Dairy focus: Expecting 120 cows to calve in 21 days in Co. Laois

The Ging family has been farming in Straboe, Co. Laois, for generations. Now under the stewardship of Bernard Ging, and his wife Ciara, the farm is home to a thriving dairy business.

However, the Laois-based holding wasn’t always associated with dairy farming. On this, Bernard said: “We were beef and sheep farming up to 2011 and we got into dairying in 2012.

“The lack of real profitability in beef – and the fact that we were leasing a lot of ground – made it difficult to make a real go of it.

It was either get a job or go dairy farming. I always wanted to farm full-time, so I said I’d go down the dairy route.

The route into dairy farming

Last year, Bernard milked a herd of 150 high-EBI Holstein Friesian cows. This spring, he’s planning to milk 185 cows and 200 in the spring of 2019. Previously, the system was home to a herd of 140 suckler cows and almost 300 ewes.

Bernard’s route into dairy farming was quite unusual; he began with the purchase of 80 “older” cows in 2011. From an initial outlay of €70,000, this herd went on to supply milk under a new entrant’s quota of 40,000 gallons for two years.

“The first batch of cows were a way of getting started. There’s upsides and downsides, the cows walked into the parlour and knew what they were doing when I didn’t. It worked out well and they turned into money as beef cows.”

However, over more recent times, the policy of bringing cows into the herd has changed.

“We moved to buying top-quality heifers or freshly-calved heifers. Over the last two years, it’s just our own heifers coming through to the herd,” he added.

The heifers coming into the herd this year have an average EBI of €139, while the 2017-born heifers have an EBI of €145. These figures place both groups well above the national average.

After making the switch from beef to dairying, Bernard has some very good advice to offer farmers who may be considering swapping allegiances.

It’s the cost of getting in that lads really need to understand. If you are starting from near enough scratch, you’re talking about an investment of nearly €5,000/cow; that’s especially the case when you go over 2.5 cows per hectare.

“Once you start to push on production and aim to grow teens of tonnes of grass, you have to have the facilities. You need somewhere for cows to stand off.”

A busy spring ahead

As mentioned, Bernard plans to calve 185 cows this spring. 120 of these cows (65% of the herd) are expected to calve within the first three weeks of calving, which commences in the first week of February.

“It will be busy, but I’ve a full-time labour unit and a student for the months of February, March and April.

“There’s a world of difference between calving suckler and dairy cows. Out of 155 cows last year, we assisted four; I assisted three and the vet was called for one.”

As soon as the calves are born, they’re snatched from the cows and a fed 4L of colostrum.

“Unlike the sucklers, you’re not asking yourself has the calf sucked or not or is the cow mothering the calf correctly?”

To ease some of the pressure associated with calving a large herd of cows over a short space of time, Bernard operates two milking herds during the early part of the year.

“We have a twice-a-day herd, which consists of cows that are all going into the tank. The other batch of cows are milked once-a-day and there would be less than 20 cows in that group. They’re the fresh calvers, the cows treated with antibiotics and any troublesome cows.”

The twice-a-day herd is milked first thing in the morning, while the once-a-day herd is milked once calves have been fed.

A focus on grass

Bernard aims to maximise the proportion of grass utilised in his cows’ diets. Cows are turned out to graze on the 130ac milking platform as soon as possible following calving.

“Previously, we weren’t focused enough on growing grass. Even though we were trying with the beef, we were only scratching the surface on grass. Now, grass is driving on big time and it’s easier to manage at higher stocking rates.

“We are now feeding a lot more stock on the same ground. We’ve focused on soil fertility, the pH has increased and we’re getting a huge response from reseeding.

“We’re operating 36-hour grazing blocks and we try to give them fresh grass after every grazing; that’s a great help for cow flow in the parlour. When they know they are getting out to fresh grass, they’re keen to get in and get out again.”

Bernard is currently in the final steps of completing a cubicle shed on his farm. This facility will allow him to operate on-off grazing when grazing conditions deteriorate.

“We’ll try to keep cows out at grass as much as we can. We built the shed this year and I don’t want to get lazy and leave them in.”

Production

Of the 185 cows due to calve this spring, 35% of the herd are heifers. This is going to pull production back slightly when compared to a herd with a more mature profile.

Last year, Bernard supplied 470kg of milk solids per cow to the creamery. As the herd matures, he hopes that will increase to 500kg from a concentrate input of 700-800kg.

“Approximately 70-75% of the herd are first or second calvers and, given the planned growth, it will probably be the same again next year.”

Apart from the concentrate supplementation, all of the feed required by the herd whilst in milk is produced off the grazing platform. All of the dry-cow silage required on the farm is harvested from out blocks.

“We make high-quality bales off the grazing platform for the shoulders of the year. If we think a paddock is getting too heavy to graze, we take it out immediately as surplus bales. We might only get three-to-four bales per acre, but it’s top-quality feeding.”

Away from the farm

Married to Ciara, the husband-and-wife team have two children – Hannah and Mark. Bernard is currently in the midst of preparing for the Irish Grassland Association’s Dairy Conference.

“I’d be the Irish Grassland Association’s biggest fan and everyone has the same goal. I’ve been involved for almost 10 years and I’m the out-going president.

“It’s full of like-minded farmers who all have the same goal in common; we’re all trying to produce food – whether that’s dairy, beef or sheepmeat – from grass.”