Growing and utilising more grazed grass has become a key focus for Stephen and Hazel Wallace on their farm near Seaforde, Co Down.
A tighter autumn-calving profile has been developed in recent years so that most of the herd is suitable for turnout in the early spring by being past peak lactation and settled in calf.
This is reflected in the summary of seasonal milk yields in Figure 1, where production was higher at the start of last year but was much lower in the early autumn when most of the herd was dry.
Overall, milk yields were slightly lower in 2020 and averaged 7,819 litres. The total amount of concentrates fed increased by almost 5% and stood at 2.58t. Concentrate feed rate subsequently rose from 0.31kg/litre to 0.33kg/l.
These trends stem from the dry spell in May and June last year. When grass growth should have been hitting seasonal highs of over 100kgDM/ha/day, it was sitting at 17kgDM/ha on Heenendale farm in east Down.
Firstly, milk yields took a hit, as Figure 1 shows, and production didn’t pass 2019 levels again until after calving. Also, first-cut silage yields were well below par, so more concentrates had to be fed to cows over the winter.
Once rain arrived in July, there was a major focus on growing more grass to help rectify a looming fodder shortage.
Weekly grass measuring allowed Stephen to quickly identify any surplus on the grazing block which could be cut for bales.
It also allowed for improved feed efficiency within the milking herd during the summer.
Analysis of monthly benchmarking figures shows average milk from forage stood at 14.2 litres/cow/day from May to August 2020, compared to 12.9 litres/cow/day for the same period in 2019.
Increasing butterfat and protein levels to avail of higher milk quality bonuses has become a key focus for the Wallaces. Breeding indexes for milk components are a priority when selecting sires, but this is a longer-term tactic as it will take time for these heifers to make a difference in the bulk tank.
In the short term, several steps allowed milk protein levels to edge upwards last year, as Figure 2 shows.
Stephen reckons that a sharper focus on managing dry cows and post-calving body condition score resulted in milk protein levels remaining higher from January to March. Improvements in grass utilisation from May to August also coincided with higher protein levels.
The only drop in milk protein levels was in late 2020 when Stephen had to feed a mixture of first- and third-cut silage to help stretch supplies of first-cut.
Dairylink adviser Aidan Cushnahan calculates that increasing average protein levels from 3.28% in 2019 to 3.31% last year was worth an extra £1,500 to the Wallaces in milk quality payments.
Somatic cell count (SCC) fell year on year and averaged 130,000 cells/ml during 2020. Stephen puts this down to removal of high SCC cows that were identified through milk recording.
Also, improvements to the milking routine have been put in place with an electronic teat washer installed in late 2019.
A selection of working expenses generated in 2020 are shown in Table 2, along with the corresponding costs recorded for 2019. Concentrate feeding costs increased slightly last year due to the rise in feed rate.
The increase in forage costs is mainly due to additional silage which Stephen had to buy in to bridge the forecast fodder deficit.
Vet costs fell slightly during 2020, but breeding costs increased, mainly as result of participation in a fertility management programme run by an AI company.
Machinery running and contractor costs increased slightly in 2020 and is an area which Stephen plans to review over the year.
A key factor influencing machinery costs is reseeding work.
This has been justified by a partial budget drawn up last year (see www.ifj.ie/wallacereseed) which showed that the benefits gained from reseeding outweighed the associated costs by £227/ha/year.
Stephen and Hazel are targeting modest improvements in milk yield and feed utilisation with a continued focus on increasing milk components.
We have set targets for 2021, which include an average milk yield of 7,900 litres from 2.35t of concentrates. Target butterfat and protein levels are 4% and 3.36%, respectively.
With the improvements which have already been made in feed utilisation and protein production, it is felt that further progress can be made if the business continues to focus on silage quality, using grass efficiently and effective management of body condition.
The introduction of new heifers from sires that were selected to enhance milk solids will assist the process in the medium to longer term.