Ten lessons from Dairylink in 2018
Eleven programme farms are involved in Dairylink Ireland across two phases.

In the past 12 months on the Dairylink Ireland programme, the original six participating farmers completed the first three-year phase of the programme, while five new farmers joined for phase two.

This has provided an insight into dairy farm businesses at various stages of development, as well as farms that operate across different locations, climatic conditions and dairying systems.

The overall aim of Dairylink is to optimise on-farm resources to maximise profits from milk production. Here are some key findings from the past 12 months of the programme:

1 Time and money

Production costs on some phase one farms did not drop during the initial three years of the programme, and in some cases they went up. This is because investments made during the period to make businesses more sustainable cost money and, whether funded from cashflow or bank loans, it adds to total farm working expenses.

Farm business development also takes time as not all investments can be made in the one year. Laneway construction, fencing, drainage and reseeding, etc, are carried out gradually. If herd genetics is changing, it takes almost three years from when a cow is served to her daughter is milking.

2 Snowballing fertility

Improving herd fertility is a key focus on all programme farms. Although it can also be slow process, we have seen on Dairylink farms that improving herd fertility can get easier each year. Programme adviser Conail Keown describes it as a snowball effect.

By letting cows that are slow to get in-calf leave the system, the more fertile cows in a herd remain and subsequently breed replacements. Being strict with culling out low-fertility cows each year means several programme farmers now have high-fertility herds and can cull for production traits, such as butterfat and protein.

3 Soils grow grass

All Dairylink farmers have been soil-sampling individual paddocks annually and have been active in addressing deficiencies in pH, phosphorus and potassium. It has paid dividends.

Annual grass yields on participating farms increased by 25% over three years to 11.7tDM/ha.

The focus during phase one was mainly on improving soil fertility and growing more grass on the milking platform. Phase one farmers are now looking at outlying blocks that are used for silage and heifer rearing. On phase two farms, the aim is to improve the soil nutrient status of all farmed land at the same time.

4 Measure and manage grass

Most Dairylink farmers were not measuring grass before joining the programme, but all farmers now state that it is an essential management tool for their business. Farmers need to know how much feed is available for cows to be able to manage it effectively.

Better grazing management improves both the quality and quantity of grass grown. Measuring grass is particularly useful when growth is either well ahead of demand, to allow surplus grass to be baled, or significantly behind demand, to allow the grazing rotation to be lengthened. Measuring also allows underperforming paddocks to be clearly identified and earmarked for reseeding.

5 Know your costs

One of the first exercises that some phase two farmers carried out when they joined Dairylink was to develop an accurate record of all farm working expenses. This gave farmers an understanding of their cost base and, when compared against income, showed the profitability of the business in cash terms.

In a year that saw concentrate prices increase by around 20%, some farmers realised that production costs were higher than previously thought. Having an accurate breakdown of production costs allows budgets to be made for the following 12 months and gives a clear indication of where changes to the cost base need to be made.

6 Hitting heifer targets

Phase one farmers were equipped with electronic weigh scales for tracking growth rates of replacement heifers. It is surprising how even the best judges of weights can be far out with their estimates when a heifer gets on the bridge.

Weighing periodically allows farmers to group heifers by weight and feed accordingly. Extra concentrates for lighter heifers can allow them to catch up with the rest and holding meal off the heaviest heifers is a cost saving. The aim is 60% of mature weight at breeding and then 90% at calving at 24 months of age.

7 Fertility for milk

Having a strong focus on improving herd fertility is not just for block spring-calving systems. Better fertility means more fresh calvers, fewer stale cows and so more milk in the tank. The drive to improve fertility is on all programme farms, regardless of system type.

On some phase two farms, there is room to increase annual milk yields by 1,000 to 1,500 litres/cow through improving herd fertility. Having fewer stale cows in the herd means more efficient use of concentrates as the fresh calver will respond to extra meal feeding.

