The removal of milk quotas has enabled Irish farmers to expand milk production and, as a result, profitability per hectare has almost doubled. This was the key message from the board manned by Padraig French and Joe Patton.
While profitability has increased from €773/ha to €1,429/ha, the average level of profit on Irish dairy farms is still well below industry targets of €2,452/ha and French says the primary reason for this is that the amount of grass utilised at 8.1t/ha, on average, is much lower than the target of 12.9t/ha.
For the average farmer, utilising more grass involves growing more grass and increasing the stocking rate to eat this extra grass. It also involves reducing the amount of supplement being fed. He says that by incorporating clover into swards, farmers can grow enough grass at 150kgN/ha to sustain a stocking rate of 2.7 cows/ha and when combined with a high six-week calving rate they will be able to deliver the target profit.
“One thing we are concerned about in the future is that we must match our stocking rate to the amount of grass grown.
“It is very easy to drive up the stocking rate, but to do that without firstly increasing the amount of grass grown is a real risk to our systems.
“We are concerned about this risk of system drift. What we mean by that is where farms are utilising all the grass they are growing but then push up stocking rate by bringing in extra feed. That causes some significant problems for us.
“The first thing is it will reduce our margin. The extra milk produced from bought-in feed has a low margin, so therefore it makes us less resilient, because if milk price goes down that extra milk is costing us money.
“The other thing is how can we environmentally justify bringing in feed from all over the world into Ireland to produce milk and to then export this milk back out to the rest of the world? We just cannot justify or sustain that. It’s a risk we cannot afford.
“The last part about bringing in that feed to drive up milk output is that Ornua, Glanbia and now Dairygold are selling Irish milk on the back of grass-fed credentials and if we move away from that grass-based model we are going to undermine our marketing strategy, so we are devaluing our products.
“So as well as shoving up the cost of our milk production and disimproving the environment, we’re devaluing the product,” French said.
Throughout the first four stands, the message about targeting a concentrate feeding level of 500kg/cow per year was hammered home.
Prior to expansion, the average level of meal being fed was 875kg/cow and since expansion that has risen to 1,176kg/cow.
French says a good indicator about setting an appropriate stocking rate is to target that cows should be fully fed at grass for at least six months of the year, that is, they don’t require any supplement for six months.
“Typically, if you’re growing 12t/ha to 13t/ha you can carry a stocking rate of about 3.5 cows/ha on the milking block and an overall farm stocking rate of 2.5 cows/ha. That’s provided you’re growing the grass and can fully feed the cows for six months at grass.”
He outlined a number of key metrics that influence profit. He said that litres of milk produced per cow has no relationship with profit, with only a 10% correlation.
Milk solids per cow is slightly better than litres but is still very low at just an 18% to 22% correlation with profit.
The correlation between feed per cow and profit is also very low at less than 10%. There’s a 38% correlation between whole farm stocking rate and profit, but a 15% correlation between milking platform stocking rate and profit.
By far the biggest relationship is between grass utilised and profit, with 50% to 60% of the difference in profit between farms related to the amount of grass being utilised.
Interestingly, he says the trends are similar both within and across regions, so the impact of grass utilisation on profit is the same on good Cork land as it is on heavy Monaghan land.
French says that 2021 will end up being a relatively good year for dairy farming, as was 2020. He suggests that where there is potential for re-investment into the business, farmers should prioritise investments that future-proof the farm.
“The first thing is to get soil fertility right and then incorporate clover. The second one is slurry storage and we usually talk about slurry storage as a compliance cost. But if we spread slurry during the winter we recover virtually none of the nitrogen.
“If we spread slurry with low-emission slurry equipment in March, April or May, when grass is actively growing, we recover about 30% of the available nitrogen.
“In the future, we are going to be restricted more on nitrogen, so it makes economic sense that we store that slurry and apply it in the spring when we get a return. The return won’t be massive but it will be positive, in the order of a 3% or 4% return on your investment.”
Additional calf housing and investing in technologies that actually improve labour efficiency are also worthy of consideration but he warns farmers against investing in technologies that are “sold” as labour-saving but actually aren’t.
Examples of good labour-saving technology included proper drafting facilities, machinery to mechanically clean calf and calving sheds and adding extra units to the milking parlour or, in some cases, building new parlours.
Provisional results from sexed semen in the 2021 breeding season on commercial farms was presented by ICBF.
In a trial of over 330 herds where some cows were selected for sexed semen, the cows that got conventional semen had a conception rate of 59.4% while those that got sexed semen had a conception rate of 55.5% – a 6.5% reduction or a 3.9% difference in conception rate.
The reduction in conception rate was similar in heifers with 62.6% holding to conventional and 58.4% holding to sexed semen – a 6.7% drop in conception rate or a 4.2% difference in conception rate.
Stephen Butler says that the key thing with sexed semen is to pick young cows, cows in good body condition score and cows with a high number of days in milk at the time of service.
He also says that semen handling is critical. The effect of sexed semen at reducing the number of low-value, male, dairy-bred calves was presented. Where sexed semen is used to generate all female herd replacements and where high-DBI beef bulls are used in greater numbers the percentage of male dairy-bred calves reduces to just 3% of all calves, while the amount of high-value beef calves increases to 70% with 27% heifer dairy calves.
This compares to 27% low-value male dairy calves and 46% high-value beef calves in a conventional semen scenario.
Butler says that current research into the use of IVF-based embryo transfer has found conception rates similar to that of AI.
The implication of this is that elite high-EBI donor cows can now be flushed and mated to multiple bulls with the embryos implanted into different cows. He says this research is important to advance genetic gain as sexed semen becomes more dominant and fewer male dairy calves are born. The new Sexing Technologies lab at Moorepark is set to open in November and will mean a much greater choice of sexed semen next spring.