Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Would it pay to feed concentrates on your farm?

Grazing on clover can can increase milk output
Grazing on clover can can increase milk output
Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan

This time of year is the least labour-intensive on dairy farms. Getting relief milkers can be a challenge if you are planning a trip to a hurling or football match in Dublin or taking holidays before the winter sets in.

The weather has been favourable for reseeding pastures, a job many have put on the long finger over the past two years due to the unfavourable milk price.

There has been a greater emphasis on the inclusion of clover in grass seed mixtures, which makes sense in terms of nitrogen fixation and dietary balance. Caution, however, should be exercised given the risk of bloat.

Inclement weather has made grazing conditions poor on many heavier soil types, but soil temperatures are still excellent for grass growth.

However, farmers are generally finding it difficult to maintain consistent high quality grazing platforms ahead of cows.

Judging when paddocks should be taken out for baled silage requires good judgement in addition to factoring in future weather conditions.

A favourable milk price has meant that farmers will extend lactations this autumn and indeed milk late calvers through the winter months. Traditionally stock bulls would have been removed by the end of July. However, stock bulls are still running with the cows on over 60pc of herds I visited in August.

Our current records reveal that empty rates average 15pc for a 13-week breeding period. Farmers consider that there is either a better economic option of calving young cows as late calvers next May or selling them as late calvers than fattening them.

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It is essential that you get accurate ageing of pregnancies when planning to milk late calvers through the winter months.

Up to 10pc of pregnant cows show false heats and therefore, you can easily have cows calve without the required dry cow transition period.

Assess body condition scores of your cows now. Ideally get an independent assessment. Cows should be in peak BCS at this time of year. However, our farm visits reveal that 70pc of herds have over 50pc of cows below target BCS.

With the strong current and forward milk price, it will pay to feed supplemental concentrates to achieve desired BCS and to optimise the opportunity to minimise future replacement rates.

Focus now on the nutritional requirements of your in-calf heifers.

As grass quality and quantity become an issue, introduce supplemental concentrates. Consider removing the weakest in-calf heifers and grouping them with your weanling calves. This will remove competition and ensure they get access to supplemental heifer growing ration.

As herd size has increased dramatically on many farms over the past three years, there has been a significant constraint placed on labour, housing environment and milk parlour routines.

It is essential that these issues are addressed if we are to create a "brand" centred around a sustainable food production system. The dairy farmer needs to optimise the opportunity to have a healthy herd which ultimately means replacement rates falling below 15pc in a non-expansion scenario.

There are excellent opportunities to optimise profitability within the farm gate.

Many farms cannot afford an extra full time labour unit. Sharing a labour unit across two or three farms in close proximity can work successfully if strict ground rules are put in place.

Housing conditions also need to be addressed on many farms. Most building contractors are booked out this autumn as farmers have the required funding available for housing, adaptation and expansion. It is essential to get cubicle design, airflow, bedding environment and feed space correct for the herd.

European legislation will in future dictate, for example, 100 cubicles per 90 cows in the herd and sufficient feed space for all cows to access food simultaneously. Will it be acceptable to strip graze kale and feed baled silage outdoors to our dry cows over the winter months?

Finally, there are great opportunities with milking parlour design and ancillary handling facilities to optimise the time you spend milking cows and the time spent by cows in the milking parlour.

New technology enables excellent data collection from cows, which can be relayed in message form to your phone.

However, there will always be a requirement for stock men to ensure herd welfare is optimised.

There is an essential requirement for better cow handling facilities, which ensure cow flow time and handling arrangements cause minimal stress to animals and optimise handling time.

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at

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