8 Milk components pay

Although eight of the 11 Dairylink farmers are in Northern Ireland, where milk pricing is based on volume, increasing milk components has lifted sales on programme farms.

Bonus payments on Kevin McGrade’s farm in Co Tyrone were worth an additional 2.93p/l above base price in 2017 after milk averaged 4.72% butterfat and 3.64% protein.

Dairylink farmers are selecting sires for butterfat and protein and some have bought in cows with high solids to make a quick difference in their herds. Getting more from grazed grass has also led to higher protein levels in milk.

9 Quality silage

With most programme farmers having autumn-calving cows, making good-quality silage is a key part of their system. It is an essential part of controlling concentrate costs and, with meal prices up over £40/t on last year, this has become increasingly important.

For example, on a programme farm last year, two cuts of silage both analysed at 28% dry matter (DM). One had metabolisable energy of 11.9MJ/kg DM and the other was 10.8MJ/kg DM. For a cow yielding 30 litres/day, 7kg/cow/day of concentrate was needed of the better-quality silage, compared with 10kg/cow/day for the other.

10 Managing block-calving

Several Dairylink farmers on both phases of the programme are tightening their calving profile to improve herd fertility as it means late calvers leave the system. However, calving cows in a shorter timeframe leads to easier management of replacement heifers as groups are more uniform.

It also means that calving, heat detection and drying off becomes more seasonal. While certain parts of the year become busier, others become quieter. A spread calving profile means a larger range of jobs relating to smaller groups of stock need completed more often, which is an inefficient use of labour.

Read more

Soil sampling and nutrient planning

Controlling costs on Dairylink farms

Watch: switching to a flying herd in Co Antrim

Targeting meal to freshly calved cows

Dairylink: making the most of on-farm resources
Phase two of Dairylink Ireland was officially launched last week. Peter McCann reports.

Two questions were initially put to the new phase two farmers when they joined the Dairylink Ireland programme last year – what resources for milk production are available on your farm and what areas of dairy farming are you good at?

With Dairylink farmers operating different dairying systems across various land types and climatic conditions, a wide range of answers were given to programme adviser Conail Keown.

Identifying what resources are available on individual farms and what skills each farmer has helps form the basis of a plan for developing each farm business.

Investments made on farms aim to utilise available resources and are not about creating new ones

The main objective of Dairylink Ireland is to make best use of on-farm resources to optimise profit, so programme farmers need to take a critical look at their businesses to see what resources have untapped potential.

Investments made on farms aim to utilise available resources and are not about creating new ones.

For example, soils on most farms are not at optimum levels for pH, phosphorus and potassium. Addressing issues with soil fertility through use of lime, slurry and compound fertilisers will deliver increased grass growth.

Likewise, investing in grazing infrastructure, such as extra laneways, drinkers and fences, can allow cows to get to grass more often in the shoulders of the year and can allow more milk to be produced from grazed grass.


On the farmer skills question, it is about capitalising on what each farmer is good at and taking steps to make improvements where there is room to upskill. For example, more use of heat detection aids could be rolled out on farms if there are issues identifying heats in cows or heifers.

Conail Keown is working with several phase two Dairylink farmers to improve grazing management. Grazing blocks have been mapped and weekly grass measuring is taking place to help programme farmers improve their grassland management skills.

Improving herd genetics and cow type is a longer-term measure that will mainly be addressed through sire selection

At the official launch of Dairylink phase two in Armagh last week, Conail said that in the initial stage of the new farms joining the programme, plans have been developed and targets set for each farm business over the next three years.

“In the first six months, we have established what resources are available on your farms and found out what you are good at. It’s now time to take the steps to make your farm businesses more profitable and sustainable for the future,” he said.

Areas of focus on phase two Dairylink farms

There are several key areas where the focus will be for making improvements on Dairylink farms over phase two of the programme.

