Dairy advice: Taking stock and gearing up for 2018

2017 is drawing to a close and – for spring-calving herds – the majority of cows are now dried off.

We use selective dry cow therapy when drying off and only the cows that have a somatic cell count (SCC) of below 100,000 cells/ml during this lactation receive sealers only.

Cows that have a SCC above this threshold, or have had mastitis at any time this year, get dry cow tubes and sealers.

Drying off the herd is a time-consuming job – if done correctly. If hygiene and cleanliness are not prioritised at dry off, we are increasing the risk of intra-mammary infection.

Selective dry cow therapy means we need to be extra vigilant on cleanliness at dry off, as there is no back-up antibiotic to clean up any mess we make.

To identify high and low SCC cows, we go through milk recording results for 2017. These results show up a high number of cows that have low SCC and excellent fat and protein percentages; cows that have worked away under the radar.

teat sealing instead of antibiotic use

It’s easier to pick out the five worst cows than the five best ones, as the ‘best’ cows are those that we take no notice of – we never have to. They are never lame, have no mastitis problems and go in calf early.

Breeding decisions

In January, we will go through the EBI active bull list and select sires for 2018. I spent a bit of time in early December going through our AI lists and calving details for the past number of years to match each female to the correct sire.

A lot of farmers in the south seem to take the ICBF (Irish Cattle Breeding Federation) for granted and the excellent information produced from data fed into the database during calving and lactation. In the North, we have no such organisation and it’s up to ourselves to keep track of breeding and health.


The EBI update in spring 2017 dramatically changed a lot of bulls’ EBI figures; particularly genomic bulls. This undoubtedly had a negative effect on peoples’ perception of genomics.

I think some people are unfairly discrediting the ICBF as a whole, rather than just the genomics element of it. The wealth of information created by this database for farmers is invaluable. A lot of us in the North would love to be able to avail of the database and we can only look on with envy.

In 2018, we will select daughter-proven and genomic bulls to spread the risk. Maiden heifers will be mated to proven bulls only.

Grass performance

This year was excellent for grass growth on our farm – until August. From mid-August through to the end of October, we grew half of what we normally would.

During September, we usually average 50-60kg/ha/day of growth. However, we only averaged around 27kg/ha/day.

This meant introducing a higher level of supplement to maintain grass in the diet until early November, as we grew 1.5t/ha less in the August-to-November period than we would in any other year.

The wet weather conditions forced early housing and we had to leave a high AFC (average farm cover) on the farm.


We couldn’t get to it without causing a lot of damage to the soil; creating compaction in a heavy rainfall area is disastrous to grass tonnage grown and utilisation.

On AgriNet, it’s easy to calculate grass tonnage grown by selecting the ‘Best Paddocks’ tab. If there are any paddocks with extremely low or high tonnes, go to ‘Paddock Cards’ and have a look through those paddocks.

In this tab, it shows all measurements and average growth rates and it’s an excellent way to find any errors.

I went through a paddock that had unusually high tonnage grown and found that I hadn’t put in a cutting date for first-cut silage and, as a result, the figures were distorted.

Once you have identified the lowest performing paddocks, look into why they are performing so poorly. Is it grass species or soil fertility, or both?

It can also be from paddocks that were reseeded late in the summer and were out for a prolonged period of time.

From next year on, any reseeding we do will be done before the end of June; any later and the paddock is out for too long, which elevates the stocking rate on the remaining platform.

It is also very worthwhile to look at your top five performing paddocks and compare them to the top five performing paddocks in 2016. This will allow you to see have last year’s top paddocks dropped in production.

This is common due to a reduction in soil fertility, following a high nutrient off-take by a high tonnage grown.


Maintaining pH, phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) on these high-performing paddocks, as well as increasing soil fertility in poor-performing paddocks, is crucial to increase the overall quantity of grass grown.

Soil sampling

Soil sampling is the best way to work off all the chocolate and beer you will eat and drink over Christmas.

As slurry can be spread from mid-January in the south, it’s best to get soil sampling as early as possible in January.

Soil sampling tips:
  • Sample deficient areas of paddocks;
  • Stay clear of paddock entrances, water troughs and lying areas, as these will be nutrient rich and distort figures;
  • Soil should be sampled every two years (every three years for calcium/pH) to identify if your P and K applications are sufficient.

The Teagasc figures on poor soil fertility illustrate the huge potential we have to increase the tonnage of grass grown and, in turn, reduce the costs of production.

As the year draws to close, have a great Christmas with your families and I hope you have a prosperous New Year.