It's time to put our shoulders to the wheel on herd health targets

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Joe Kelleher

Joe Kelleher

Last month I accompanied two Limerick-based discussion groups on a trip to Sweden. While we have a huge advantage by having a low-cost grass-based system, we have a long way to go to catch up to our Swedish counterparts in terms of herd health.

Sweden is home to 3,500 dairy herds comprising 320,000 cows, averaging 91 cows per head (almost identical to Ireland in herd size), with an average yield of 8,900kg per cow.

Cows there are housed for most of the year, but all farmers are compelled to allow cows outdoors for two to four months depending on the part of the country they farm in.

The grass growing season only really kicks off in May and the national average grass growth is 7 tonnes/DM/ha, with half of this being grown between May 10 and June 10, making it challenging to manage pre-grazing swards during this period.

Some pioneers are attempting to embrace a grass-based system and cows were still out grazing on one farm we visited. This farm is aiming to achieve over 250 days at grass.

With the long housing period and low winter temperatures of minus 15C to minus 20C, a huge level of investment was evident on all the farms we visited in terms of housing facilities.

Robotic milking systems are increasingly popular and it is estimated that 30pc of Swedish cows are milked this way.

Feeding systems in all the sheds we saw were also automated, with the silage being loaded into a trolley outside the shed, which then transported the feed automatically to the cows within the shed.

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This huge level of capital infrastructure, coupled with the high level of automation, has led to high levels of on-farm debt, and while we did not find out what the national debt was, it's fair to assume that it would be somewhere in the region of €5,000-€10,000 per cow.

However, when you consider that interest rates are around 1.5pc and most loans are on an interest-only basis (with the capital portion being passed from generation to generation), it might go some way to explain why the debt level is so high.

With a mostly indoor system, high depreciation figures and a concentrate feed level of 3,000-4,000kg/cow on most farms, it is also fair to assume a cost per litre in the mid to late 30s on a cent per litre basis.

Exact information of the cost base was hard to ascertain on most farms.

Profit margins

Given that the average milk price at the time of our visit was 34c/l, it's clear that profit margins were tight on many farms.

Three of the farms we visited had converted to organic in recent years to attain a 15c/l bonus over conventional milk.

While we have many advantages in terms of a profitable grass-based system here in Ireland, we have a long way to go in terms of our herd health status. Sweden is free of IBR, Johnes, BVD and TB.

How did they achieve this, you might ask? Because they never had them to start with. There are extremely strict rules in Sweden in terms of importing cattle, and that seems to have paid off.

Compare this scenario with Ireland. We are almost BVD-free but we are 40 years trying to eradicate TB with little success.

However, with the advent of vaccines (whether they are used on cattle or wildlife) you would like to think that within five to 10 years we might eventually eradicate TB.

IBR is prevalent in 90pc of Irish dairy herds and doesn't look like disappearing anytime soon and we are about to embark on a journey to attempt to eliminate Johnes.

With this in mind, it is timely that phase 2 of Johne's Disease control programme is being made available to all farmers on a voluntary basis from January 1.

Farmers will be paid €2.75 per cow in the first year to test every cow in their herd either by blood or with a milk sample. It is a voluntary programme and will run for four years. Further information and details on how to sign up for the programme can be found on

A huge portion of Irish milk is sold on international markets, and purchasers are becoming more selective as to what standards they want the milk they are buying to meet.

While we have a green image and may have a low carbon footprint, we have along way to go in terms of improving our herd health status.

We all need to put our shoulder to the wheel and the dividends will be reaped by all by continuing to make Irish milk a desirable product but by also improving the health of our herds.

Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc advisor based in Newcastlewest, Co Limerick

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