Innovation and inspiration in Irish farming

The EU is making a major u-turn by abolishing milk quotas in 2015. Bruce Jobson visited Ireland to see how farmers are gearing up

The O'Grady family's heifer calves
The O'Grady family's heifer calves

The introduction of EU milk quotas in 1983 changed the face of dairy farming overnight. Farmers were restricted on the amount of milk their businesses were entitled to produce, and, as was often the case within the UK, the entitled production figure was reduced. The cut-backs that followed were introduced retrospectively and at the time of implementation, the UK was only 80% self-sufficient in milk production.

The Thatcher Government was seen by many producers to have acquiesced to Europe and had to all intents and purposes to have sold out our national dairy industry. Far from popular with dairy farmers, it also abolished the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) in 1994 despite 99.9% of producers voting to maintain its existence.

The MMB was a Government agency established in 1933 to control milk production and distribution within the UK. Importantly, it guaranteed farmers a minimum price. Since its abolition, dairy producers have been held over a milk price barrel. Since then, mayhem or Bedlam has ensured.

Almost 30 years on, the rule book is being ripped up and a free market now looms on the horizon. UK producers will have to consider whether the move is a step back in time or an opportunity to travel forward along the ‘milky way’. However, we are not alone; in an EU parallel world and other neighbouring countries face similar dilemmas.

Jim O’Grady started milk production in Ireland in 2002 and is now gearing up to increase production by a further 50% after the abolition of quotas. The family farms near Cooleeney, Thurles, and its 170 commercial Holstein herd averages approximately 7,500 litres at 3.8% fat and 3.4% protein.

Jim, his wife MaryJo O’Grady and his son Joe, optimise milk from grass as part of their highly successful herd grazing policy. The family is one of the country’s most efficient milk producers; in an environmental climate where milk is produced from an abundance of grass. Turning grass into milk, and into profit, is a national pastime. Efficiency of production is the mantra.

The impressive yields result from the herd being fed on only 1.08 tonnes of concentrates per cow. Milk base price is 39 euro-cents per litre, with the O’Grady’s achieving an August price of 41 cents. For every .1 point increase in fat and protein, above base, farmers receive .3 and .8 cents price increase, respectively. The O’Gradys’ spring calving herd produces almost 50% more milk than the current national average. Good quality grass utilization, sward quality and grassland management are essential, according to Jim.

He said: “We are maximizing our forage options across the board by producing top quality grass and grass silage. The animals are fed on 87% home-grown cereals and our stocking rate is 2.5 livestock units per hectare. The cows are utilizing approximately three tonnes of grass per annum.”

The O’Gradys’ herd continues to deliver impressive results and had milk production level been similar to the national average, the herd would require another 85 cows to fulfil milk quota. The increase in cow numbers would also necessitate greater levels of available forage, investment in larger buildings being constructed, additional cubicles and increased slurry storage. However, the O’Grady family aims to increase herd size to 250 cows and maintain current yield, once quotas are abolished in 2015. The herd has sufficient heifer replacements to increase numbers without purchasing additional animals, explains Jim: “We use AI Holstein bulls that offer strength and power and longevity, as well as increases in fat and protein percent. Our plan is to build a new cubicle shed for 240 milking cows, and heifer followers will be retained in the existing cubicle accommodation. We aim to extend the milking parlour and maintain current staff levels with myself, Joe, one full-time member of staff and a Sunday relief milker.”

The dairy herd is buffer fed and the ration includes locally sourced blends formulated by Keenan nutritionists. The O’Grady family also have beef cows and, as a customer of the mixer-wagon company since 1984, decided in 2010 to purchase a new Mech-Fiber 360 model, incorporating the PACE system.

This year, the herd has grazed over fields every 21 days until August, followed by a 30 grazing day rotation system until the herd was winter housed. The fields receive 27 units of nitrogen after each grazing.

Jim said: “Getting more milk from grass and forage leads to increases in on-farm profit. We want grass to remain in the cows for longer, and buffer feeding the herd slows down the rumen activity. The cows can make better utilization of the grass. Buffer feeding has proven beneficial as the herd receives a consistent diet, on a daily-basis, irrespective of the weather conditions. We do not get fluctuations in milk yields and milk solids remain consistent. The Mech-Fiber system is producing a short, even grass chop, and this is beneficial to rumen function.”

The farm grows 90 acres of spring barley and winter wheat, some of which is sold to Centenary Thurles Coop feed mill, Ballyduff, and to Glanbia at Fennor. Wheat straw is retained and incorporated into dry cow rations, lactating rations, rearing diets and beef cattle, which are all fed through the mixer wagon.

Straw is also used for bedding young calves. In total, the farm uses around 1,200 round bales, some of which is bought from local cereal growers, according Joe, 25. He said: “Straw, when correctly incorporated in the diet, is very good for herd health. It can also replace up to one tonne of more expensive silage per cow. We cut 110 acres of first cut silage, which is clamped, and 200 acres of grass is conserved in 700 bales of silage. We aim to ensile over 2,000 tonnes in total and use local contractors to make the silage.”

Jim started milk production with 96 cows and numbers have gradually increased to the current 170 cow level. Longevity is another important focus with cows expected to remain within the herd for four to six lactations. Cows are milked through a 20 / 40 herringbone parlour and the facility incorporates automatic cluster removal, milk meters, automated plant washer and backing gate. The herd is buffer fed at grass, depending on dry matter, sward cover and weather conditions. The herd makes optimum use of grass and this year cows were grazed outside in January on Westerwold Ryegrass.

Jim said: “The variety is considered ideal for planting immediately after autumn harvest in order to ensure resulting high milk yield production within three to six months of sowing.”

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