There are just four cows left to calve down on Richard Marshall’s farm near Omagh, Co Tyrone.

At present, 145 cows are going through the parlour, with an average milk yield of 35.6l at 4.11% fat and 3.30% protein.

Concentrate feed rate is currently averaging 12.4kg, which equates to a milk from forage of 8l.

Cows are fed 6kg of blend, fed through the feeder wagon, and parlour nuts are allocated in a feed-to-yield system through in-parlour and out-of-parlour feeders.

The latest rolling average figures for the herd indicate a milk yield of 8,885l from 2.45t of concentrates.

Milk from forage over the past 12 months stands at 3,435l.

The calving spread on the Marshall farm has narrowed significantly in recent years, as Richard aims to develop a tighter autumn-calving profile.

When he joined the Dairylink programme in 2018, calving was running on into May, whereas this year, the last cow will be calved down by the first week in February.

Richard has gradually brought forward the end date for breeding over the past few years, so that cows that are slow to go in-calf leave the herd.

He also stops using dairy sires early on, which means only early autumn-calving cows breed replacement heifers.

The last Holstein straw for the 2020/21 breeding season was used on the farm last weekend and only Aberdeen Angus bulls will be used from now on.

A similar approach was used last year, as all Holstein calves were on the ground by mid-October. It meant there was just a six-week difference between the oldest and youngest heifer calves.

This makes management easier throughout the rearing process, as the replacements are a uniform group.

They will also be calving down in a compact profile early in the autumn, as Richard calves heifers at 24 months of age.


The Holstein sires that Richard used in the 2020/21 breeding season are outlined in Table 1.

He has used more sexed semen in recent years to help get heifer calves on the ground early on.

The bulls used on the Marshall farm were selected from both the UK-based profitable lifetime index (PLI) and the Irish economic breeding index (EBI) rankings.

Denovo Generate, the highest ranking PLI bull in Richard’s flask, was mainly used on maiden heifers last year.

Overall, sire selection was mainly based on breeding indices for fertility, butterfat and protein. Richard has been able to use bulls that tick these boxes, while not compromising on the genetic potential for milk yield.

As Table 1 shows, PLI sires were all over 250kg for milk and the two EBI bulls have milk sub-indices well above €100.

Why compact autumn calving?

Several programme farmers in both phases of Dairylink Ireland have gone down the same route as Richard, by moving from a spread calving profile to a more compact autumn block. The most common reasons for the move are:

  • It should improve fertility, as cows that are slow to go in-calf either leave the herd or do not breed replacements.
  • Most cows will be back in-calf and past peak lactation by early spring. This means a large proportion of the herd will be suitable to go to grass as soon as ground conditions allow.
  • Replacement heifers will be in a uniform group, which is easier to manage than calves that are a range of weights and ages.
  • While certain times of the year will be busy, the likes of calving, calf rearing and breeding become seasonal and are over by the end of winter.
  • More cows are in heat at the same time, which usually makes heat detection easier and means a greater focus can be put on observing cows.
  • Winter bonus payments are capitalised, as milk production on these farms peaks during the winter.
  • Soil samples and slurry exports records

    Soil sampling has been on the to-do list for Dairylink farmers during January.

    Samples need to be taken ahead of slurry or fertiliser spreading and soil analysis results will be used to form a fertilisation plan for the year ahead.

    The closed period for slurry spreading finishes at the end of the month for all programme participants.

    Slurry stores are not under pressure on Dairylink farms at present, which is all the better, as ground conditions remain poor across the board.

    The other task for Northern Ireland farmers is to complete records of any slurry that was exported to neighbouring farms during the 2020 calendar year before the end of January.

    This is important for several programme participants who are not operating under a nitrates derogation and rely on slurry exports to stay under the 170kg/ha manure nitrogen limit.

    More dairy farms were pushed over this limit in Northern Ireland last year, because the nitrogen excretion rate for dairy cows increased from 91kg to 100kg/cow.

    Weekly round-up

  • Several Dairylink farmers have been moving away from spread-out calving profiles.
  • Soil sampling is being finished ahead of slurry and fertiliser spreading this spring.
  • Slurry export forms need to be completed in Northern Ireland before midnight on 31 January.