Co Down farmers, Ian and Michael Smyth, are a father-and-son team who converted from sucklers to dairying in 2018 with the first cows milked in October 2019.
To establish the dairy herd, 80 Holstein x Friesian heifers were purchased as far south as Cork and Kerry, along with 17 springing cows.
Now in their third year of milking, the herd has pushed on with 115 cows calving down this autumn.
Like the majority of dairy farms in Northern Ireland, the farm operates an autumn-calving system with milk supplied to Lakeland Dairies. Cows calve from the last week of August and finish before Christmas.
Annual yield is typically 8,420 litres/cow. Yields have been rising as cows mature and the percentage of first-lactation heifers in the herd drops.
Milk quality for 2021 is currently averaging 3.46% protein and 4.22% butterfat (666kg MS/cow), which is well ahead of the NI average dairy herd of 3.3% and 4.06%, respectively.
Concentrate fed per cow is 2.34t, giving a milk yield from forage of 3,272 litres, double the NI average.
Prior to the move into dairying, Ian and Michael ran 70 spring-calving suckler cows on a part-time basis as both men were in full-time employment off farm. Progeny were taken through to slaughter with all cattle finished from 22 to 24 months.
The move into dairying had been considered for some time, mainly due to the profitability challenges within suckler beef production, and a patient desire within Michael to farm full-time.
The home farm outside Castlewellan consists of 118 acres of productive grassland. To support the move to dairying, an additional 132 acres has been rented and is mainly used for silage, cereals and grazing young stock.
Family support is a big part of the farm business. Additional help comes from Michael’s mother Shirley, his wife Oonagh and sister Emma, all of whom cover a range of jobs from calf rearing to relief milking.
As with any conversion into dairying, there was a significant capital outlay required. By far the largest investment was the construction of a new cubicle shed to house the dairy cows.
Measuring 150ft x 80ft, the shed has 105 cubicles. A new silo was also constructed at the same time.
Thankfully, there were sheds already on farm that could also be adapted, saving money.
The shed which previously housed suckler cows measured 100ft x 40ft with a split floor between slats and a bedded lieback.
After modifications, the shed now houses a 12/24 parlour, bulk tank room, collecting pens, 25 cubicles on the slatted area and provides additional feed space for cows in milk.
The former beef finishing shed was fitted with rubber mats and is used to winter young stock.
There are plans to install cubicles, but given the business is only three years into the conversion, Michael is happy to make do for another year until farm finances allow for further capital investment.
Ian and Michael make use of sexed semen to increase the availability of potential herd replacements.
All heifers are served to sexed semen, along with any pedigree and top-performing cows in the herd, which started on 1 December. Inseminations are carried out by a technician.
The remaining cows are served to conventional AI with Limousin and Blue being the dominant sire choice. All repeats are swept up by a Hereford stock bull.
Sixty heifers were inseminated in 2021 with these animals set to be the first homebred replacements to calve into the herd next autumn.
To improve milk quality and cow longevity, Friesian and Holstein bulls are selected using EBI data with milk solids, fertility and cow size being key traits desired.
Cows are turned out to graze fresh grass from spring until late autumn.
Weather depending, cows start grazing by day around 1 April and buffer fed indoors overnight. By 1 May, cows will be at grass full-time and remain there until the early stages of the calving season.
Cows are turned out to graze fresh grass from spring until late autumn
Silage is made in a three-cut system, with the first cut of 95 acres normally harvested around 15 May, weather depending.
Second cut is normally harvested in late June with 80 acres ensiled. Third cut is normally around 50 acres and usually coincides with the harvesting of 20 acres of whole crop, depending on the type of forage planted.
Surplus grass on the grazing block is also removed as silage. As it tends to be a more mature forage, it is targeted to dry cows.
Dry cow management
With a relatively tight autumn-calving block, the majority of the cows are dried off around the same time. This simplifies management and feeding post-calving.
The dry cow period for each animal is typically eight weeks. In the first two weeks of the dry period, cows are on paddocks with minimal grass to allow milk to leave the udder.
Once settled, cows go to better grass for four weeks, then brought back home. At this point, they are fed 2kg/day of dry cow ration and grass silage.
Mature cows that calve from late August through to late September are allowed back to grass by day with a buffer feed of second-cut silage fed inside. Concentrates are fed through the parlour using a feed-to-yield system.
Freshly calved cows get a base 5kg/day of a 20% nut to support a daily yield of 25 litres, then topped up at a rate of 0.45kg of meal per additional litre of milk produced. Concentrate levels are capped at 14kg/day with cows peaking around an average of 45 litres per day.
Last autumn, first-cut silage and whole crop wheat was introduced to freshly calved cows towards the end of October.
This helps to boost yield and increase the solids. The increase in energy also helps freshly calved cows return to heat before AI in December.
During the first week of insemination, around 20% of the herd was served, along with 50 heifers bred through a synchronisation programme.
Replacement heifers are generally housed after calving. Michael tried putting 30 freshly calved heifers back to grass last autumn but found the group difficult to manage.
As a result, they were housed on the third week of September and fed a TMR of second-cut silage and concentrates.
Over the next three years, Michael wants to increase cow numbers to 130.
However, access to land is a significant challenge with some of the grazing platform still being used for silage production.
There is a considerable cash outlay in the first few years of converting to milk
The current parlour has 12 points, but adequate space was left to install up to 20 points to facilitate herd expansion.
Maintaining or increasing cow numbers in a newly established dairy herd means buying in extra cows until there are enough homebred heifers coming through.
According to Michael, this is a drain on finances. Combined with ongoing investment in housing, laneways, etc, there is a considerable cash outlay in the first few years of converting to milk.
But, as the herd matures, things are now looking more promising.
The transition to dairying has been a steep learning curve for the Smyth family.
From his experience, Michael’s advice to any farmer considering starting milk production is to budget thoroughly and have a good cash flow plan in place.
“The profitability in dairying comes from passion, commitment, a willingness to learn and attention to detail,” says Michael.
“With these in place, sound finances will follow. That said, the flash car is still a long way off!”