Since joining the Dairylink programme in 2019, Omagh farmer Richard Marshall has increased cow numbers, as well as milk and solids yield per cow.
In expanding herds, bought-in concentrate feed usage invariably goes up, and as can be seen from Table 1, it is no different on the Marshall farm.
However, what makes the farm stand out is that the higher output of milk is still being produced efficiently from the extra feed, and, as a result, margin over concentrate is up significantly.
Developing the issue on a webinar now available to view on www.ifj.ie/dairylink CAFRE Dairylink advisers point out that having cows that are fed, bred and managed together allows farmers in both spring and autumn systems to fully exploit the potential of the herd.
“If cows are calving together you have better utilisation of concentrates. In a spread calving you have cows being over-supplied and cows being under-supplied,” maintains Dairylink adviser Jane Sayers.
This autumn, Richard has 60 cows to calve in September, followed by 30 in October, with all 150 cows and heifers to be calved by the end of the year.
“Tightening our calving pattern – we got encouragement to do it, and we are now seeing the benefits in our business. It has made a big difference on our farm over the last couple of years. It also leaves calf rearing a lot easier. Replacement heifers are all born by the second week of October,” Richard says.
With cows settled in calf, and the majority of the herd past peak production, the Marshalls can go to grass early in the spring if conditions are favourable. Richard has a cow that is easily managed, and with less activity in the yard he has time over the summer months to get on with other work, or to get a break away from the farm.
But there are also a number of different fundamentals that form the basis for the excellent performance.
Underlying everything is soil fertility. Following soil sampling across the farm at the start of the programme, a nutrient management plan was developed for each field. Initially, one-third of the land block was below a target pH of 6.2. Since then, Richard has focused on improving soil pH, with an average across all fields now at 6.3.
The other main soil fertility issue was potassium (K), with 40% of the land area deficient and below an Index of 2-. Deficiencies in potash are being addressed through strategic application of slurry and in some cases Muriate of Potash is being spread on targeted fields this autumn.
Correcting soil fertility means fertiliser and slurry is used more efficiently and, ultimately, more grass is grown.
But there is little point growing more grass if it cannot be utilised effectively. While Richard had three main lanes running through the farm, he has added some extra drinkers and access points to paddocks to allow grazing at the shoulders of the season, and especially in the spring.
“Infrastructure is key to the whole thing. Our springtime can be a challenge. If you can get them out a week or 10 days earlier, it makes a big difference,” he says. In April to June 2020, he produced four litres more per cow per day from grass than in the previous year.
At present, both stale cows and far off dry cows are out grazing. Richard normally keeps fresh calvers inside, but with favourable ground and weather conditions, these cows are currently at grass during the day, and on a TMR at night.
Grass growth is measured weekly.
With the majority of milk produced during the winter months, silage quality is key. The Marshalls operate a three-cut system, aiming to make silage with a target dry matter of 25% to 30%, a metabolisable energy value above 11.5MJ and an intake value above 100.
When fully housed, milking cows are offered a TMR with 6kg to 8kg of concentrate, and are then fed to yield in the parlour. Fresh calvers are gradually built up in the parlour over a two- to three-week period.
The remaining fundamental supporting performance on the farm is breeding.
When it comes to selecting sires, the criteria used by Dairylink farmers across either the UK PLI system or Irish EBI is to pick bulls that are positive for milk, and with a particular focus on improving fat and protein percentages, and fertility index.
The stock coming through will add to yield of milk solids on the farm.
Ultimately, while Richard has put over 1,000 litres per cow on to milk yield in the last couple of years, he is comfortable with current performance, and does not want to push for even higher yields by keeping cows inside more.
His main challenge will be to replicate his system year on year, and maintain that tight autumn-calving profile.
“It is all down to attention to detail,” maintains Jane Sayers.