Average milk yield has increased further on Owen and James Martin’s farm and is now approaching the 10,000l mark. During the 2020 calendar year, the Holstein herd averaged 9,691l, which represents a 5% increase on the 2019 average of 9,196l.
The amount of concentrate fed to cows increased by just 1% and stood at 3.59t last year. This means that the concentrate feed rate has improved and equated to 0.37kg/l during 2020.
Silage quality was the main factor contributing to the more efficient use of meal last year. Remember, Owen and James run a fully housed, all year-round calving system, so grass silage is the only forage that cows produce milk from.
Lactating cows were offered first-cut silage for most of last year and it was relatively good quality, analysing at 28% dry matter (DM) and a metabolisable energy (ME) of 11.6MJ/kg DM. The first cut from May 2020, which was fed later in the year, was of similar quality at 24% DM and an ME of 12MJ/kg DM.
The improvement in feed efficiency and overall milk yield last year follows on from a poorer performance in 2019, when second-cut silage (28% DM and 11.1MJ/kg DM) had to be fed to milkers for several months to help stretch supplies of first cut.
That said, second cut from July 2020 (33% DM and 9.9MJ/kg DM) was also included in the ration for a period last autumn. It did not appear to impact milk yields, but it was blamed for a reduction in milk protein levels at the time.
The Martins also try to target the heaviest concentrate feeding at cows that will respond well in terms of increased milk production. The high-yielding group are currently offered 6kg of blend and 4kg of caustic wheat through the wagon, and parlour nuts are given on a feed-to-yield basis.
The low-yielding group receive parlour nuts at a flat rate of 1kg, plus 3kg of blend and 2.5kg of caustic wheat is included in their total mixed ration.
Milk quality also improved on the Martin farm during 2020. Average butterfat levels increased from 3.82% in 2019 to 3.94% last year, but average protein levels remained static at 3.22%.
In Northern Ireland, milk pricing is on a per litre basis, with bonus payments for milk quality. The rise in butterfat levels alone was worth an extra £3,800 to Owen and James last year.
It shows that there is money to be made by improving milk quality in high-yielding herds in Northern Ireland. Also, the Martin example demonstrates that lifting milk components does not mean that milk yields will take a tumble.
The margin over concentrate (MOC) benchmark, which is effectively milk cheque minus meal bill, rose by 9% last year and equated to £1,7163/cow. This was mainly due to the improvement in feed efficiency, as other variables were almost unchanged. For example, milk price and meal price stood at 26.9p/l and £233/t respectively during 2020, compared to 26.6p/l and £236/t the year before.
Other farm working expenses for the business are outlined in Table 2. There has been a notable increase in forage costs, which is mainly due to extra reseeding work being carried out last summer and fertiliser for the 2021 season was forward bought at the end of last year. Breeding costs increased because the Martins moved to only using sexed dairy semen and beef straws during 2020. Vet costs eased back as no vet call outs were required for difficult calvings or calf health problems last year.
The other main change was the significant drop in machinery running costs during 2020. The Martins’ carry out all their own slurry and silage work, with help from casual labour at peak times.
The reduction for 2020 is due to inflated machinery costs the year before, when two tractors needed a significant amount of mechanical work carried out. Annual machinery costs of just over £200/cow are more typical for the Martin farm.
The Martins surpassed several targets that were set for 2020 and have a clear outlook for the years ahead.
“We are happy with current milk yields at around 9,600l. Any further increases will come from making better-quality silage and not from increasing concentrate feed rate,” James said.
They have no plans to switch to three times a day milking to achieve extra milk output, as almost all farm work, including milking, is carried out by family labour. Finally, Owen and James will continue to select sires based on breeding indexes for butterfat, protein and fertility. This breeding strategy to lift components, while maintaining yields, started last year, but will take several years to filter through to the bulk tank.