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: fine-tuning grazing and soil fertility in Down
Stephen Wallace is making key improvements to grassland management and soil fertility. Conail Keown reports

Delayed turn-out of the whole milking herd made grass management slightly more difficult this year on the farm of Dairylink Ireland participant Stephen Wallace near Seaforde, Co Down.

While 30 cows got out to grass in February, breeding was in full swing and average milk yields were increasing, which influenced Stephen’s decision to hold these cows inside on a total mixed ration.

However, during March, any cow delivering less than 35 litres/day went to grass.

Average cover is 782kg DM/ha (utilisable) on the milking platform this week.

Two paddocks were taken out for silage last week and three silage paddocks joined the grazing block. Both skipped paddocks had average covers over 1,950kg DM/ha.

Stephen is trying to manage grass this year, with the key rule of not allowing cows into pre-grazing covers above 1,800kg DM/ha.

So far, it has been working well, but weekly measurement is critical.

Average growth on the farm last week was 78kg DM/ha/day and the recent rain is expected to push growth on this week.

Grass wedge

The grazing block is currently 40ha in size and stocking rate is 4.3LU/ha.

Cover per cow is at 180kg and the wedge is well established, with pre-grazing covers around 1,700kg DM/ha.

Currently, the cows are averaging 29 litres/cow/day at 3.87% fat and 3.15% protein

A recent grass walk showed poor grass clean-out in some paddocks.

The herd on the Wallace farm is fed to yield in the milking parlour, so high-yielding cows that are producing over 30 litres/day will still be receiving over 6kg/day of concentrates.

Stephen is planning to move the parlour setting to maintenance plus 20 litres, which means cows yielding more than 20 litres/day will receive concentrates at 0.45kg/litre above this.

Currently, the cows are averaging 29 litres/cow/day at 3.87% fat and 3.15% protein.

In the paddocks with the high post-grazing covers, Stephen will top these this week and plans to skip another paddock or two if growth continues to increase.

Both steps will improve grass quality for subsequent grazing rounds.

Soil fertility

Soil analysis last winter highlighted shortfalls in soil fertility on the Wallace farm, with the main problem area being soil pH.

A total area of 34ha has been targeted to receive 2t of lime per acre. This work is currently ongoing, with lime applied immediately after grazing.

Two paddocks will be reseeded this month as both had been used to out-winter drystock on forage rape.

Urea was used for the first round of grazing at 30 units per acre and one bag of CAN was used for the last round

Seed varieties are yet to be selected, but will likely be late-heading high-energy varieties.

Urea was used for the first round of grazing at 30 units per acre and one bag of CAN was used for the last round.

Only three paddocks in the grazing block received slurry this year.

Stephen has a compound 20:10:10 in the shed, which will be targeted at paddocks with low phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) indices.

These paddocks will receive two applications of one and half bags per acre of 20:10:10 this year.

This will be in the third round and the fifth round, with the first compound application expected in late June.

Hitting targets with young stock

The young group of 54 heifers that are due for breeding in December 2019 are on an outlying farm.

The land block consists of four paddocks and the stock graze it in a rotation.

Target weight for these heifers at breeding is 360kg, which is 60% of the target mature weight of 600kg.

Average weights for this group of heifers at the last weight check at the end of April was 210kg.

This meant heifers needed to gain 150kg over seven months, equating to a daily liveweight gain of 0.72kg/day.


While heifers are still on 2kg/head/day of concentrates, Stephen is considering removing this, as the required liveweight gain should be achievable from good-quality grass.

He will do another weight check later this month to monitor progress.

There are also 62 heifers that are scanned in-calf and are due to calve down from mid-August to mid-November.

This is a uniform bunch and it includes 15 purchased heifers. All heifers are due within a three-month period and they are all in-calf to sexed semen.

Heifer calves should be able to achieve a daily liveweight gain of 0.72kg/day from good-quality grass.

Breeding of these heifers was contracted out this year for the first time. The new arrangement has been successful, as it freed up Stephen’s time during the winter and compacted the replacement stock coming into herd.

Between calves from these heifers and the main milking herd, Stephen aims to have all replacement stock that will be due for breeding in late 2021 born within a 12-week window this autumn.

Busy at silage on Dairylink Ireland farms

Dairylink Ireland programme farmers have been busy at silage over the past seven to 10 days.

For example, James Martin in Dromintee got first-cut into his newly constructed silage pit last week.

In Omagh, Richard Marshall is also finished and has slurry and nitrogen planned for most of the silage area.

In general, most silage ground on the Marshall farm is receiving two and half bags of CAN and 3,000 gallons of slurry per acre after harvesting.

John Oliver in Limavady plans to get first-cut in this week. The silage ground was grazed earlier in the year, so it should still be good quality ahead of cutting.

Tracking heifer weights and keeping up with weekly grass measurements on the milking platform is on the to-do list for Dairylink farmers after silage and slurry.