Improving herd genetics and cow type is a longer-term measure that will mainly be addressed through sire selection. In the shorter term, herd fertility could be addressed by better genetics, culling poor-fertility cows and making improvements with heat detection.

Fertility can also relate to animal health at both herd and individual cow levels. Herd health plans are being developed to prevent disease and are based on bulk tank milk screening and individual blood testing.

All farms will be soil sampled annually and fertiliser plans will be based on the results to address issues with soil fertility and manage nutrients. Grass measuring will be used to guide management decisions to improve grass quality.

Cash management is being monitored more closely by Dairylink farms and cashflow budgets for the next 12 months will be developed. Critical assessment of all farm expenditure is being carried out, with investment only targeted at high-return areas.

Other areas include labour management and environmental sustainability. “Dairying is under the spotlight now more than ever. It is important that farm businesses are sustainable environmentally and not just economically,” Conail said.

Farmer focus: Frank Goodman, Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan

Soil fertility and grazing infrastructure is in a good place on Frank Goodman’s farm near Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, and does not require significant amounts of investment over the next few years.

The 85-cow herd is split calving, with around 80% calving in the spring and the remaining 20% in the autumn. Cows are currently yielding 8,000 litres/cow at 3.76% butterfat and 3.30% protein. The grazing platform is heavily stocked at 4CE/ha and average concentrate feed rate stands at 2.5t/cow/year.

There are no pressing issues with grazing infrastructure on Frank's farm. \ Peter McCann

A series of targets for phase two of Dairylink have been set for Frank across the main themes of the programme. The aim is to grow 11.5t DM/ha of grass on the milking platform each year and generate a cash surplus of €300/cow.

In the past, cows that were slow to get in calf occasionally slipped between the two groups, but Frank wants anything with fertility issues to leave the herd in future. Improving herd fertility is a key aim on the Goodman farm and, for longer-term gains, sires will be selected based on fertility indices.

The Goodman herd is high quality, although there is room to lift butterfat and protein, so bulls will be selected for this.

Read more

Watch: getting ready for spring in Monaghan

Dairylink: starting the final round in Monaghan

Phase two of Dairylink Ireland launched in Armagh
The second phase of Dairylink Ireland was officially launched in Armagh on Friday.

Farmers participating in the Dairylink Ireland project met with programme sponsors and partners on Friday for the official launch of phase two of the initiative.

Dairylink is a farm development programme, with participating farmers located on both sides of the Irish border.

Optimise resources

There are six farmers in the first phase of the programme and another six have joined for phase two.

Dairylink is supported by Lakeland Dairies, MSD Animal Health, CAFRE, AFBI, Teagasc and the Irish Farmers Journal.

The aim of the programme is to optimise on-farm resources to maximise profits from sustainable milk production.

Dairylink participants are farming in different geographical locations across a range of land types and climatic conditions

“In the first six months, we have established what resources are available on your farms and found out what you are good at,” Dairylink Ireland adviser Conail Keown said at the official launch on Friday.


Dairylink participants are farming in different geographical locations across a range of land types and climatic conditions.

Farmers also operate various types of dairying systems, from grass-based block spring-calving herds to fully-housed year-round calving systems.

Updates from programme farms feature in the print of edition of the Irish Farmers Journal each week, with the articles and video content available online at www.ifj.ie/dairylink.

Read more

Dairylink: expanding on a fragmented land block

Watch: addressing issues from soil analysis results

Dairylink: expanding on a fragmented land block
A high-output fully housed farm has joined the Dairylink Ireland programme. Peter McCann reports

Access to land is the key issue facing many dairy farm businesses across the country. This is usually due to a limited supply of quality land available in the locality or the high cost of renting or buying whatever suitable land is available.

As part of an annual survey of Northern Ireland dairy farmers conducted last December at the RUAS Winter Fair, 40% of respondents said that access to land was the main challenge facing their business. The land issue ran ahead of labour availability (34.3%), environmental controls (17.1%) and lack of a successor (8.6%) in the Irish Farmers Journal survey.

