Breeding an ‘invisible dairy cow’ to make the most of grass on a heavy farm

Sean O’Riordan returned home to take over the family’s dairy farm in Kiskeam, Co. Cork in 2001 and since then he has made major changes to the business.

Last week, he opened the gates of his farm to almost 400 farmers as part of the Irish Grassland Association’s Dairy Summer Tour.

O’Riordan’s farm is difficult to say the least, as it consists of heavy clay soils which are exposed to around 2m of rainfall on an annual basis.

But despite these difficulties, O’Riordan told the crowds in attendance that grass and breeding are to the fore of his decision making.

Over the past 10 years, the Cork-based farmer has increased cow numbers by 25%, while also draining some of the heavier paddocks on the 40 hectare milking platform.

Sean O'Riordan speaking at the Irish Grassland Association's dairy Summer Tour
Sean O’Riordan speaking at the Irish Grassland Association’s dairy Summer Tour

In total, O’Riordan farms 90 hectares and he said that between 30-40% of the land he farms is very difficult and is only suitable for summer grazing.

And due to the type of farm and its location, he said that the farm can be quite badly affected during a wet year and this was particularly the case in 2012-2013.

During the summer of 2012, he said that the cows were at grass by day for only 210 days and 140 days by night.

Cow type and breeding policy

O’Riordan explained that when he first took over the herd in 2001, it consisted mostly of British Friesian cows.

But in a bid to breed a cow that would last in his grass-based system, he started using Jersey genetics.

He explained that his ideal cow should be invisible, requiring very little veterinary attention, produce good milk solids, be highly fertile and be able to maintain her body condition score.

Video: Take a closer look at Sean O’Riordan’s cows

Last year, the average cow on the farm produced 408kg of milk solids at an annual average of 4.22% fat and 3.66% protein and he said that the introduction of Jersey genetics has helped increase the amount of solids sold.

At present, he said that approximately 66% of the cows in the herd are Holstein Friesian and the remaining 33% are crossbred.

But, he said the percentage of crossbred cows is likely to increase in the coming years as six out of the eight bulls used for this year’s breeding season had Jersey genes.

The Cork-based farmer said that he hopes that the increased use of Jersey genetics will allow him to bred a cow capable of giving 450kg of milk solids on an annual basis.

Making drained land pay

Teagasc’s Pat Touhy also spoke at the farm walk and he explained how draining one of the paddocks on the milking platform benefited Sean O’Riordan’s dairy enterprise.

The Teagasc Research Officer said that the farm first joined the Teagasc Heavy Soils Programme in 2012.

Every soil has its own unique features. Draining will be a difficult challenge until you know what the soil is actually like.

And as a result, Touhy said that the soil type on the farm had to be identified before any drainage work could be completed.

He said that the soil on O’Riordan’s farm had a high clay content with a shale bedrock and to drain one of the paddocks, the decision was made to install 36 inch deep drains at a distance of 15m apart.

What the drained paddock looks like now.
What the drained paddock looks like now.

The soil between each drain was the ripped at right angles to the drains using a single legged ripped to try and break up the soil structure to allow the excess surface water to flow into the drains, he said.

Since the drainage work was completed, Touhy said that the grass grown on the drained paddock has increased by 4.45t (+3.5t extra utilised), which is worth an extra €700 per hectare compared to the paddock prior to draining.

And given this increase in grass growth, the €3,420 per hectare spent on drainage should be recovered within five years, he said.

A neighbouring undrained paddock on O'Riordan's farm
A neighbouring paddock which has yet to drained on O’Riordan’s farm showing the difference between drained and non-drained land.

O’Riordan added that the drained paddock is now one of the driest paddocks on the farm and he is now able to drive on the paddock to spread slurry during the spring time, something which he was not able to do before.

O'Riordan drainage

Factors affecting the cost of drainage:
  • The suitability of existing open drains as outfalls for the proposed field drains
  • The type of drainage system, particularly if a shallow drainage system was required
  • The intensity of the field drainage required
  • The cost and time taken by the contractor
  • The cost of materials, particularly stone aggregate

‘Determined to grow grass’

O’Riordan also outlined his plans for the future and he hopes to eventually increase the number of cows to 120, but it will all depend on the amount of grass grown on the grazing block.

The plan is increase cow numbers in tandem with growing more grass.

He said that he plans on reaching 120 cows within the next four years, but this target rests on the farms ability to grow 12.5t of grass per hectare.

O’Riordan also discussed the current level of grass production on the farm and last year the farm averaged 10.5t of grass per hectare.

“While we can grow rushes, we are determined to grow grass,” he said.

He also stressed the importance of measuring grass as it is key to getting the most from his cows and in 2015, the average cow in the herd ate just 680kg of concentrate.

Farm Finances

O'Riordans financial performace

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