Farm Ireland

Sunday 22 April 2018

Showcasing the key drivers for dairy success

Expansion can take place without impacting on farm efficiency
Expansion can take place without impacting on farm efficiency

Nora O'Donovan

The key driver for success on both farms showcased at the Irish Grassland Association summer tour in east Galway last week has been grass utilisation and breeding the right type of cow for this system.

Noel O'Toole farms a milking platform of 41ha and has expanded from 60 cows in 1998 to 160 cows in 2015. Henry Walsh has expanded from milking 50 cows on a 40ha milking platform in 1996 to 240 cows on 76 ha in 2015.

Joining a discussion group of like-minded farmers with a facilitator focused on grass utilisation and low production costs was a key turning point for both farmers.

Maintaining soil fertility with optimum phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and lime levels is prioritised on both farms to maximise grass growth.

However, grazing infrastructure is the most important link in the chain to allow cows graze grass in the spring and autumn.

Henry estimates that he spent €2,500/ha on the grazing infrastructure of leased land to ensure it is performing as well as the home block. Most of this was spent in the first year.

On both farms completing a weekly grass budget is not seen as an optional extra job but is as important as milking the cows.

Noel has been measuring grass for a long time but has not become complacent about the job. He clips and weighs paddocks every week to ensure the accuracy of the budget.

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His secret to operating at a stocking rate of four cows per ha constantly on the milking platform is to be aggressive when removing surpluses. The 160 cows go into pre-grazing covers of 1400kgs/DM/ha on an 18 to 20 day rotation all through mid-season.

One element he places great importance on all season is grazing paddocks out correctly and consistently.

While this may impact the individual cow's milk production it allows the farm to produce the maximum amount of high quality feed.

Getting three grazings per paddock minimises the negative impact on production as cows are fully fed for two out of every three of the grazings.

This is visible in Noel's historical data with milk solids per cow staying steady at 400kgs, while milk solids per ha has increased from 1200 to 1600kgs.

Cow type

Noel has strived to breed a herd of cows capable of converting grass to milk at high stocking rates. He started using Jersey and New Zealand Friesian bulls back in 2000.

This year he used Jersey- and Kiwi-cross bulls across the herd. He likes to select proven bulls and pays particular attention to the fertility and health sub-index.

This breeding policy, along with excellent breeding management, has paid off. Noel has achieved a six week calving rate of 85pc and empty rates of less than 10pc consistently.

A key element of his breeding management is to maintain cows at the correct body condition score (BCS) throughout the season.

This is coming from high quality grass and grass silage at all times.

Noel also feels it is important not to skimp on minerals and vaccinations.

Henry has used Norwegian Reds since 2004 and has been very happy with their performance.

Since 2010 the herd has been predominantly crossbred using Friesian and Jersey sires as he is aiming for a cow which is 75pc Friesian and 25pc Jersey.

Currently he is achieving 85pc calved in six weeks with a 366 day calving interval and empty rates of 9pc. Last year Henry's cows produced 428kgs of milk solids (MS) per cow with quota restrictions.

Based on this he feels that 450kg/MS/cow is achievable on 500kgs of ration with his stocking rate of 3.3 to 3.5 cows/ha.

As cow numbers have increased labour has become an important element of both farm systems.

Contractors are utilised as much as possible and compact calving allows for labour to be employed and fully utilised during the spring.

Having time to recharge over the dry period is essential for Noel.

He has employed a local person to do six to eight milkings a week, which allows him to do other important jobs.

It has worked brilliantly and he recommends this approach for those operating at scale where hiring someone full-time is not practical.

Both farmers showed their average profit monitor figures for the last five years from 2010 to 2014.

Net profit per cow has averaged over €900. This has given a net margin per hectare of the milking platform of €2,548 for Henry and €3,504 for Noel's farm.

These impressive figures show that expansion can take place without impacting on farm efficiency.

But it is important that investments are prioritised clearly and money is invested in areas which will yield a high return.

Nora O'Donovan is a business and technology advisor with Teagasc in Tralee, Co Kerry


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