Dairy focus: Farming in a ‘niche sector’ in Co. Kildare

Located just outside Narraghmore in Co. Kildare, Peter and Jenny Young milk a high-EBI, highly-stocked organic herd.

At a recent farm walk, Peter and Jenny Young welcomed organic and non-organic farmers to showcase their success as organic dairy farmers in Ireland.

Some substantial developments have been made on the farm over the last 12 years; and most recently they have installed a new 24-unit ATL herringbone parlour.

The herd has gone from 65 cows on 71.6ha in 2004 to milking a fully organic herd of 170 cows on a 100ha grazing platform in 2019. The farm is stocked at 1.9 cows/ha; which is high for an organic farm.

The decision was made to move to organics when Peter and Jenny saw an opportunity to increase production more readily than in a conventional milk production system, as there was minimal quotas in place on the organic side at the time.

Peter also noted that the switch to organic milk production was as a measure against market volatility. He said: “Organic milk is not linked to conventional milk, so it doesn’t rise and fall as quickly.”

In 2004, they began to set the farm up to make the switch to organic. Preparation is key when entering the organic sector.

“Once you’re in you have to play by the rules, but to get there you have to be ready,” Peter said.

In preparation for the change, the Youngs made sure all their soil indexes were correct. They also stockpiled on silage and spread lime to correct any soil pH irregularities.

In October 2006, the farm entered full organic conversion, with full organic status being achieved in 2008.

Milk production

Last year, Peter and Jenny decided to go once-a-day (OAD) milking to free up time for the construction of their new milking parlour.

Even though OAD milking was a success, this year they have decided to make the switch back to twice-a-day (TAD) milking. This will increase production and make better use of the new milking facilities.

The herd – which is mainly a mixture of Friesian and Jersey-cross cows – is producing 3,600L/cow or 363kg of milk solids / cow / year on average. This is based on an average fat percentage of 5.35% and a protein percentage of 4.63%.

But, it is expected that the litres will rise to between 4,200L and 4,500L following the switch to TAD milking this year.

Peter and Jenny don’t have a contract with any specific milk supplier. Although, the bulk of their milk supplies go to Glenisk, with the remainder going to Glanbia.

Their average milk price is 40.5c/L, which is based on the average milk price received from Glenisk and Glanbia.

Breeding

During the walk, Peter touched a little on the breeding strategy for the farm. In the past, he used a lot of New Zealand genetics on the herd; however, for the past four years he has made the switch to using high-EBI genomically tested bulls.

“I said I would give it a go, but I think in the future I will go back to more daughter proven bulls,” Peter stated.

When picking bulls, particular attention is placed on the fertility sub-index, health sub-index and milk solid PTAs. Bull selection is outsourced by Peter, simply because “he [as a friend] is better at it than I am so I just let him do it”.

A team of at least 12 bulls is used to increase reliability. Last year, the average EBI of the team of bulls was €270.

In addition to using genomic bulls, Peter uses Jersey bulls on his replacement heifers to prevent any calving difficulty.

Breeding key performance indicators (KPIs):
  • Calving interval: 376 days;
  • Spring six-week calving rate: 89%;
  • Calves per cow per year: 0.97%;
  • Current replacement rate: 36%;
  • Empty rate: 10%.

Grassland management

Under organic regulations, at least 60% of the dry matter (DM) in the cows’ diet must consist of roughage, fresh/dried fodder or silage. For this reason, concentrate feeding is kept to a minimum and the percentage of grass in the diet is maximised.

A total of 270kg/cow of concentrates was fed last year on the farm. In a normal year, it is normally only 200kg/cow. This was due to the dry conditions experienced on the farm during the summer of 2018.

“If I’m getting a good price for my milk I’ll feed meal and if not, I won’t; it’s that simple,” Peter highlighted.

The grassland management techniques for an organic farmer are “along the same principles as a conventional farmer. Although you have to remember you’re not a conventional farmer, which can be frustrating at times,” explained Peter.

The preparation for the grazing season starts back in late September when they begin to close paddocks, with the cows usually in full-time from November 10.

“We are not pushing to get milk at the back end at the expense of grass.”

Getting cows out as early as possible post-calving is priority; so closing the paddocks that little bit earlier makes this possible.

Calving starts on February 13 and cows are “usually in by night and out by day. Although, this is not a normal year so they are out full-time because the grass is there.

“After that we use the spring rotation planner (SRP). This year the opening farm cover was 840kg DM/ha.

“The first round is usually finished by April 10-13. After that it’s simple, we go on a 30-day round until we run out of grass.”

In the past, Peter was bringing a lot of zero-grazed grass home, as some of his land was not set up for grazing. However, this was too time consuming; he has since made this land accessible for the cows to graze.

He feels this will allow him to extend his grazing season for longer rather than having to bring cows in and feed them zero-grazed grass.

Soil nutrients and manure management

Soil fertility levels on the farm are maintained through the efficient recycling of farmyard manure (FYM) and the slurry generated by the farm. Housing is not compulsory on an organic farm; but, if cattle are housed 50% of the floor area must be bedded.

“I see the cows as making the fertiliser for the farm. During the year, all the slurry goes back out after grazing.”

This year, Peter and Jenny have also started spreading a lot more sludge on the grazing area; which has proved very successful at increasing phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) levels on the farm.

However, clover is key and we try to get as much clover into the swards as possible; in order to get the free nitrogen.

Now, Peter feels that K is the limiting nutrient on the farm. So, he intends to spread more potash this year to correct this deficiency.

Silage Production

Silage is mainly made from paddocks which go too strong over the grazing season. These paddocks are identified early using the grass wedge and promptly taken out of the rotation.

Along with strong paddocks, 4.4ha of the farm is in red clover/grass. This is used for silage and soil fertility building. This is cut 3-4 times/year to maintain the quality of the sward. However, this can be difficult due to the unpredictable Irish weather.

The cows actually prefer the red clover than normal grass silage despite its black colour.

“One of the big issues with organic farming is getting the forage in and that’s where the red clover comes in useful,” said Peter.

There is also plans to reseed 12.1ha with a white clover/grass sward. This will be oversown with oats for arable silage in 2019.