Higher output cow herds could reduce cow numbers and cut greenhouse gas emissions while still maintaining milk supply for processing and dairy exports, a new study by UCD has found.

Speaking at the Positive Farmers Conference in Cork on Wednesday, UCD Professor of Agriculture and Food Economics Michael Wallace said that higher output systems such as UCD’s Lyons Research Farm would see more milk produced by fewer cows per hectare, compared to the current Teagasc benchmark of largely grass-based and minimal feed input herds.

The UCD study compared the Lyons herd being fed 1,500kg of concentrate and producing 587kg of milk solids with a Teagasc benchmark farm feeding 500kg of concentrates and producing 465kg of milk solids.

Both systems produced a similar whole farm profit, despite the higher output system having 15% fewer cows on the same land area.

The higher output system is more exposed to volatility in input and output prices. When milk price is low and feed prices are high, profits on the high output system underperform compared to the Teagasc benchmark farm. However, when milk prices rise, this system yields more profit.

The seven-year study was set up to investigate the conditions required for a sustainable higher-output grass-based spring milk production system following quota abolition and the move to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions.

Nitrates banding hit

The impact of cow banding and the derogation cut from 250kg org N/ha to 220kg on the high output Lyons herd was analysed. With no additional land available, they would force a reduction of 12% in cow numbers and a loss of €403/ha (38%) at a milk price of 36c/l.

However, if additional land were available, the high output Lyons herd could justify paying €377/ac (€932/ha) to secure more land rather than reducing cow numbers to meet the lower nitrates limit.