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23rd February, 2019


The dairy industry is currently experiencing a robust period of market stability and enhanced period of demand for milk products. The tide has turned in favour of butter as a “healthy” food.  Promotion of demand for butter has recently been enhanced by McDonalds who have included butter on the “menu”.

As milk price at the farm gate continues to increase there is a temptation to increase cow numbers. On well managed farms there is a potential profit of €700 per cow, which quite easily sets farmers on a road to expand.  However, many farms are not realistically in a position to expand with current management practices and farm infrastructures.

In my opinion, over 80% of dairy farms in Ireland would be better served financially to either reduce cow numbers or improve the management of their current herd size. Skilled labour will continue to be the major limiting factor to sustained expansion.  New technological innovations can be great aids to optimisation of herd management, but it will not replace the skill of a good stockman.

At farm level, the inclement weather with shorter daylight hours and reduced night temperatures have resulted in dairy herds being housed by night and indeed full time on heavier soil types. It is currently difficult to manage cows at grass.  Milk yields have dropped dramatically in the past two weeks on most farms.  There is a stage of lactation effect, but the current scenario associated with excessive body conditions loss is not conducive to the build-up in BCS for the dry cow transition period.

Current milk prices justify economically on milk solids alone to supplement with concentrates, Grass dry matters are too low to meet demands of 20 to 23 litres average produced on many farms. Suggestions of feeding hay or straw to reduce passage rates are not an option.

Milk price and the need for cash flow will dictate that late calvers will be milked through the winter months. The temptation to extend lactations for those cows calving in January and February will also pertain.  Good management practices dictate that first calvers need 10 to 12 weeks dry and older cows 8 weeks dry.  It is essential to identify your late calvers which have held to late services in the breeding season.  These late calvers can be identified accurately using ultrasonography assessment of the reproductive tract.

Lameness incidence has increased as farm roadways disimproved with the inclement weather. Leaving those cases unattended until sufficient numbers arise to call a hoof care specialist is unacceptable.  There is not alone the financial cost but also the survivability of the cow in the herd.  It is worth noting that Sainsburys in the UK will not accept milk from farms where lameness incidence is above 10%.

Fertility assessment in herds at this time of year reveals cows which have either aborted, have mummified foetuses or abnormal foetal development. The incidence of these should be less than 3%.  However, there are specific areas of the country where the incidence of either neospora or schmallenberg has resulted in greater foetal deaths or abnormalities beyond day 34 of pregnancy.   Leptospirosis and salmonella can also cause significant incidence of abortion.

Vaccination programmes should be in place for IBR, leptospirosis and salmonella where there is a risk to your herd. We had a case recently where a stock bull was purchased and infected a herd with leptospirosis.   There was significant loss of both milk and pregnancies and veterinary bills to treat the herd.

I find it surprising the number of farms using homeopathic treatment to present infection of their herds with the most prevalent infectious diseases. These treatments administered through the drinking water are convenient and cheaper than conventional vaccination.  Where is the supporting scientific data?

As herd size increases, young stock are being reared by other farmers who opt to use their land for this practice. It is essential that targets are set for this time of year in both weanling and in calf heifer groups.  It is essential that there is an option to sub group weaker animals to receive extra supplementation or indeed address an underlying health ailment.


Dr. Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at


Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan for the Farming Independent 26th September 2017.