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.
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