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15th December, 2017

SUSTAINABLE MILK PRODUCTION IN GRASS BASED SYSTEMS

STOCK BULLS should now be “on holiday” from the dairy herd for grass based milk production systems.  However, many farmers contend that there will be a market for “late calvers” next year with the ending of the milk quota regime.  Therefore, many farmers are delaying their end of season pregnancy scan this year.

 

I am currently on holiday in the west of Ireland where I took the opportunity to cycle the Greenway established as a cycling/walking path on a previous railway track between Westport and Achill, County Mayo.  The farming community in this region have to be commended for facilitating this project.

 

In reality, the farming community in this region have been left with very little choice.  There are no dairy herds with the only “black and white” animals being blackface mountain sheep.  The suckler herds are disappearing as farmers face the reality that the production of weanlings is unsustainable.

 

Is it too late for a wake-up call?  A vibrant tourist industry in this beautiful part of rural Ireland needs a sustainable agricultural industry interwoven with the needs of the tourist to experience a unique part of a “living” heritage.

 

Back with our dairy herds, which will also see major changes post quota, a wake-up call is required.  Farmers are either “being driven” or “driving” to expand in an extreme form of monoculture system.  Expansion in dairying entails financial costs of upward of €3,000 per cow space.  There are also the requirements of skilled stockmen, which are often overlooked, farm fragmentation and land availability continue to place restrictions on expansion of the dairy herd.  The age profile of the dairy farmer and age at succession continue to place restrictions on both expansion and uptake of new technologies.

 

There are opportunities for partnerships and the rearing of replacements for the dairy herd by dry stock farmers to enable expansion of the dairy herd on a grazing platform close to the dairy parlour.  The term “close” should be scrutinised.  With expansion on many of these large dairy units, cows are being forced to walk in excess of 1.5 kilometres to parts of the grazing platform.  This in turn will increase welfare issues as the incidence of locomotion problems increase.

 

There has been an increase in the use of “zero grazing” to offset the walking distance required to either travel to parts of the grazing platform, farm fragmentation or utilisation of grass where grazing conditions are not permitable.  There are the extra capital costs of machinery on labour requirement to facilitate this practice.  A good stockman will not necessarily be a good machinery operator.

 

Zero grazing also increases the risk of animal health issues such as stomach fluke and neospora.  With zero grazing, the cow is afforded less opportunity to sort the food for consumption normally presented in a grazing scenario.  Both stomach fluke and neospora have become significant issues in herd health management of an expanding dairy herd.

 

In the UK, neospora is now the number one cause of pregnancy loss in the dairy herd.  The intermediate host for this disease is either the dog or fox.  The canine animal gains access to the afterbirth which in turn results in the shedding of neospora in the faeces.  Contamination of the grass or food fed to cows enables infection of cows with neospora.  Neospora will in turn traverse to the pregnancy causing death.  This will either result in an abortion storm or mummification of pregnancies.

 

The key to preventing this disease is biosecurity in terms of dogs accessing grazing areas, feed preparation or consumption spaces.  It is also essential that you safely dispose every afterbirth after calving.  If dogs are walked on your land it is essential that the owners remove any dog faeces and that you make them aware of the potential risk to your business.

 

I recently met a dairy farmer in County Limerick who informed me that a high proportion of his in-calf heifers which were scanned pregnant subsequently aborted.  He feared brucellosis and didn’t want to talk to neighbours about the event.  Further investigation with his vet revealed neospora as the cause of abortion.  It transpired that a neighbour had dogs which were both walked as a routine on the farmer’s lands and the dog faeces from the kennels were disposed on the farmer’s grazing platform.  The farmer’s in-calf heifers were the only group of animals from his herd which had access to this grazing area.

 

Expansion in the dairy herd will bring its’ own challenges.  There has been a significant increase in emphasis on automation for dairy herd management.  Areas of interest include heat detection, body temperature measurement, health monitoring devices, separation of cows for AI, hoof paring.  However, we cannot allow the Irish dairy industry go down the same road of commodity driven food production as seen in other countries.  Yes, we have a significant advantage in use of grazed grass.  However, do not let scale of our dairy business create stresses in both cows and dairy operation managers seen elsewhere.  We currently have a “green” food production image, which cannot be allowed to disappear like the suckler cow on the Greenway in Mayo.

 

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