Milk yields declined on John Oliver’s farm during 2020 as the herd switched from a block autumn-calving system to a spring-calving profile.

The herd averaged 6,340 litres last year, down 12.5% on the 7,247 litres produced the year previous.

As Figure 1 shows, yields were above 2019 levels for most of last year and it was only in the autumn that the impact of delayed calving was seen.

John delayed breeding by two months in late 2019 in the first step to change his calving pattern to the spring. He has postponed breeding again this year and hopes to have all cows in a spring-calving profile by next year.

A batch of 23 bought-in heifers are already in a spring profile and calved down last month. The main reason for changing systems is to allow for more grass to be utilised by the milking herd in the second half of the grazing season.

Table 1 shows that there was a small reduction in the amount of concentrate fed last year.

The total of 1.99t is slightly higher than planned, as John had to feed extra meal during the late spring when dry conditions hampered grass growth. As a result, feed rate crept up marginally during 2020 and stood at 0.31kg/litre.

In the longer term, the level of meal feeding is not going to reduce dramatically as the herd settles into a spring-calving profile. John is not changing his cow type and wants to maintain current milk yields. The main change will be savings in meal feeding during mid-lactation when cows can produce more from summer grass.


Milk components took a significant lift last year. Butterfat and protein averaged 4.13% and 3.47%, up from 4.01% and 3.35% respectively during 2019. Dairylink adviser Aidan Cushnahan calculates that it was worth an additional £3,900 to John last year in milk quality bonuses.

The rise in milk components is being put down to improvements in silage quality and maintaining a high degree of grass utilisation.

Another key factor was cows being milked for longer during late lactation, when milk constituents tend to increase anyway. This was seen in September when the herd was over 305 days in milk and average butterfat and protein levels were approaching 4.8% and 4.1% respectively.

The margin over concentrate benchmark, which is effectively milk cheque minus meal bill, stood at £1,209/cow last year. This is down 18% on 2019 levels and is mainly due to the lower volume of milk sold, reduced milk price (26.5p/l last year versus 26.9p/l in 2019) and a slightly higher concentrate feed rate.

A reduction in financial margins and reduced cashflow during the transition to spring calving were accounted for in a cashflow budget, which was developed ahead of John deciding to make the switch back in 2019.

Farm costs

A breakdown of the main farm working expenses is outlined in Table 2 and it shows that there were only some small changes last year.

Concentrate costs are almost unchanged, as meal price and the tonnage fed was similar year on year.

Other small changes included forage costs increasing by £5/cow, vet costs reduced by £11/cow and machinery running costs/contractor charges were up £20/cow.

The big change in Table 2 is AI and breeding costs rising from £7/cow in 2019 to £60/cow last year. This is due to the delay in the breeding season in late 2019, so costs for that calendar year were unusually low. The figure for 2020 of £60/cow is much more typical for annual breeding and AI costs.

What’s next for John Oliver?

Average milk yields on the Oliver farm are expected to remain below normal levels again this year because most cows will have another prolonged dry period.

However, unlike last year, not all the herd will have a delayed calving, as the bought-in heifers are already in the desired spring profile.

Targets set for the 2021 calendar year include an average milk yield of 6,700 litres at 4.20% butterfat and 3.50% protein. This equates to a milk solids yield of 531kg.

The target feed rate is 0.30kg/litre, which will equate to 2.0t/cow if the target milk yield is achieved.

It is only slightly lower than last year, as it reflects increased levels of meal feeding over the winter when John had to feed second-cut silage to the milking herd.

In the longer term, the whole herd will be calving down from the early spring in 2022 and annual production figures are expected to rise above the 7,200 litres mark again.

Weekly round-up

  • Ground conditions have improved across Dairylink Ireland farms.
  • Grass growth rates have picked up, with Stephen Wallace recording 28kg DM/ha/day in Co Down.
  • Programme farmers are applying fertiliser to silage ground and grazing blocks.