should start discussing the possibilities of split systems with farmers.

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