Throngs of dairy farmers assembled in the fields of Moorepark last Tuesday for the biennial Moorepark open day.

The mood was more sombre than at previous events, with the giddy excitement of the 2015 open day – the first in a generation without quotas – firmly replaced with the realisation that the sands are shifting under dairy farmers’ feet just eight years later.

The scene was effectively set even before farmers got to the gates of Moorepark, as news began to filter out that the Environmental Protection Agency report on water quality is to signal a reduction in Ireland’s derogation from 250kg to 220kg/hectare (ha).

While the European Commission is yet to make their decision, if they follow their own conditions, the derogation will be cut from next year. Talk of a cow reduction scheme and EU nature restoration law are all dark clouds on the horizon.

Farmers were told that the cut to derogation is a direct attack on Ireland’s grass-based system of milk production, and it won’t fix water quality.

Those in attendance already knew the importance of the grass-based system, but it was still hammered home by successive researchers.

Increased investment

First off the block was Laurence Shalloo – his first open day as head of animal and grassland research – who said that challenges around climate change, water quality and calf welfare are all manageable with increased investment in research yielding results.

“The next phase of development will have to be based on the principle of decoupling greenhouse gases, ammonia emissions and N loss from production, while advancing the quality and quantity of nature-rich areas on-farm.

All of this is possible and will be the focus of technologies that are introduced on to farms in the coming years,” he said.

He suggested that grass-based systems will offer more advantage in the years to come, due to their inherent sustainability when compared to other systems.

Up until now, the main benefits of grass-based systems were lower cost of production alongside improved milk quality and animal welfare, but there is increasing evidence that pasture-based milk production systems are superior in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and the competition between feed and food.


Brendan Horan, who looked at what needs to be done to futureproof dairy farms, highlighted the fact that hyperinflation in agricultural inputs are eroding profitability – with input prices increasing by 9% in 2021, and 32% in 2022.

With milk prices back to 2021 levels, but costs still stubbornly high, he suggests that the average profit margin in 2023 will be 12 to 14c/l before family labour, debt repayments and tax are included.

Brendan said that farmers must shop around for inputs over the coming months as prices fall, to get the best value.

He said the relative costs of purchased feed have increased dramatically over the past decade; as land charges have increased, so have fertiliser and energy costs. The costs of grazed grass have also increased over the last 10 years, but not by as much as other feeds.

Prof Laurence Shalloo, Head of Animal & Grassland Programme, Teagasc speaking at the Moorepark Open Day 2023. \ Donal O' Leary

“Grazed pasture with grass and white clover has increased in cost by €30/t DM between 2013 and 2023, pit and bale silage have increased by €55 and €75/t DM during the same period, and purchased concentrates have increased by €213/t DM.

“On a relative energy basis, pit and bale silage are currently 2.5 times the cost of grazed pasture, and purchased concentrate is five times the relative cost of grazed pasture,” Brendan said.

Pasture utilisation

“Despite a consistent increase in milking platform stocking rate, there was no significant increase in pasture utilisation on these farms between 2015 and 2017. This analysis reveals that, on many farms, milking platform stocking rate has increased to levels beyond that required to maximise pasture utilisation.

Brendan said that aiming to have 70% of the diet of dairy cows in the form of grazed grass is a good target for Irish farmers. This equates to about 265 days of grazing and 500kg of meal/cow.

He said that overall stocking rates on dairy farms have increased only modestly in the last 10 years, from 1.9 livestock units/ha to 2.1 livestock units/ha, but there has been a more significant increase in stocking rate on the milking platform.

“Based on statistics from the National Farm Survey, milking platform stocking rate has increased from 2.0 to 2.7 LU/ha during the last decade; farms have become increasingly specialised in dairy cows and other stock have been moved to outside land parcels or, in some cases, to contract rearing.”

He pointed to a matched sample of farmers completing Teagasc profit monitors from 2013 to 2017, who are also measuring grass growth.

The overall stocking rate of these farms hadn’t changed much over those four years, but the milking platform stocking rate increased from 2.4 cows/ha to 2.8 cows/ha.

Aiming to have 70% of the diet of dairy cows in the form of grazed grass is a good target for Irish farmers

“As a result, there are additional cows on these platforms that are effectively increasing total purchased feed requirements, labour and capital costs and reducing the duration of the grazing season for the entire dairy herd,” Brendan said.

On the subject of the optimum stocking rate, Brendan showed a graph outlining the optimum stocking rate based on various levels of grass growth.

He said that all farms differ in terms of land quality and grass utilisation, cow-type and milking platform area, and availability of outside blocks.

However, while he acknowledged that milking platform stocking rates can be higher than the overall stocking rate with additional silage brought in from the outside blocks, he cautioned against increasing the milking platform stocking rate by too much.

He gave the example of a farm growing 13t DM/ha. If half of the silage was coming from the outside farm, then the milking platform could be stocked at 2.8 cows/ha with the overall farm stocked at 2.5 cows/ha.

Marginal cows

Brendan said that any additional cows over and above this stocking rate are considered marginal cows, because they will effectively be fully fed on a silage and meal, or what he calls a TMR-based diet.

So, while the silage and meal will be fed to all cows, if you were to break it down, all of the additional feed can be assigned to the additional cows.

He said that previous studies have shown a linear decline in profitability as more feed is imported into the farm, with the added problem that nutrient-use efficiency is decreased where additional chemical fertiliser or imported feed is used. This results in increased nutrient losses to the environment.

Fifty-hour week

The results of an in-depth labour study on 76 spring calving dairy herds between February and the end of June in 2019 was also discussed.

The analysis showed that 25% – the most time-efficient farmers – worked an average of 51 hours/week, while the least time-efficient farmers worked an average of 70 hours/week (19 hours more).

Researcher Conor Hogan said that while long working hours increase the risk of ill-health and injury to farmers, they are also a deterrent to young people entering the industry.

He said that an increasing number of dairy farmers place quality of life and time off with family away from the farm as a critical measure of success, along the same lines as financial or physical performance.

With that in mind, the study showed that finishing times had the biggest impact on working hours, because the start-time was the same for both the efficient and inefficient farmers.

Milking time

Conor said that sticking to a 16:8 milking interval is an essential component of the routine on time-efficient farms, as this enables them to finish earlier in the evenings.

He said that milking is the most time-consuming task on the farm, responsible for 31% of hours worked. Five practices were identified that will improve milking efficiency on dairy farms:

  • One person milking during mid-lactation.
  • The milker not leaving the pit to feed calves during milking.
  • Using a quad/jeep to herd cows to and from milking.
  • Being able to operate cow exit/entry gates from anywhere in milking pit.
  • Automatic cluster removers.
  • Calf care

    Calf care was identified as taking up 20% of the time during the busiest months of February and March. In terms of investment in automated calf feeders and automatic cluster removers, Brendan said that a cost-benefit analysis should be conducted on a farm by farm basis.

    The most time-efficient farmers were also the most profitable, he said, highlighting that those that work longer hours get no financial reward for their extra work.

    So, while the mood was more sombre at the event, farmers went away armed with information they needed to futureproof their businesses.

    The next step for farmers? Get on with it.