Read more

Watch: Dairylink – early first-cut silage made in Tyrone

Watch: Dairylink Ireland farmers getting to grips with grass growth

Watch: Dairylink Ireland farmers getting to grips with grass growth
Warmer weather has meant grass growth is rising on Dairylink farms this week. Peter McCann reports

This is the first full season of measuring grass for each of the six farmers who joined Dairylink Ireland as part of the second phase of the programme last autumn. With grass growth increasing during May, the benefits of basing grassland management decisions on information from weekly farm walks is now being seen.

Dairylink adviser Conail Keown says grass growth on most programme farms was around 50kgDM/ha/day at the start of the month. This was lower than the 75kgDM/ha/day usually seen in early May, although growth has increased with the arrival of warmer weather last weekend.

Programme farmers are being encouraged to monitor pre- and post-grazing covers closely and take paddocks that have covers over 1,900kgDM/ha (utilisable) out for silage. “The focus should be to keep top-quality grass in front of cows. Skipping paddocks ensures the herd moves on to the best-quality grass on the farm,” Conail said.

Based on a stocking rate of 4.0-4.5LU/ha, Conail said average cover on Dairylink farms needs to be around 800kgDM/ha at present. This will give an average available cover per cow of 175-200kgDM/ha.


Grass measurement on Richard Marshall’s farm near Omagh last week highlighted a deficit on the milking platform because some of the grazing block was cut for silage along with first cut last week. This left milking platform stocking rate over 5.0LU/ha and cover per cow is below target at 125kgDM/ha. To address the issue, a batch of 35 high-yielding cows will remain inside this week so that there is no additional demand on grass. Growth should improve with warmer weather this week and Richard will measure again next week to re-assess the situation.

Phase one participant Nigel Corbett has a well-established grass wedge on his farm near Banbridge. The highest pre-grazing covers are around 1,600kgDM/ha and cleanouts are good, with post-grazing covers around 300kgDM/ha.

Nigel is taking maintenance plus 20 litres from grass and average cover per cow is on target at 180kgDM/ha. One paddock is currently out of the rotation and will be cut for bales. Nigel will make a decision on skipping another paddock after a grass walk later this week.

Farmer focus: Robin Clements, Trillick, Co Tyrone

The high-yielding group of 65 cows is housed and is on zero-grazed grass on Dairylink phase one participant Robin Clements’ farm near Trillick. There is a limited land area around the yard for grazing (40ha) so zero grazing allows grass from an outlying block to support extra cows in the autumn-calving herd.

The zero-grazed cows are fed concentrates through in-parlour feeders and are on 2.5kg/cow/day on average at present. There are 110 cows at grass, with 1kg/cow/day fed to this group. Overall the herd is averaging 20 litres/cow/day at present and the first cows will be due for drying off in six weeks.

Robin cut and baled 90 acres of first-cut at the end of last week.

It was an ideal spring weather-wise on the Clements’ farm. The first cows got out to grass in early March and Robin notes that grass growth and utilisation for the most part have been excellent so far this year.

A grass walk on Monday showed growth on the grazing block at 57kgDM/ha/day and average cover was 900kgDM/ha. The zero-grazed group gives Robin plenty of flexibility to alter milking platform stocking rate in line with growth rates. For example, more cows can join the grazing group as grass growth improves and surplus grass on the outlying block can be cut for bales.

First-cut silage was mowed at the weekend, with 80 acres baled at the start of the week in ideal conditions. There is no clamp silage made on the Clements’ farm and all machinery work is done by Robin and his sons Stephen and Matthew.

TB issue

The herd had a TB breakdown in June 2018 and is still closed up at present. Robin had a clear herd test last month and will be able to sell stock again if he has no reactors at the next herd test later this summer.

It has meant all calves from the 2018 calving season are still on the farm. Robin has 50 heifer calves for replacements and 50 black and white bull calves are being intensively fed for finishing at 10 months as part of a rose veal contract. This allows the bull calves to place no demand on grass and means they will be off the farm by the time the 2019 calving season starts in the autumn.

The remaining calves from 2018 are sired by Angus, Hereford and Belgian Blue bulls. They are at grass at present and will be sold once the herd is clear from TB.

Weekly round-up

  • Grassland management decisions are based on figures from grass measurement on Dairylink farms.
  • Figures from grass covers are in terms of utilisable cover which are calculated by subtracting 1,500kgDM/ha from total cover.
  • Dairylink farmers are skipping over paddocks with more than 1,900kgDM/ha to keep cows on the best quality grass.
  • Some programme farmers are getting maintenance plus 20 litres/cow/day from grazed grass at present.
  • Read more

    Watch: Dairylink – early first-cut silage made in Tyrone

    Dairylink: getting more from grass in Tyrone

    Watch: Dairylink – early first-cut silage made in Tyrone
    First-cut silage is being made on Dairylink farms earlier than usual this year. Peter McCann reports.

