Greenfield project provides a blueprint for low-cost milk production in post-quota era
Visitors to the open day on the Greenfield dairy project in Kilkenny should have been impressed. One year on the farm is humming. Under the project's 15-year business plan, from a greenfield start, this herd will generate an income capable of paying for all running costs, including labour (€88,000 to €120,000), land rental (€240/ha), plus repay a €750,000 bank loan and €350,000 investor start-up capital. Nationally, the project is a blueprint for low-cost milk production in a post-milk quota era.
The project demanded that start-up costs be minimal, with priority given to grass, cows and cow health. This project was always going to demand excellent management, plus that bit of luck that we all need when facing a new challenge. Also, in terms of farmer confidence and credibility in the venture, it was always vital that the full story be told, warts and all.
The bit of luck came with the lift in milk price above the level budgeted for. Table 1 summarises the outcome for the start-up season versus the targets. Sales of milk solids were below budget, partly because extra milk was fed to calves in spring as a herd number was sorted out. Also, in December, the big freeze resulted in cows being dried off early. Mortality in cows and calves was below target, which indicates good day-to-day management. Grass yield on the newly reseeded pastures (which have lots of clover), at a massive 16 tonnes of dry matter per hectare, far exceeded the 9.5t target. This has encouraged the management team to bump up cow numbers to 313 or 2.75 cows/ha (1.12 cows/ac) this year.
The dairy unit is classic New Zealand. The only cow accommodation is a one acre outdoor pad plus a few calving boxes. The 30-unit milking parlour is open on three sides. All feeding, fertiliser spreading and topping has been contracted out. Bull calves are sold as they drop and heifer replacements are reared off farm. The labour force of two is supplemented by a student for the calving and breeding season.
The first winter for Greenfield was one of the coldest on record. The pad froze up in December, as did the dung. When the thaw came, cows were standing in slurry which had to be removed and the woodchips replaced. The pad was also deemed unsuitable for the milking cows.
In spite of this, there are no immediate plans to roof the outdoor accommodation. However, the cash surplus from the first season has been invested in a silage base, thus facilitating a switch from baled to pit silage. This is expected to rectify the problem of baled silage being dragged onto the outdoor pad.
The cow herd at Greenfield is a 'liquorice allsorts' mix of Holstein, Friesian, Jersey and Norwegian Red. There is a huge range in cow size -- so much so that the 30-unit milking parlour can hold from 28 to 33 depending on which animals happen to be passing through. The plan is to continue criss-crossing with Jersey and Holstein.
Cows readily go through the parlour to get to their new paddock, which happens every 24 hours. The key to managing this farm is continued grass measurement and grass budgeting. Given the variability of grass growth, this takes skill and constant monitoring. For instance, despite the excellent growth last month, some silage buffer feed was used to top up the grazing at Greenfield last week.