From John Martin, secretary, Holstein NI
Dairy farmers in NI have made steady strides in output over the last 10 years.
As shown in Table 1, despite a modest 9.7% increase in cow numbers over 10 years, kg of combined fat and protein (CFP) has increased by 26% or almost 37,000t.
Over the same period, the 1.7% improvement in milk quality percentages only accounts for 3,180t of additional CFP, which demonstrates that higher yields produce more total solids, delivering more product for processors to sell.
It is important to note that tweaks to the current milk pricing system should be considered. As milk price per litre increases, the value of the butterfat and protein declines as a percentage of the overall price. If we could devise a system of payment which would retain the value of protein and butterfat relevant to the base price, it would be an improvement.
However, redistribution of the available pot in favour of low-cost, low-volume, high-constituent milk, will only result in less end product available to market.
As a result, we do not favour the adoption of the A+B-C payment model for milk as operates in the Republic of Ireland (ROI), where a processing cost (C) is removed from the value of Protein (A) and Fat (B).
Encouraging reduced litres will result in farms putting on more cows to maintain NI product output which today, is environmentally unsustainable.
Without those extra cows, current processing capacity will be less efficient and result in a loss of jobs to the NI economy. At farm level, fixed costs need to be kept under control and cubicle space is a limiting factor on many dairy farms.
In NI we are geographically challenged with predominantly heavy land and higher than average rainfall. There are farms in NI where the rainfall and soil type are conducive to lower inputs and an extended grazing season, but these are not typical NI dairy farms.
On the most efficient farms, irrespective of low or high input, the predominant feed is grass or grass silage and DM intakes of forage are similar across these farms. Milk quality in NI will be lower than countries where maize and other alternative feeds are readily available, but dairy farms here are making good use of their most valuable resource.
That is not to say improvements cannot still be made in NI, but over a five-year period in ROI when great emphasis has been placed on improving milk quality, we can see that butterfat and protein percentage have increased very slightly. Instead, the actual kg of fat and protein increase of almost 20% has been driven by a 15% lift in milk yield per cow.
Looking at CFP output per cow, the ROI average of 421kg is significantly behind similar averages for the UK. Data from milk recording show that top-performing Holstein herds in NI are now producing over 1,000kg of CFP, while other breeds including Friesian and Jersey are producing over 700kg.
Our argument is not to promote the merits of one breed over another, but to clearly demonstrate that high butterfat and protein percentages when combined with lower yields result in less end product for the processors. To penalise litres in a bid to increase percentages will have a detrimental effect on the overall output from dairy herds in NI.
There is no one size fits all. Whether you choose a high- or low-input system, it must suit your farm or lifestyle, and both necessitate a high degree of management.
The challenge will be to tweak the current payment system, so we do not depress yield but reward milk quality relative to base prices, maintain current output and benefit the majority of producers in NI.
The payments system in NI does not require a major overhaul. The more important issue is to improve efficiency by maximising output per cow as environmental constraints will challenge future cow numbers. Any attempt to increase constituent percentage at the expense of volume will be counterproductive.