DAIRY herd management has become extremely difficult ahead of the lifting of milk quota restrictions next April. Many farmers have expanded far in excess of their ability to manage their cow numbers.
Grazing conditions have been excellent on heavy soil types, but water shortages are prevalent on many farms with wells running dry. Drought has once again become an issue on lighter soil types where silage has had to be introduced to the diet.
Many farmers have stated that this has been the best grazing season in living memory. Milk quotas are full on many farms with no spare capacity for spring 2015. Once a day milking has been introduced and some farmers are opting for a complete dry off of herds by November 1.
The risk of a superlevy has created a scenario where cows are not being optimally managed. Body condition scores (Bcs) have slipped and animal health issues such as stomach and liver fluke, IBR and neospora are prevalent.
These issues have to be addressed before the transition period begins eight weeks prior to the 2015 calving season. One plus, however, is that reproductive performance for spring calving herds has improved over 2013 figures.
Improved grazing conditions and the impact of EBI with an emphasis on a high fertility sub- index have contributed to this.
There has been a trend towards lower milk output per cow and increased stocking density to achieve the same milk output with great milk- solid yields and optimisation of reproductive performance.
Many farmers surveyed on our farm visits will not increase cow numbers dramatically post April 2015.
Restrictions imposed by land availability, farm fragmentation, a shortage of skilled stockmen and difficulty securing capital investment mean some farmers are opting to do more with current stock numbers. Will a shortage of skilled labour in time become the 'new quota'?
Increased milk output has been traditionally associated with increased costs of production, and decreased health and reproductive performance.
A case study involving an excellent herd near Ballingarry, Co Limerick depicts how milk output per cow can be achieved in tandem with high reproductive performance.
Kieran and Loraine Irwin manage 146 dairy cows with projected 305 yields in 2013 and 2014 of 8,370 litres, and combined fat and protein of 604kg. The end of breeding season pregnancy scan revealed 15 empty cows or a 10.3pc empty rate. The breeding season lasted 14 weeks. The empty rate was 13pc in 2013. The calving interval for cows calved in 2013 and in 2014 averaged 365 days.
These figures demonstrate that excellent reproductive performance can be achieved with attention to detail at all stages of the production cycle.
The Irwins have implemented a herd health programme in association with their vets Bill Loftus and Francis Neilan. Nutritional and husbandry management is provided by Morgan Sheehy from Devenish Nutrition.
Introducing SoyChlor to the diet in the dry cow period has been integral in preventative health management.
The breeding programme entails routine scanning using our ScanMan technology. This package selects cows for scanning to optimise the opportunity to get cows in calf over the 14-week breeding period.
The Irwin family farm has a grazing platform of 180ac. They plan to increase cow numbers to 168 cows.
Stocking rates will be kept below one cow per acre as they feel that a safety net is required for wet years. A buffer-stock of silage is made in good grazing years such as 2014.
The Irwins plan to maintain current milk yields in a grass-based system with concentrate inputs averaging one tonne per cow. Grass is buffered with maize and silage during the early part of the grazing and breeding season. A primary focus is placed on optimisation of BCS and locomotion score at all stages of the production cycle.
Health and welfare of the cows is a primary concern, which in my opinion should be considered a key marketing advantage for niche markets. Pushing a 'green' image for grass based milk products has to be supported by a scientific approach supporting optimal health and welfare in cattle.
Dr Dan Ryan is a cow fertility expert and can be contacted at www.cowsDNA.com