Farm Ireland

Thursday 23 November 2017

Snub economics and look after herd

John Donworth

There is a pretty robust debate among dairy farmers at present regarding meal feeding levels to cows post calving. Dairy farmers are only too well aware of the problems encountered in feeding cows last year.

Last year a large number of dairy farmers took on board the strong advice about meal feeding at low milk prices. You were told it was uneconomic to feed meals. If you look at it purely from economics then it didn't pay to feed meals.

If you leave cow nutrition out of it, feeding meals to cows is totally dependent on the price of the meal and the price you are receiving for the gallon of milk. This time last year, average milk prices were approaching 22 cent/litre and ration was costing €240/t.

The extra milk gained by feeding a kilogramme of ration wasn't enough to cover the cost of the ration. Hence, the advice was not to feed when there was sufficient grass in the cows' diet.

However, when the weather turned really nasty in late April, the advice about meal feeding needed to be fine-tuned. If cows suffer three wet days in a row and grass dry matter approaches 11pc then they can't take in enough dry matter on a grass-only diet. Milk yield will plummet as a result. I came across situations where cows were losing half a gallon of milk in a few days.

This type of drop should only occur over a month. There are times when cows need buffer feeding and we had several of those periods last year.

We are unfortunately encountering one of those periods at present. Grass hasn't grown since last November, and what grass is ahead of cows, the quality of it is severely compromised by the amount of dead material in it. I know this varies from farm to farm, but what half-decent grass was out on farms has been eaten at this stage.

Silage stocks are disappearing fast as all stock, bar milking cows, are still in the shed. Replacement yearlings that would normally be gone to grass are still in the house.

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Over half the cows on farms are calved at this stage and many of them are out by day on grass covers of between 600kg and 800kg of dry matter.

So what are your options? Even if the mild weather returns this week there will be at least a two-week time lag before any quantity of grass appears on dairy farms. This will bring us up to St Patrick's Day at least.


If you have enough silage in the yard, you have no problems. Cows out by day eating maybe 4kg of dry matter will need 5/6kg of an 18pc crude protein ration.

If you are one of the lucky ones and cows are getting half their diet from grass, then you have options. If you are in a position to take silage totally out of it, then do so, but you will need to feed between 7/8kg of ration. A 16pc crude protein ration would do here. Cows will perform well on this diet. Silage is not a great feed for milking cows. It reduces protein yield, lowers overall dry matter intake and it also reduces milk yield.

However, very few dairy cows are getting half their diet from grazed grass. This is where concentrates and silage come in. But what if you have little or no silage in the yard? What then? Do you go out and buy silage? I would regard this as the 'doomsday' option.

Cows require a minimum amount of roughage, purely to keep their rumen functioning properly. This amounts to 40pc of their total dry matter intake. In this scenario, up to 9kg of ration must be fed in three feeds per day. Three kilogramme soya hulls are an ideal mid-day feed here. The 6kg of concentrates are fed after each milking.

This level of concentrate feeding is costly, but if you are nearly totally out of silage then you have very few options. Perhaps cows should be put on once-a-day milking.

The management of the dairy cow in the immediate post- calving period is important. The demands on her body are severe. She will lose up to half a body condition between calving and first mating. It's your job to see she doesn't lose any more.

If cows are underfed now, consequences will occur in six to eight weeks time. Economics will have to take a back seat for the next two weeks in the interest of looking after the dairy herd.

One other word of caution, while I am finding milk protein levels OK at the moment, there is a great danger they will dip under 3pc in March if the grass situation doesn't improve.

Irish Independent