    Good growth and ground conditions so far this year have meant first-cut silage is being made earlier than usual on Dairylink Ireland farms.

    Phase one programme participant Kevin McGrade cut around half his first-cut on Saturday, which is over one week earlier than last year. In total, 73 acres were cut and the grass got a good wilt, allowing it to be ensiled in ideal conditions.

    Samples of grass from silage ground on the McGrade farm were sent for laboratory analysis last week and it showed that nitrate concentrations were low at around 300 parts per million (ppm).

    The general rule is that grass under 1,000ppm is suitable for ensiling.

    In practice, the good growth this season should mean nitrogen will be used up by grass plants and, if grass gets wilted and is ensiled dry, it should ferment with no issues.

    Bad fermentation is usually only an issue if there is a lot of moisture in the grass.

    Although it has been generally dry over the past week, it has still been cold in most areas, so sugars in grass may still be low.

    A refractometer can be used as an on-farm test to give an indication of sugars in grass.

    A refractometer, which is more commonly used for testing colostrum quality, was used on Kevin’s farm last week as an on-farm test to measure soluble components in grass.

    It showed Brix scores of 2% to 3% in the samples of moisture from grass leaves. This indicates sugar levels similar to the laboratory test results of over 3%, which is suitable for ensiling.

    CAFRE adviser Aidan Cushnahan points out that although late-heading grass varieties are around 10 days away from heading, the presence of the seed head in the stem of the plant (before it shoots) will still affect digestibility.

    If there is sufficient bulk in the sward and dry weather is forecast, most Dairylink farmers are taking the opportunity to make good-quality silage when it comes.

    Weekly round-up

  • First-cut silage was made on some Dairylink Ireland programmes last weekend.
  • Surplus paddocks from grazing blocks have also been cut for bales or held for first-cut silage.
  • Programme farmers who have not cut are being encouraged to walk silage ground to assess bulk and stem development.
  • Farmer focus: Kevin McGrade, Dromore, Co Tyrone

    Cow numbers have been able to rise on Kevin McGrade’s farm near Dromore, Co Tyrone, in recent years.

    Soil fertility has improved, which has led to increased grass yields and the ability to carry more stock.

    Replacement heifers have also been moved to contract-rearing farms, which has freed up more land for the milking herd.

    More recently, additional land within walking distance of the parlour has been rented.

    Kevin said that the optimum stocking rate for his farm is around 1.8LU/ha

    Between homebred heifers and bought-in stock, cow numbers were able to increase from around 160 at the start of 2018 to 225 by the end of the year.

    This left the overall stocking rate on the McGrade farm at over 2.0LU/ha.

    Kevin said that the optimum stocking rate for his farm is around 1.8LU/ha.

    Higher stocking rates put pressure on the farm and often mean additional forage has to be bought in, especially during a period of wet weather.

    Over the years, he has found that although output increases when the stocking rate goes over 1.8LU/ha, overall farm profitability does not.


    This led Kevin to have a sale of surplus stock in a local mart in January 2019.

    Any cows due to calve after 21 November have left the herd, which has allowed the autumn-calving profile to be tightened significantly

    The sale of 33 lactating cows was a useful generator of income for the business and is something Kevin would consider doing again if he had surplus stock.

    Cull cows have also been sold off since and there are currently 180 cows milking on the McGrade farm, which leaves the overall stocking rate sitting at 1.8LU/ha.

    Any cows due to calve after 21 November have left the herd, which has allowed the autumn-calving profile to be tightened significantly.

    Kevin also sold 11 young heifer calves with limited genetic potential and bought in 23 high-EBI heifers from the Republic of Ireland.

    The bought-in heifers were spring-born, but will calve down at over two years old to allow them to fit into the autumn system on the McGrade farm.

    This has been done on the farm before and Kevin was happy with the result.


    Buildings have been renovated to accommodate the herd expansion with 80 new cubicles added to the yard. A slatted feeding area has been roofed and 30 cubicles were added to it.

    A feeding area has been roofed and additional cubicles installed on the McGrade farm.

    A further 30 cubicles were added to an existing cubicle shed and the other 20 were slipped into an area that was previously used to store machinery.

    Automatic scrapers were extended, but no additional slurry storage was needed due to extra capacity coming from rainwater being diverted off the newly roofed feeding area.

    Some internal walls in the extended cubicle house were removed to improve visibility in the shed.

    The clay banks of a silage pit were fixed up and clamp silage is being made this year.

    In previous years, only baled silage was made, and the pit was used to store bales.

    Having fewer bales this year should mean that feeding does not take as long in the winter.

    Read more

    Dairylink: increasing grass yields and herd size in Tyrone

    Dairylink: driving output from the grazing block

    Dairylink Ireland: breeding the right cow for the system