Farm Ireland

Thursday 19 April 2018

Good grass management is driving profits of €3,504/ha

Plans: Noel O’Toole is aiming to milk 175 cows next year on his farm in Killimor, Co Galway
Plans: Noel O’Toole is aiming to milk 175 cows next year on his farm in Killimor, Co Galway
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

It was a bit of a shock for Noel O'Toole after his first Jersey crosses arrived looking a bit like "rabbits".

But when the Jersey-Friesian crosses delivered their first calves the farmer was left wishing he'd a few more "rabbits" on the ground.

"We had a Holstein Friesian type of cow and they were great for milk, lovely to look at but they hadn't got the solids," he says.

"We crossed the heifers with Jerseys and little calves popped out and we thought they were rabbits. But we had a different tune when they calved down, and I was awful sorry I hadn't more of them."

In the 1970s they had 40 cows at Hearnsbrook, in Killimor, east Galway, with a mixed enterprise with dairy, beef, sheep and tillage.

Yet it was the influence of Bryony Fitzgerald, who initially came to work for Golden Vale, that prompted a move towards only dairy with strong concentration on grass growth levels and utilising grass.

By 2010 they were highly stocked at 125 cows, with a 20-unit new parlour put in last year to speed up the work with numbers up to 163 this year.

It is his profits from the milking platform of €3,504/ha on average or €932 per cow over the past five years that caught the eye of many. Driven by grass utilisation, total costs are at 19.9c/l.

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His milk solids per hectare have increased to 1,575kg with meal between 500-600kg.

He recently purchased an extra 4ha for the milking platform of 41ha, with careful management on the block allowing a stocking rate of 4LU/ha. The plan is to milk around 175 cows from 2016.

However, with the outlands included the stocking rate is at 2.8LU/ha overall with 158 younger stock.

Noel says the next challenge will be on reducing their costs of production while maintaining targets.

"The milk world as you know is in a bit of a spot, there is not a whole lot of point in talking about keeping another 10, 20 or 30 cows if we're not going to get paid for the milk, as it looks like we're in for a rocky ride on the milk prices," he says.

"I think it is the margin that we can leave between what we're getting and what it is costing that is going to be more important."

The farmer says the milk price may go to the mid-20s per litre, or lower. "How many people are going to stay at the party? That is going to be the big question. In 2009 the price was 22c/l. How many of us would like to be taking that today?" he asks. "If that happens we just have to work within it."

Noel says he is always conscious of input costs. "We're still falling back on the grass, and on converting the grass into milk solids. People talk about the price of a litre of milk but it is the solids in the litres of milk that makes your price," he says. "Unfortunately for all of us 90pc of what we produce is white water it is the 8pc that makes your price on the milk."

Noel runs the farm with his wife Bernadette, while his sons also help out and milk on the farm along with a permanent evening milker.

"We're fully maxed out here. We could be trying to contradict people further and say we'll go for 4.5 cows a hectare. I'd say if I want to produce more milk, I'd want to be looking for more land and more set-up," he says, with calves moved on to an outside block of land.

He says the next challenge would be reducing meal costs, which are at 4.65c/l.

"We can get lazy and we can get fond of the meal lorry coming around the place," he says.

"We might be replacing grass we could grow with expensive feed. The quality grass comes in at 6-8c/kg/DM, while your shiny lorry comes in with loads at 27-30c/kg. We have to think of grass," he says.

In order to feed four cows per hectare, the O'Tooles grow 14t DM/ha and utilise 11.7t DM/ha.

"Without the P and K and lime it won't work, so we've to keep an eye on our soil fertility, our indexes, the whole time," he says, with grass measured at least once a week. Noel says all winter feed comes from quality standing grass from outside the farm at roughly seven bales a cow.

Cows are straight out to grass from their calving dates in February, with 85pc calved within six-weeks and empty rates below 10pc.

He says quality silage is fed in August to help build grass covers, and they have 60pc of lands closed by the end of October.

"A few years ago I was all out into stretching it out into December," he says.

"However, it was impacting grass cover in spring. Grass in the spring is worth twice as much as it is in the fall," he says.

They put out 70 units of urea before April 1 to hit growth levels and keep it palatable. Noel says they now inject slurry in recent years up until the end of May, with cows grazing seven days later.

Now they have a Jersey- and Kiwi-cross - a "tough" cow - with an EBI of €184, which could be higher but they sell in-calf heifers at a decent price before calving.

He is aiming for 4LU/ha on the milking platform with increased solids of 400kg/ha per cow.

"There is nothing special about the cows at all. It is the days at milk, and it is the grass you put into their system," he says.

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