Dairy focus: Making the transition to spring milk in Co. Limerick

Farming in Creggane, Charleville, Co. Limerick, the Quain family has been milking cows on the Cork/Limerick border for generations.

Falling within the Co. Limerick side of the county bounds, the farm is now in the stewardship of Gerald and Colm Quain – a father-and-son team.

Over a period of 10-14 years, the family has expanded cow numbers gradually – moving from 80 to the current herd of 140 cows today. This expansion occurred at a steady pace to avoid having a “massive amount of debt to repay”.

Along with the dairy operation, the Quains also keep 70-80 calves each year. These animals are finished as steers and heifers.

Making the switch

After operating a split-calving system for generations, the spring of 2017 will bring about a fundamental change to the business, which overlooks the Dairygold plant in Mallow, Co. Cork.

Next spring, the Quains’ 140 cows will all calve from the end of January on. This comes as the family moves away from liquid milk production – a system they have operated for years.

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AgriLand visited the family’s farm to see why they are making the move away from liquid milk and focusing solely on ‘spring’ or manufacturing milk production.

Gerald Quain explained: “We’d have 240ac of owned land and rent about 50ac for silage and 20ac for grazing.

We are milking a herd of 140 British Friesian cows. We’ve been milking British Friesians all along, as the land around here is heavy. We never went down the Holstein route, as they are too big.

On making the switch to a 100% spring-calving herd, he said: “The coming year will be our first year calving in the spring only. We had been supplying winter milk for generations, but the contract became unviable.

“We were on a bonus of 15c/L on top of the manufacturing milk price. When Kerry got out of liquid milk, it gave the contract to Glanbia. The resulting Glanbia contract was for five years.

“After five years, Glanbia pulled the pin and, effectively, we had no contract. Last year, we were told that the contract was over. However, we were hoping that another contract would be made available from other liquid processors.

“We did get something. We got a top-up of 7c/L for 40% of what we produce and that was a hiding to nowhere. Anything less than 15c/L wasn’t going to work.

“There are very few tillage farmers in this area and we had to buy in sugar beef from west Cork; simply, it wasn’t a runner.”

Quain continued: “This coming year will be an eye opener. It will be the first year that we will have no cows calving over the winter.

“We let the winter-calving cows run on last year and we got them in-calf alongside the spring herd. It was one way of avoiding having to see cows and we just rolled them on.”

Breeding and genetics

British Friesian AI is used to breed replacements on the farm; approximately 60-70% of the milking herd is inseminated to such genetics on an annual basis.

An Angus stock bull is used to mop-up any of the remaining cows; he’s introduced to the milking herd once all of the heifers have been mated.

Usually, about 40% of the cows calve down to the Angus bull and we keep nearly all of the calves. The only thing we buy in is a stock bull – every couple of years – and it’s pretty much a closed herd.

An AI technician is used to carry out the breeding on the farm. As to why this method is used, he said: “In the spring time, we would be fairly busy and there’s no point in trying to over do it.

“The AI technician is good. He calls to us two months in advance and this allows us to pick the bulls we want. We usually go for a good, even cow. We wouldn’t be chasing yield; but we’d look for a cow with decent protein and butterfat.

“This year, most of the cows are in calf to short-gestation Friesian bulls. It keeps the calf that bit smaller and, when were not selling, we don’t need a big calf.

“We might sell 10-15 late calves on an annual basis – that’s all we would ever sell. It’s all about keeping the cow in milk and producing a healthy calf.”

Knowing your fields

Given the land type, the farm relies heavily on silage reserves to see the cows through the protracted winter. A quality supply of forage is also required when conditions become too difficult to graze.

90% of the silage made on farm, Quain explained, would be pit silage.

“We made a few extra surplus bales this year because the grass was there; we’d have more bales than we normally would.

“Normally, we would only take one main cut within the first two weeks of June; we’re very dependent on the weather. If we got two days of rain down here, we probably wouldn’t be able to cut for a week.

It’s a case of just knowing your fields and managing there after.

The 2017 grazing year

He continued: “We would have a longer winter than most other places; it’s March before the cows are turned out to grass. The odd time, they might be out if February – if numbers were small.

“If a large number of cows had calved, we wouldn’t dream of letting them out and they would never be out at night until April.

On this year’s grazing performance, he said: “2017 was a year that suited us. The rain came and went, as did the dry weather. Grazing conditions were good until August 20 and then the place started to get wet.

“September was poor; October was a disaster. As it stands, cows are out by day and in by night; this has been going on for the past four weeks.

“It can be difficult down here because the land varies so much. In wet times, we try to balance grazing the drier paddocks on the farm until the conditions allow for the cows to enter the heavier paddocks.

Farming runs in cycles and there’s never two years the same. Either the weather dictates or the price dictates.

“If you get good weather and good prices it’s a real bonus. If you get good weather and poor prices, you can handle it. But if you get poor weather and a low price, you are under pressure.”

Fixed milk price scheme

Along with farming alongside his son, Quain is also the chairperson of the ICMSA’s Dairy Committee. Of late, Aurivo’s fixed milk price scheme has been to the fore.

On this, he said: “I am quite impressed with Aurivo’s 33.5c/L fixed milk price scheme for the simple reason that it’s seen as one of the smaller co-ops.

“It’s quite an unusual situation, as the smaller co-ops tend to be leading up the price more often than not. Now, they are also leading up the fixed milk price contracts.

Aurivo’s offer is very commendable and it’s a well-ran and efficient operation. It’s offer is 2c/L above some of the larger co-ops down south – like Glanbia, Kerry and Dairygold.

“Fixed milk price contracts definitely have a function going forward when it comes to managing milk-price volatility. I think they are a safeguard for farmers who have a proportion of their milk put away at a guaranteed price.”

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