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23rd February, 2019

Optimise your future in dairying

This time of year is the least labour intensive on dairy farms. Getting relief milkers is one of the biggest challenges in getting time out for a hurling or football match in Dublin or a holiday before the winter sets in.  Farmers consider it farcical that the dairy industry needs for labour can be met by recruiting people who are unemployed and placing them on an intensive 10 day training course.

The weather has been favourable for reseeding pastures which have been put off in the past 2 years because of unfavourable milk price. There has been a greater emphasis on the inclusion of clover in grass seed mixtures, which makes sense considering the nitrogen fixation and dietary balance.  Caution should be exercised considering the risk of bloat and preventative health management for same.

Inclement weather has made grazing conditions poor on many heavier soil types. Soil temperatures are still excellent for grass growth.  However, farmers are generally finding it difficult to maintain consistent high quality grazing platforms ahead of cows.  Judging when paddocks should be taken out for baled silage and not leaving a grass shortage in 2 weeks’ time requires excellent judgement aside from an ability to assess future weather conditions.

A favourable milk price has meant that farmers will extend lactations this autumn and indeed milk late calvers through the winter months. Traditionally stock bulls would have been removed by the end of July.  However, stock bulls are still running with the cows on over 60% of herds visited in August. Our current records reveal that empty rates average 15% for a 13 week breeding period.  Farmers consider that there is either a better economic option of calving young cows as late calvers next May or selling them as late calvers than fattening them.

It is essential that you get accurate ageing of pregnancies when planning to milk late calvers through the winter months. Up to 10% of pregnant cows show false heats and therefore, you can easily have cows calve without the required dry cow transition period.

Assess body condition scores of your cows now. Ideally get an independent assessment.  Cows should be in peak BCS at this time of year.  However, our farm visits reveal that 70% of herds have over 50%of cows below target BCS.  With current and forward milk price it will pay to feed supplemental concentrates to achieve desired BCS and to optimise the opportunity to minimise future replacement rates.

Focus now on the nutritional requirements of your in calf heifers. Are they achieving target weights?  As grass quality and quantity become an issue, introduce supplemental concentrates.  Consider removing the weakest in calf heifers and grouping them with your weanling calves. This will remove competition and ensure they get access to supplemental heifer growing ration.

As herd size has increased dramatically on many farms over the past three years, there has been a significant constraint placed on labour, housing environment and milk parlour routines. It is essential that these issues are addressed if we are to create a “brand” centred around a sustainable food production system inside the farm gate.  The dairy farmer needs to optimise the opportunity to have a healthy herd which ultimately means replacement rates falling below 15% in a non-expansion status. There are excellent opportunities to optimise profitability of the dairy enterprise within the farm gate rather than a focus on changes required in the milk processing sector.

Many farms cannot afford an extra full time labour unit. Sharing a labour unit across 2 or 3 farms in close proximity can work successfully if strict ground rules are put in place.  This allows each farm to plan chores required when the extra help is available.

Housing environment needs to be addressed on many farms. Most building contractors are booked out this autumn as farmers have the required funding available for housing adaptation and expansion.  It is essential to get cubicle design, airflow, bedding environment and feed space correct for the herd.  European legislation will in future dictate, for example, 100 cubicles per 90 cows in the herd, sufficient feed space for all cows to access food simultaneously.  Will it be acceptable to strip graze kale and feed baled silage outdoors to our dry cows over the winter months?

Finally, there are great opportunities with milking parlour design and ancillary handling facilities to optimise the time you spend milking cows and the time spent by cows in the milking parlour. Technology today enables excellent data collection from cows, which can be relayed in message form to your phone.  However, there will always be a requirement for stock men to ensure herd welfare is optimised.  There is an essential requirement for better cow handling facilities, which ensure cow flow time and handling arrangements cause minimal stress to animals and optimise handling time.


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


Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan for the Farming Independent 29th August 2017.