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12th December, 2018

THE LEAVING CERT CHALLENGE!

The impact of the drought still pertains on many dairy farms in the South East and Midlands. The contrasts in challenges experienced by farmers in different parts of the country are phenomenal. Dairy farmers in the North and West coast have seen an excellent recovery with land set aside for second and third cuts of silage.

The scenario is radically different on farms in the South and East. You can sense the anxiety among farmers as you conduct an assessment of reproductive performance in their herd. An analogy can be made to the impact of leaving cert results received by families this week. Tough decisions have to be made on the basis of pregnancy data for each cow harvested in the herd. Many cows will have their passports stamped with a “Leaving Cert”.

The significant difference this year is the timing and scale of “leaving cert”culls to be enacted. Normally, this would be a time of year where cows produce milk cost efficiently from grazed grass. Cows for culling would normally leave the farm at the end of their lactation in November and December.

Many farmers have postponed their annual holidays. The farm relief services have noted significant cancellations in bookings for holiday relief staff. Cow diets are akin to winter diets. Farmers are faced with many challenges meeting the needs of cows on a day to day basis and planning future needs of the herd for the winter months.

On a positive note, the extra costs associated with dietary manipulation have left herds in a healthier state. Milk production is still profitable. Body condition scores for this stage of the production cycle are excellent where dietary supplementation was on the basis of milk production potential. Some farms have continued to feed up to 8kg of an 18% protein dairy ration.

Pregnancy rates based on the first nine weeks of the breeding season for herds starting breeding in the last two weeks of April reveal figures ranging from 55% to 95%. Factors associated with this range include calving spread in the spring, poor dry cow/fresh cow transitions and inadequate dietary supplementation during the summer months. Many farmers now accept that dietary supplementation with concentrates will be an integral part of grass based milk production systems. Inventories of conserved silage will have to increase to address the “rainy day” scenario.

There is too much stress associated with having a hungry herd of cows. It is totally unacceptable for some commentators to suggest that cows can be allowed to loose BCS at this time of the production cycle. Cows need to gain BCS now in preparation for herd survivability next year.

Farmers faced with dietary restrictions have harsh decisions to make now. The passport stamp for cows to get a “leaving cert” will not simply be on a basis of being not pregnant. Normally, the month of August would be a quiet month for pregnancy scanning of cows using the SmartScan Experience.

Some farmers have to reduce their milking cow herd between 25 and 35%. There is a reality that there is no market for an in-calf heifer with current prices ranging from €600 to €800. At these prices, farmers will cull more of their dairy cows.

Cows getting a “leaving cert” stamp include cows that are empty, cows pregnant but calving after the end of March, older cows carrying twins, cows carrying dairy male calves, cows pregnant with high SCC and 3-teater pregnant cows.

Difficult decisions have to be made now in culling cows which would be retained in the herd in normal years. This year is a wake-up call for many dairy farms. Sustainability of the farm business will be a key word in future decisions on farm expansion. Skilled labour will continue to be a scarce limiting resource restricting expansion.

Costs of milk production have increased significantly this year. Milk markets have strengthened which should result in an improved farm gate milk price. Consult your nutritionist on how best to use supplemental concentrates to enable the harvest of 2nd or 3rd cut silage and to extend the grazing system season into the back end of the year.

Farmers should not panic now with “leaving cert” stamps on pregnant cows with a profitable future in the herd albeit they calve in April 2019. Meal merchants have introduced payment plans which enable farmers access to vital feeds to optimally manage their herds in the critical preparatory period for dry cow transition.

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted on www.reprodoc.ie

Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan for the Farming Independent for the 14th of August.