Dairy focus: Achieving a return on assets of 12.1% on leased ground

Shinagh dairy farm was established in 2011 by the four west Cork co-ops – Bandon, Barryroe, Drinagh and Lisavaird – in conjunction with Teagasc and Carbery.

The 78ha farm is leased by the company they formed from Shinagh Estates Ltd and is in its eighth year of a 15-year lease. All of the land is in one block and has a mixture of free-draining and heavy clay soils, which range from rolling to steep in nature.

Kevin Ahern, the farm manager, is the only full-time employee on the farm. He hires students from Clonakilty Agricultural College or Cork Institute of Technology for the springtime. He also employs locals part time for relief milking and casual work throughout the year.

Currently Kevin is milking 244 cows. 55 replacement heifer calves left the farm after weaning in mid-May for contract rearing, with another 57 grazed on the farm. In-calf heifers return on December 1, prior to calving.

In 2017, the herd averaged 397kg of milk solids per cow (4.54% fat and 3.79% protein), with 392kg of milk solids sold per cow and 1,183kg of milk solids sold per hectare farmed. The concentrate input per cow stood at approximately 300kg in 2017.

Recently, the farm played host to the Irish Grassland Association Dairy Summer Tour. To the delegates in attendance, Kevin explained: “At the moment, we are stocked at 3.2LU/ha, so we have 244 milking cows on the farm.”

Investments and facilities

As the farm was previously used to carry a beef enterprise, a large degree of investment was required to bring the block up to scratch to milk cows.

A 20-unit parlour was built in 2010/2011; a slatted shed was converted to cubicle housing, while reseeding and grazing infrastructure development was undertaken.

Kevin explained: “It was decided to convert this farm in 2009 and cows would start here in 2011. This was a beef farm, some of it was in tillage and more of it was leased out to neighbouring dairy farmers.

There was an old mass-stock unit and that was converted to cubicle housing. 75% of the farm was reseeded between 2009 and 2010.

“There were no roadways here, apart from the main tar roadway going through the farm, and there were old water facilities that would just supply water to drystock. There was a new water system put in here in late 2010 and the whole farm had to be fenced.”

Shinagh dairy farm investment:
  • Grass, water and roads: €121,000;
  • Parlour (includes feeding area and installation of three-phase power): €238,000;
  • Housing and machinery: €160,000;
  • Stock: €301,000;
  • Total: €820,000.

The cows

The original herd of 200 in-calf heifers comprised of 50% black and white, 25% Jersey cross and 25% Norwegian Red cross heifers.

A further 40 crossbred heifers were bought in 2011 as replacements for the following spring. Every heifer born on the farm since its establishment is crossbred. The only straight-bred animals on the farm are some of the original cows that calved for the first time in 2011. As it stands, the herd has an average EBI of €144.

Current breeding policy is that all non-Friesian cows are bred to a team of high-EBI, mostly genomically-proven, Friesian AI sires. The remaining straight-bred cows get Jersey AI straws. The objective is to produce high-EBI, crossbred replacement stock for the farm.

Fertility performance and managing calving

In the spring 2018 calving season, 92% of the 257 cows and heifers calved in the first six week and the calving interval was 368 days.

Mean calving date this year was February 18, with half of the herd calved in 17 days. All calving was completed in 13 weeks. The empty rate at the end of 2017 was 6.7%.

Kevin operates a 12 day on, two day off rota during the calving season. This starts on a Monday, with Kevin and a student working for 12 days. The relief help comes in on weekends to cover time off.

For the first three weeks of the calving season, he had someone on the farm 24 hours a day and operated an every third or fourth night calving shift.

For this service, Kevin pays a set nightly rate. This is not based on the hours worked. Night duties consist of feeding and tagging calves and moving newborns to calf houses.

Kevin runs two separate calf sheds, the H shed and the B shed. All heifer calves, which are being kept as herd replacements, enter the H shed. All other calves are put into the B shed. These are both bull calves and surplus heifer calves.

Breeding

The breeding season started at the end of March when the herd was body condition scored. Cows of BCS <2.75 and cows calving after April 1 are put on once-a-day (OAD) milking and remain on OAD until after they are bred.

Kevin continues to monitor condition score, and in total 18 cows were milked OAD until they were bred. Two people work in the parlour during the first three weeks of the breeding season to keep tail paint topped up and to draft cows for AI.

“We put a huge effort into heat detection. The first couple of years we were doing pre-breeding heat detection and we’ve hit the mid-to-high 90% three week submission rate for the last number of years.

“The last couple of years we haven’t completed pre-breeding heat detection. We have grown more confident that the herd is fertile,” Kevin explained.

For the second three weeks, Kevin introduces three vasectomised bulls to assist with heat detection. He heat checks the cows for 20 minutes, five times a day, for the first six weeks of the breeding season.

For the remaining six weeks, he rotates five stock bulls with the herd. Replacements were bred on the contract rearer’s farm with synchronisation. After that, they are run with stock bulls for six weeks.

The three week submission rate was 93% of cows this year. Over an 11-day period, 80% of the maiden heifers were artificially inseminated. In previous years, this figure was over 90%.

Grassland management

Kevin has been measuring grass growth rates on the farm since the conversion took place. 90% of the farm is at index 3 for phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) and at optimum pH.

“Within the last seven years, we have nearly 1,000t of lime spread on the farm; K is not restricted, and we’re targeting P wherever we have to. We’re soil testing every two years.”

Since the dairy herd was established, grass growth per hectare has also increased – moving from 12t/ha up to 17t/ha.

When asked how he’s managed to grow more grass, Kevin noted: “We’re targeting the P and K. We have driven up stocking rate and we’re grazing to proper residuals at all times.”

Winter feed

Kevin ran out of silage in 2013 and vowed never to do so again. This spring he had a small surplus when cows eventually went out to grass full time on April 10.

Silage is bought standing each year. Normally the equivalent of approximately 20% of the herd’s winter feed requirements are bought in. In 2017, two cuts of silage off 35ac were purchased.

This extra silage was bought to increase the reserve of silage on the farm. It’s estimated that 300kg of silage dry matter per cow was purchased off-farm and fed to the herd in 2017. As surpluses arise on the grazing area, they are also cut for bales.

Like many farmers throughout the country, Shinagh was also hit by this summer’s drought. To bridge the feed gap, Kevin offered the cows 6kg/day of a three-way dairy blend, 4kg/day of palm kernel and 2kg/day of baled silage.

As all of the second-cut silage on the home block was grazed, 70ac of ground – in two separate blocks – was leased for second cut. It’s estimated that this silage will cost the farm 16-18c/kg of dry matter, but it will provide the farm with 100% of its silage requirement.

Financial performance

Adjusted to a 30c/L milk price, Shinagh dairy farm produced a gross output of €6,035/ha in 2017, total costs stood at €4,856/ha and farm net margin came to €1,179/ha.

Including interest, single farm payment and total farm profit, the return on assets in 2017 for Shinagh dairy farm stood at 12.1%. At Shinagh, a total of €820,000 was invested in livestock and the construction of the new milking parlour and grazing infrastructure.