The return to in-person dairy farm walks got off to a flying start in Dunmanway, west Cork, last Thursday.
John Galvin won the sustainability category in last year’s Grassland Farmer of the Year competition and not even the blistering sun could keep people away.
In many ways, the Galvin farm is a masterclass in simplicity, but John says it has taken 15 years or more to get to this point.
He is milking 105 cows on a 35ha milking block of good, dry land which is stocked at three cows/ha with some support ground for silage and youngstock.
He has been measuring grass for a number of years and the long-term average for grass growth on the farm is 13t/ha.
Over the last two years, the farm has averaged 15t/ha of growth. So far this year, the farm has grown 9.5t/ha. He walks the farm an average of 31 times per year so has built up a big bank of data on how it performs. Every paddock on the platform is on target for pH, phosphorus and potash.
John has been using the autumn grass budget tool in PastureBase for the last three years which he says is brilliant
One issue is that the farm is prone to drying out in summer. The shallow soils close to gravel are great for early spring grazing but the downside is that they slow down quickly in summer. This happened in late July and early August this year when growth rates plummeted to 30kg/day.
John was on holidays at the time and to keep things simple, the herd was fed 6kg of meal and grazed some higher covers intended for silage until the rain came and growth improved.
John has been using the autumn grass budget tool in PastureBase for the last three years which he says is brilliant.
The autumn budget ensures that he has enough grass in spring as he can tweak closing date and supplement to ensure that the closing cover is where he wants it to be on 1 December.
The target this year is for average farm cover to be at 770kg on 1 December. This ensures that given a half normal winter growth pattern, the opening farm cover will be between 1,000kg and 1,100kg by 1 February next year.
To achieve that closing cover, and to keep grass in the diet for as long as possible, John needs to build up grass to a peak cover of just shy of 1,200kg/ha by late September.
“I walk the farm once a week at this time of year and PastureBase automatically adjusts the budget based on the average farm cover for that week.
“At my last walk, it was saying my peak cover would be 1,500kg earlier in September, which is too much grass and will slow the cows down too much and reduce growth rate and we could fall off a cliff then in October.
“I’d rather not have to do it but I’d say given how good growth rates are at the moment, I’ll probably have to take out some paddocks for silage in the next week or so,” John says.
If the situation changes and he is at risk of going behind target, extra meal and/or good-quality bale silage will be fed. John says he would be happy to buy silage in the autumn, if it meant having grass in spring.
The target pre-grazing yield during the summer is around 1,400kg/ha. He says he trains cows to clean out paddocks well in April and once the pre-grazing yield isn’t too high, they will continue to graze out well, leaving cows back for a few hours after milking to clean out a paddock if needs be.
This summer was the first time in five or six years that some topping was done, but John says it was needed to correct residuals after a wet May and fast growth rate in June. Some paddocks were cut for bales, others were pre-mowed and more were topped to improve quality.
He says the cows won’t be made suffer if quality isn’t good because pre-grazing yield went too high.
Total nitrogen usage on the milking platform is 225kg N/ha, with 200kg N/ha of this coming from bag nitrogen with the rest from slurry.
There is little or no clover on the farm so getting this established is the next step for John to reduce nitrogen usage, maintain grass yield and improve milk production.
Growing and utilising grass is one thing, but efficiently converting that grass into milk solids is another matter.
John achieves the top 1% of milk price in Dairygold, with an average price received last year of 38.7c/l compared to 34.6c/l for the average supplier. This tells us that his fat and protein content is high, with an average fat content of 4.81% and protein content of 3.87%.
The herd delivered 518kg MS/cow last year from 750kg of meal.
The average Dairygold supplier delivered 427kg MS/cow, so John’s herd delivered over 90kg more than the average.
The PTA for milk volume is -14kg, meaning his herd has less genetic potential for milk than the base cow.
The Jersey crossbred herd has an overall herd EBI of €171
John says that when he’s picking bulls he focuses on the PTA for fat and protein percentage and the fertility figures. His herd average PTA for fat is 0.22%, while it is 0.13% for protein, which is a couple of times higher than the national average.
The Jersey crossbred herd has an overall herd EBI of €171, with €71 for milk and €57 for fertility and €28 for maintenance. The herd weighs 540kg, on average. The herd will average over 3.9% protein this year.
Speaking at the farm walk, Teagasc adviser William Burchill says the herd is producing close to 1kg of milk solids for every 1kg of liveweight, which is a strong indication of an efficient cow and an efficient farming system.
The six-week calving rate for last season was 93% and it has been consistently above 90% for the last number of years. This is a key part of the milk production story as it means all cows have a long lactation at grass.
The herd hasn’t been scanned yet but the historical empty rate is between 5% and 10%
The three-week submission rate is always over 90%. John does three weeks of pre-breeding heats and any cow needing attention is seen to on the first day of breeding.
The herd hasn’t been scanned yet but the historical empty rate is between 5% and 10%.
Profit monitor figures from last year show that the farm made a net profit of €2,430/ha before own labour, tax and capital repayments are included.
Total costs in 2020 were 23.5c/l and the high milk price is the main driver of profit. This clearly demonstrates that the farm is financially sustainable.
In terms of social sustainability, it was said that John’s system lends itself to being a very simple farm to run, which can give plenty of time off.
John employs relief milkers for a couple of evenings a week and extra help in springtime
There is a two-week gap between the last cow to calve and the start of breeding and all cows are dried off by 8 December, with calving starting again in the last days of January.
John employs relief milkers for a couple of evenings a week and extra help in springtime. Cows are finished milking most evenings by 6.15pm and time is his own after that.
Despite being an intensive dairy farm, 10% of the milking platform is a designated habitat area and the farm has been in REPS or GLAS for the last 25 years.
John is also involved in the Caha river project, which is looking to protect the freshwater pearl mussel in the river which flows at the edge of the farm.
Shane McCarthy from AIB encouraged farmers to work out their breakeven milk price. This is the milk price they need to receive in order to pay all costs, loans, tax and living expenses.
To work it out, you need to find out what the cash surplus is after all of the above are paid. Divide this surplus by the amount of litres produced annually and subtract this figure from the milk price received to get the breakeven milk price.
On soil health, John O’Loughlin from Grassland Agro says 70% of grassland soils that they are assessing have been found to have structure issues. He says biological factors will have an increased role in supplying nitrogen to meet crop needs as chemical nitrogen rates decrease.