It’s been a busy few weeks for Colin Doherty as almost 50% of his herd has calved since 20 January.

Colin is farming with his father Bryan just outside Adare in Co Limerick. He’ll be the first to admit that they’re on dry land, but to be fair to them they make exceptional use of the land they have.

Cows have been out grazing by day since the first few cows calved and have been out full-time since the end of January.

Colin looks after the grass on the farm and 11% has been grazed to date. We walked all the grazed fields and while some damage was done during wet weather in late January, there has been little or no damage done in the last week or 10 days.

“I find it takes about two weeks for the cows to settle back into grazing and when they do they don’t do near as much damage as when they go out to grass first. We keep the freshly calved cows in a separate group in the shed for the first few days after calving and they join the grazing herd when their milk can go into the tank. We used get a few left displaced abomasums (LDAs) when the freshly calved cows went to grass straight away,” Colin explains.

The herd is a mix of Jersey crossbred and high-EBI Holstein Friesian.

His target is to have 40% of the farm grazed by February, something he is on track to achieve. If the weather turns wet, on-off grazing and bringing cows in at night will ensure that grass will still be fed to milkers. The usual target for farmers on dry land like the Dohertys is to have 30% grazed in February, but Colin reckons 40% is a better target on his farm as it ensures there’s enough grass back for the second rotation. The planned start date for the second rotation is 1 April. It used to be 5 or 6 April before but getting more ground grazed in February has allowed this to be brought forward.

The farm grew 15.5t DM/ha in 2020, which is back a tonne on 2019. A bit of a drought in 2020 slowed growth in late May and June. The majority of the land is dry and free-draining but there are some low-lying fields towards the back of the farm that were drained last year.

A half bag/acre of urea was spread on 20 January on all fields that didn’t get slurry and on fields that weren’t wet. You can see the change in the colour of the grass between the parts of fields that got urea and the areas that didn’t. There are 78ha in the milking block and the average nitrogen application rate last year was 210kg N/ha.

Last year's reseed has lots of clover.

Twenty-five percent of the farm was sown with clover this summer. This is broken down into 15% which was fully reseeded and 10% which was over-sown. The over-sown proportion was done by the book; tightly grazed, got watery slurry immediately after sowing and little or no nitrogen for a month or two.

Some of the fields were sown with an Erth seeder while others were sown with the fertiliser spreader. There’s a big difference in take, with the fields sown with the fertiliser spreader having much less clover present now than the ones that were sown with the Erth seeder.

Colin plans to over-sow more of the farm with clover next year, and use it to further reduce the nitrogen being used.

“Tighter restrictions on nitrogen are coming and if clover is going to be the way around that then I want to be the best at managing it. We’ve made a big effort trying to get soil fertility up and most of the farm is now at index 3 and 4, so clover should be good here. That said, I question how we’re going to manage it because closing at high covers seems to be counter-productive to clover, but we need high closing covers in order to have grass in spring. I think we need more specialist advice on how to manage it.”

The clover survived the winter well.

Grazing wise, cows are being allocated grass in square sections and Colin prefers to walk cows to the backs of paddocks first and then graze towards the front. At the moment, cows are walking on a wide temporary roadway because ground conditions are good, but this roadway will be narrowed if and when the weather worsens;

“I don’t like single file roadways because cows tend to stop on them so I usually put it two cows wide. I find it easier grazing the backs of the paddocks first as it means the cows are walking on grass, rather than on a grazed area so there’s less damage done too,” Colin says.

The Dohertys are calving down 203 cows this year, which is a stocking rate of 2.6 cows/ha on the 78ha block. There is no outside land and most of the heifers are contract-reared. It means that the grazing block needs to provide all the grazing and winter feed for the entire herd. No silage is purchased in. The plan is to go to 2.8 cows/ha next year and reassess then.

Clover is plentiful throughout the reseeds and oversown section.

Colin is toying with the idea of pushing stocking rate a bit higher and taking on outside land to grow some of the silage. We discussed the pros and cons of this; extra milk sales being the main positive. On the negative side, it would mean they’d be adding extra costs to the system in terms of land rent and cow housing. They would also be working harder as they’d be milking more cows and would have to feed more silage and possibly meal at the shoulders because they would have a higher demand for grass. They would need to do a budget to work out if it would pay them to do this or not.

The current system is working well. Last year, the herd produced 430kg MS/cow from 550kg of meal fed per cow. Colin aims to feed less than 500kg of meal per cow. A few years ago, they would have been feeding 350kg of meal. The herd is still young as cow numbers have almost trebled over the last six or seven years as extra land was leased in.

“Our target is to produce around 450kg of milk solids from a 500kg cow being fed 500kg of meal. The system is very profitable, so we don’t need to be chasing higher yields per cow, but good grassland management is key when you’re not feeding meal for the summer. It has also simplified our breeding strategy.

Post-grazing residuals are excellent with little or no damage done.

“We had a very infertile herd in the mid-2000s, having come from winter milk, but we focused heavily then on EBI and, to be fair, it has delivered for us. Our six-week calving rate went from 50% in 2014 to 88% in 2020. We started crossbreeding three years ago to improve our butterfat percentage but also to breed a labour-efficient cow, which is important to us as the herd has grown and we don’t want to be tied to work,” Colin says.

New parlour

A new 26-unit Boumatic milking parlour is almost ready to be commissioned which will further reduce the workload.

This is going into a new build on a greenfield site which will reduce the number of rows being milked from 17 to just eight.

Colin and Bryan are working from 7am to around 6pm or 7pm. Colin does about an hour of work before going to bed – milking any cow that calved since evening and feeding the calf.

Colin in the new 26-unit parlour which is yet to be commissioned.

A new calving camera system was installed this winter so he checks the goings-on in the calving shed at around 3am and will get up, if necessary. Calving has been going well, with just two mild cases of milk fever being the main issue to date. No male calves have been sold yet but Colin says they have a buyer lined up. The farm is still very much in development mode as it continues to expand, but the fundamentals of good grassland and cow management continue to be rock solid.

In brief

  • Colin Doherty and his father Bryan are milking 203 cows outside Adare in Co Limerick.
  • The herd EBI is €150 and they produced 430kgMS/cow from 550kg of meal in 2020.
  • Grass is the main focus on this farm and meal is used to fill the gap when grass is scarce, not for increasing production.
  • 25% of the farm got sown with clover last year and the plan is to do similar amounts this year.