No greater force exists, for good or bad, than the impact of stocking rates on dairy farms. This was one of the key messages from the Positive Farmers Conference held in Cork last week.
Dairy farmers Barry Bateman from Bandon and Mike Bermingham from Fermoy went through their thinking behind the stocking rates they’ve chosen and how it affects all aspects of the business and their day-to-day lives.
Barry said his ideal stocking rate is around three cows/ha but that this has fluctuated in the past for various reasons. In 1999, it was at four cows/ha, in 2005 it was 1.8 cows/ha and, in 2015, it was 3.8 cows/ha.
When asked why he never stayed at any of these higher or lower stocking rates, he said: “I enjoy the simple system and like it when cows can spend long stints at grass. We have purposely got no outside block.
“The heifers are contract-reared so our job for most of the year is to milk the cows in the morning and evening and after that the day is our own. I don’t want to have to feed silage to milking cows at any stage. If grass is tight, I will feed meal in the parlour. I find this a cheap way of feeding expensive meal.”
With 75ha on the milking block, Barry and his wife, Olive, are milking 211 cows this year which is a stocking rate of 2.8 cows/ha.
A very small amount of silage is purchased annually at 160kg DM/cow/year on average over the last three years. Average annual grass growth rates are 15t DM/ha and 895kg of meal is fed per cow with the herd selling 519kg MS/cow on average over the last three years.
Animal performance from the high-EBI Jersey crossbred herd is excellent. They weigh 507kg, so their milk solids efficiency is 1kg solids for every 1kg of liveweight.
“I do make a lot less silage than most other farmers I know. Our cows are smaller and they definitely eat less silage in the winter which is a big help.
“Surplus heifers and cull cows are sold sometime between September and December depending on feed supplies with the heifers not coming back from the contract-rearer until 10 January which is an important factor,” he said.
If Barry had an outfarm, he could stock the milking platform higher at, say, 3.8 cows/ha and milk 285 cows but this is not something he’s interested in, saying the facilities and labour available are ideal for 220 cows.
The cows start calving in early February and are usually out day and night in order to get the target of 30% grazed by February
He also believes the farm is achieving good returns as it is. He said the challenge will be to maintain these returns as regulations mean the farm will have to be stocked lower in the future.
Mike Bermingham is milking 96 cows on a 37ha milking platform which is a stocking rate of 2.6 cows/ha. While he said he would like to milk more cows in the future, he’s not going to increase the stocking rate in order to achieve that.
“The cows start calving in early February and are usually out day and night in order to get the target of 30% grazed by February. We’ve a high farm surrounded by forestry and growth rates are usually two weeks behind Moorepark, so we have to feed some silage in March to slow the cows down and stretch to 10 or 15 April before starting the second round.
“I don’t want to feed bulky feeds between 1 April and 1 November. We pull the strip wire and pull the silage and let the cows at it from mid-April. The calves go to the contract-rearer in May, so it’s a very simple and easy farm to run from then on.
“We have what I call a lifestyle stocking rate because it gives me more time for family activities such as going to matches with my daughters or attending discussion group meetings which I love,” Mike said.
Mike Bermingham’s financial and physical performance is excellent with an average of 540kg MS/cow delivered from the Jersey crossbred herd weighing 530kg on average. Over the last three years, 990kg of meal was fed per cow.
The farm grows 13.5t DM/ha with 209kg N/ha spread last year. A staggering 100% of the farm is at optimum levels for pH, phosphorus and potash and 40% of the farm has good clover establishment.
When asked why he doesn’t take on an outfarm to grow silage or rear heifers, he said he doesn’t want to be drawing silage or slurry or having to hitch on the cow box to move animals.
“I don’t want the extra work and headspace associated with a higher stocking rate for a marginal return,” Mike said.
Paul Edwards researcher
Practices such as milking three times in two days or 10 times in seven days are now common in New Zealand for all or part of the season.
His research has shown that milking 10 times in seven days for full season will reduce the number of milkings by 29% and reduce annual milk solids yield by 7%.
This involves milking at, for example, 5am and 3pm one day and 10am the following day.
Matt Gunningham farmer
His employees start work at 6am whereas other farms in the area start at 3am.
Cows always graze in rotation with the next paddock adjacent to the last paddock.
“Cows go back to the paddock they came from after every milking and when they are all back in the field, they are moved to the next paddock. If you stand on the fence line between them, you can see the cover on the field with the most amount of grass and the least amount of grass.
“Running simple systems means that we don’t need to employ the very best operators and the farm is still well run and very profitable,” Matt said.
Niall Murphy dairy farmer, US
Donagh Berry researcher
He also said that if beef was removed as a component of EBI, one-third of the top 25 bulls for EBI would be pure Jersey.
Peter Farrell dairy farmer, Meath
Mike Murphy, Positive Farmers
- The Positive Farmers Conference was held last week. The two-day event heard from speakers from Ireland, the UK, the US, New Zealand and Australia.
- A key message throughout was on the importance of choosing an appropriate stocking rate to generate a high return, minimise workload and improve work-life balance.
- Gerry McGuire from Horse and Jockey in Tipperary spoke about the importance of being brilliant at the basics and getting good advice when growing a dairy business. The McGuire farm has grown from 60 cows to 220 cows.
- Mike Bermingham, Fermoy, set his stocking rate at 2.6 cows/ha and is milking 96 cows. All the land is one block and he doesn’t want the hassle of an outside farm for silage for marginal return.
- Former dairy farmer John Fitzpatrick from Athenry, who had to retire for health reasons, said: “Time is not renewable, it’s one of life’s precious resources.” He was speaking on a session about managing change.