Milk yields averaged 7,221 litres/cow on James King’s farm last year, equating to a 3% drop on 2019 levels.

At the same time, the amount of concentrate fed to each cow on the Ballymena farm dropped by over 7% and stood at 2.48t. It means that concentrate feed rate has improved from 0.36kg/litre in 2019, to 0.34kg/l last year.

Levels of feed efficiency improved steadily throughout 2020 on the King farm. Feed rates were initially higher than planned between January and March as there were concerns of a potential fodder shortage on the farm.

After that, improved utilisation of grazed grass during spring and summer and the ability to split the herd into two feeding groups over the winter have allowed for savings in meal bills.

For example, the average milk produced from forage for the herd from June to September 2020 was estimated to be maintenance (M) plus 12.7 l/cow/day, compared to M plus 10.9 l/cow/day for the same period the previous year.

Dairylink adviser Aidan Cushnahan calculates that if feed rates had been maintained at 2019 levels during that time, an extra 17t of concentrate would have had to be purchased, costing around £4,100. Similarly, splitting the herd into two winter feeding groups saved seven tonnes of blend.

These steps have, in turn, resulted in further improvements in feed efficiency with the latest rolling average feed rate to the end of March 2021 sitting at 0.32kg/l.

The margin over concentrate (MOC) benchmark, which relates to milk cheque minus meal bill, stood at £1,343/cow during 2020. The improvement in feed efficiency meant that MOC was similar year on year, despite the lower average milk yield last year.

Herd fertility

James is focusing on making improvements to herd fertility so that feed efficiency will continue to move in the right direction.

Recent analysis of fertility data by Aidan Cushnahan found average days to first service to be 75 days and average submission rate was 60% (based on a 42-day voluntary waiting period).

While this performance is similar to average figures from CAFRE benchmarking, the average conception rate across all services of 45% has room for improvement.

James has been scanning the 200-cow herd regularly since breeding started last December. As well as pregnancy diagnosis, the scanner identifies problem cows early on and gives recommended treatments.

James is also implementing a revised animal health plan, which includes the use of vaccinations to prevent infectious diseases and subsequent fertility issues in cows. This is particularly important for the King herd as all replacement stock are bought in each year, so there is a heightened risk of bringing in a health problem.

Finally, James has started tail-painting cows to help with heat detection. All eligible cows are red. Cows that are served but are not in-calf are orange and blue chalk is used on cows that are scanned in-calf.

Farm expenses

While feed efficiency improved in 2020, dairy feed costs remained the same in both years as the cost of purchased concentrate increased last year.

A reduction in fertiliser usage led to a decrease in forage costs, while an increased use of vaccinations in 2020 led to a slight increase in vet costs. However, it is anticipated that the benefits gained from the vaccination programme will outweigh the costs associated with buying the vaccines.

Machinery running/contractor costs increased in 2020 because James made more use of a contractor when reseeding part of the farm during the summer.

Adviser comment: Staying on target

James King is focused on improving milk yields in terms of volume and solids.

Revised targets for the herd have been set, which include an average yield of 7,600 litres at 4.06% butterfat and 3.35% protein. This equates to 580kg of milk solids.

The new target for concentrate feed rate is 0.32kg/l. As outlined earlier, the aim is to improve herd fertility further, so that cows will have a better milk yield response to concentrate feeding.

At a milk yield of 7,600 litres, the target feed rate works out at 2.43t of concentrates.

Weekly round-up

  • Several Dairylink Ireland farmers have all cows out at grass by day and night.
  • Cold temperatures are holding grass growth back, with rates of 10kg/ha/day to 50kg/ha/day recorded on programme farms this week.
  • Dry conditions are allowing Dairylink farmers to achieve excellent residual covers and to carry out field work, such as drainage.