A limited land supply locally can often lead to fragmented farms if farmers want to expand their businesses and land subsequently becomes available elsewhere. Dairy farmers with fragmented land blocks often develop higher input systems with limited or no grazing.

James Martin is the latest participant to join phase two of the Dairylink Ireland programme and he operates a high-input/high-output system on his farm in Armagh. Cows stay indoors all year, with grass silage the main forage.

Other issues which influence the development of high-input or indoor systems are high rainfall, land type, milk pricing on volume, cow type, limited grassland skills, and little or no farm roadway infrastructure.

Some or all of these factors play a part on those farms producing a lot of milk indoors.

Dairylink Ireland participants operate a range of dairying systems across different land types and climatic conditions. The programme is about making the most of available resources and is not about comparing different systems.

Phase one of Dairylink Ireland, as well as various benchmarking programmes, have found that good management and attention to detail are key influences on farm profitability, regardless of system type.

Weekly round-up

  • Recent weekend rain has forced cows back inside on most Dairylink farms.
  • Most farms have spread urea on grazing blocks.
  • Slurry is going out on silage ground and on low grass covers or recently grazed areas.
  • Scanning is ongoing as herds move into 13 to 15 weeks of breeding.
  • Getting out on a grass walk is critical at this stage for all farms.
  • Farmer focus: James Martin, Dromintee, Co Armagh

    There are currently 127 Holstein cows milking on the Martin family farm in Dromintee, Co Armagh. Average yield is just short of 10,000 litres at 3.8% butterfat and 3.2% protein from 3.5t per cow of concentrates and grass silage. James has been farming at home with his father Owen since he graduated with a degree in agriculture in 2015.

    The Martin farmyard is essentially land locked with only two small fields adjacent to the yard. A 70-acre owned block of grassland lies across a public road from the farmyard. Crossing the road and proximity to the village made crossing cows very difficult.

    This made it difficult to walk cows to and from grass. Soils are fairly heavy too, which limited grazing opportunities when conditions were wet. This led the Martins to develop a fully housed system in 2013. Cows are calving throughout the year and there is no seasonal variation in milk output.

    James and Owen have a strong focus on cow type and milk yield when selecting sires. This year’s calves are by bulls such as Bromley, Punch, Boastful and MVP. Sexed semen is used on the farm and surplus heifers are sold under their Garaba pedigree prefix.

    With cows calving year-round, there are replacement heifers of all ages on the farm. However, heifers are put into various groups according to size and age for calving at two years old.

    The herd is in expansion mode and available land should be able to support around 180 cows in the coming years. There is scope for expansion, as bull calves are no longer kept for beef, heifers are calving earlier and some additional land has been rented in recent years.


    With land only being used for either silage or else grazing heifers and dry cows, various outlaying blocks of owned and rented land can support herd expansion on the Martin farm.

    The furthest outfarm is an owned block of land near Belleeks, about 10 miles away from the main farmyard. The Martins have all their own machinery for silage and slurry work, with extra help and additional trailers only needed at silage time.

    A greater emphasis has been put on silage quality in recent years, with four cuts taken each year. A new roofed silo is being built at present and will be completed for first-cut silage this year. It compromises of two silos, with the entire building measuring 100ft by 110ft.

    The new silo measures 100ft x 110ft and will be ready for first cut this year.

    Cubicles and feed space will be an issue as cow numbers increase and the long-term plan is to convert some of the old silos into cow accommodation as the herd increases.

    Existing milking facilities will be able to handle extra cows, as a new 24-unit swing-over parlour was built in 2015.

    A new 24-unit swing-over parlour was built in 2015.

    At present, cows are grouped in two batches, with silage, blend and straw fed through the diet feeder. All cows have electronic tags and are fed to yield in the parlour and then automatically drafted back into their groups after milking.