Similar to the rest of the country the main restriction to expansion in Kerry is milking platform size. With this in mind some of my farmers have been looking at zero grazing as a way to carry more cows on the milking block.
The Teagasc/Dairygold farm walk last week on the farm of Dan Galvin, outside Macroom was a mine of information for farmers considering this option.
Dan's farm consists of 34ac of a milking platform with the remainder of the farm including owned and leased land on five separate blocks.
Dan started bringing in grass seven years ago and bought a zero grazer in 2011.
This year he is milking 73 cows, up from 50 last year, giving him a stocking rate of 5.4 cows per hectare on the milking block.
Grass is cut on a daily basis and takes 45 to 60 minutes a day. The maximum distance Dan travels is 6km each way. It is a system that has been working well for him.
To date cows have produced 405kgs milk solids per cow on 534kgs ration per head.
Previously he tried alkalage, which worked well enough and maize silage, which wasn't a success. For Dan the big attraction is the security of grass in terms of cost and nutritive feed value in comparison to alternatives.
Total farm costs last year were 28c/l with the combined contractor, machinery and depreciation costs higher when compared to the average of those farmers who completed a profit monitor.
Provided grass is cut at a pre-grazing cover of 1400-1600, there is excellent utilisation compared to grass silage or grazing in the field.
Higher intakes with less walking will result in increased milk yield and solids production. On the negative side cows have a reduced ability to selectively graze so poorer grass will hit protein.
It is the same as managing a second rotation to ensure grass is being cut at the ideal pre-grazing cover.
There is a cost in harvesting, delivering and feeding the grass in terms of machinery and labour. A large four wheel drive tractor is needed. This year there were very few days too wet for Dan to travel.
That said on heavy ground if you can't graze cows it's too wet to cut. Dan's tractor and zero grazer weigh eight tonnes. A large feeding area is required with at least 2ft per cow of feed space. Extra slurry storage is needed and with more slurry produced there is a higher spreading cost.
Dan with his Teagasc advisors Seamus Lordan and Adrian O'Callaghan have put in a bit of work to establish the cost of cutting and carrying grass on this farm.
This can be difficult to pin down as there are many variables involved and variation from farm to farm is huge.
They based their calculations on Dan's machine which cuts 3t of fresh grass at an estimated 16pc/DM. This equates to 144t/DM per year if Dan cuts 300 times. Harvesting costs including machine, finance, diesel, repairs, extra slurry spreading and €10/hour labour charge come out at 9.2 c/kg DM.
Add 7.7c/kg DM to grow the grass and total cost is 17c/kg DM.
This compares favourably to alternative feeds on a UFL (energy) basis.
How frequently the machine is being used and how much grass is being transported has a huge bearing on the cost per kg/DM.
The labour and time commitment required in this system shouldn't be under estimated.
One of my farmers compares it to milking three times a day!
Nora O'Donovan is a business and technology advisor with Teagasc in Tralee, Co Kerry