Farm Ireland

Monday 23 October 2017

Not all sunshine and roses this autumn


John Donworth

The year for spring milk producers is done and dusted and the overwhelming consensus is that it has been a very good year.

We had a good milk price and rain at the right time to keep grass moving. Obviously, the only downside has been the 56lb weight that the dairy industry has around its neck -- the milk quota regime.

I have been getting it in the neck at some discussion group meetings, as well as at the Ploughing, about my predictions on milk quota a few years back, principally in 2009.

I haven't gone back to check what I wrote but I would imagine it is there in black and white. To cut to the chase, I said I couldn't see the country filling its quota again. Well, I certainly was wrong on that score, but in my defence I am claiming that the pronouncements were made in the muck, water and depression of 2009.

The vibrant Irish dairy industry has stepped forward since May of last year and ever since the curve in milk supply has been up. We have, of course, been blessed with very good grazing weather in that period and the past spring gave us a great start to the year.

Dairy farmers have added extra cows and the dairy farmers in Dairygold and Glanbia were saved in the past by the co-ops along the western seaboard not filling their quota.

This changed this year as weather conditions gave the farmers in these areas the chance to graze cows uninterrupted for the vast bulk of the year. So, we are where we are, to use that awful phrase, and for some dairy farmers it is now a case of managing the risk. The silver lining this year is that all cow prices are good.

However, it has not all been sunshine and roses this autumn and rainfall has been uneven. In Limerick, where I live, we had 103mm of rain in September and to-date (last Friday) we have had 101mm for October. The corresponding figures for last year were 132mm for September and 72mm for October. However, the one thing I have learned from daily measuring rainfall is that we don't get the same level of rainfall in my part of Limerick, compared to farmers living in counties along the western seaboard.

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For instance, cows were housed in Kerry by night the weekend Kerry were playing in the All-Ireland. One could say that was the start of their problems. But high rainfall and heavy soils don't go hand in hand. Walking farms in the past two weeks clearly illustrated that point. Even before the heavy rain of eight to 10 days ago, cows were housed full-time on soils where peat was overlying mud. Very good covers (1,600kg DM) of perennial ryegrass were present on these farms, but underfoot conditions were poor.

Some of these paddocks had been closed from September 20. They will not be grazed again until mid to late March.


What will happen to all this grass? The bulk of it will rot and disappear back into the ground.

It will be important to get a clean first grazing next year. Tiller count will suffer and yield will be down in the second grazing. But the important point is that it will recover. Perennial ryegrass is a threading grass which means it will stand up to hardship.

The really important point about these soils is that they should not be damaged in the last rotation. Making holes is not an option. The safer option is to house the cows.

And, just to illustrate how crucial a role soil type plays in dairying, early last week I walked a farm where the cows were out, even though the previous day 25mm of rain had fallen. My general assessment of how paddocks have been cleaned out is that the clear out has been poor.

The weather has played a part, but I have not walked a farm where the required residual height has been achieved. The required residual height is 4cm, with dung pads almost gone.

The good grass growth has resulted in cows going into cover of 2,000kg and it is very difficult to clean these down to 4cm. Only a minority of farmers are achieving it. It's all to do with the allocation of grass.

Cows are being offered too much, with the result they are leaving 200-300kg behind. Cows should be on a 12-hour wire and asked to do the job they are required to do.

With quota being a major issue for a number of farmers, one would have thought that yields should not be an issue. Dry cows are ideal for cleaning paddocks, but ground conditions must be watched.

One final word. By the end of this week 60pc of the grazed ground should be closed. If you are behind target, graze lower covers and/or remove the silage to make up ground.

John Donworth is a dairy specialist with Teagasc based in Kilmallock, Co Limerick. Email:

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