Dairy focus: Keeping efficiencies to the fore when moving from 165 to 275 cows

Eamonn and Darren Healy entered a dairy farming partnership in 2009. In the intervening period, their business has undergone substantial change.

Currently milking a herd of 275 cows in Redcross, Co. Wicklow, the Healys have been participants in the Teagasc/Glanbia Joint Programme since 2015.

Recently, the father-and-son team opened the gates of their farm to highlight the progress that’s been made since 2014.

Significant changes

Before joining the programme, the Healys milked a herd of 165 cows in 2014. Since then, however, cow numbers have grown steadily to 275.

Despite this expansion, Eamonn and Darren have placed a major emphasis on improving some of the key farm efficiencies, including: grass growth; milk solids production per cow; and six-week calving rate.

Since 2014, six-week calving rate has improved from 66% to 81%. Strides have also been made when it comes to milk solids production.

The additional milk solids (outlined in the above table) are worth an additional €400/cow in extra income. In addition, the improvements in grass growth rates over the previous three years are worth the equivalent of €58,000 if equated back to bought-in stocks of silage or concentrates.

On the back of all of these improvements came a substantial increase in the net profit generated per cow – climbing from €510/cow in 2014 (average milk price of 39.02c/L) to €842/cow in 2017 (average milk price of 37.75c/L). Both of these net profit figures exclude drawings, tax and capital expenditure.

Feeding extra cows

Making the system as simple as possible played a key role in the farm’s development and a specific focus was placed on the cows, grassland management and labour.

To grow the herd significantly – and to limit the dependence on bought-in feeds – the Healys knew that their 97ha milking platform needed to grow more grass.

Initially, the father-and-son team had soil sampled once every five years. However, Darren felt that this was insufficient to really make inroads when it came to improving soil fertility levels and, with this, a yearly soil testing programme was undertaken.

When setting out to grow more grass, the Healys discovered that 80% of the grazing platform had insufficient soil pH levels. To resolve this, they spread 300t of lime in 2014; these applications were limited to paddocks with a pH of <5.8. A similar quantity of lime was applied in 2015 on paddocks with a pH of 5.9-6.0.

Tight cashflow reduced lime applications significantly during 2016, but they recommenced in 2017. The father-and-son team are now focusing on improving paddocks with a pH of 6.2. Phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) levels needed to be addressed and a comprehensive programme involving 18:6:12 was used to rise P and K indices.

To put the soil improvements into context, just 24% of the Healys’ paddocks were at index 3 or 4 for P in 2015; that climbed to 65% in 2017.

In addition, the Healys have also implemented a successful reseeding programme. Based on grass measurement, any of the under-performing paddocks on the farm are earmarked for reseeding. Through the use of this tactic, 80% of the farm has been reseeded over recent years.

On the back of these improvements, substantial increases in grass production have also been witnessed on the Co. Wicklow holding. Back in 2015, the farm grew 12.8t/ha of dry matter; that climbed to 16t/ha in 2017.

When compared to bought-in feeds, that additional grass growth is worth €58,000 to the business over the past three years.

Breeding

Along with making improvements in the paddocks, the Healys have made substantial gains when it comes to the management of their herd.

Coming from a Holstein Friesian background that was traditionally involved in winter milk production, the father-and-son team have focused on breeding a cow that’s more suited to a grass-based system.

Jersey, crossbred and Friesian genetics were introduced to bring down the overall cow size and to breed a cow that would be able to withstand walking.

However, most of the progress the Healys have made over recent years can be attributed to improvements in management – particularly around breeding.

Body condition score plays a central role on the farm – especially around calving and breeding time. Prior to breeding, the cows are tail painted for three weeks to identify any non-cycling cows. Any cows that present as non-cyclers are examined.

In addition, during the first three weeks of the breeding season, visual observation is used to identify any bulling cows. From week three until week six, vasectomised bulls are introduced to aid heat detection. Stock bulls are introduced for the final six weeks of the breeding season.

Over the initial six weeks of the season, cows are mated with AI; this year’s bull teams consists of 33.3% Jersey bulls, 33.3% KiwiCross bulls and 33.3% Friesian bulls – with an average EBI €247.

Through the above mentioned practices, they’ve pulled six-week calving rate up from 66% to 81%; calving interval has improved from 397 days to 366 days; and 87% of the heifers now calve between 22 and 26 months.

Improvements have also been made when it comes to the EBI breakdown of the herd – climbing from €5 to €27. However, significant gains in this department – given the bulls that are currently being used – will be made over the coming years and that’s set to further boost the productivity of the business.

Infrastructure

Along with grassland and breeding improvements, the Healys have also invested heavily on the facilities within their farmyard. 200 extra cubicles were developed, along with a 24-unit milking parlour and slurry facilities for the additional cows.

Eamonn stressed to the farmers in attendance that it’s critical to seek advice when it comes to planning a new build. Ideally, Eamonn and Darren wanted to develop the facilities to make the running of the operation as simple as possible for themselves and Matty – the full-time labour unit on the farm.

After initially looking at improving the facilities that were to hand and carrying out the necessary budgets, the Healys decided to invest.

One of the main considerations when it came to improving the infrastructure on the farm was cow flow. Darren said that – under the old system – cows could have been standing for four or five hours each day on concrete and that was bound to have had an impact on performance.

Now with the new facilities in place, which include a 24-unit parlour with automatic cluster removers (ACRs) and a batch crush, the amount of time cows have to spend standing on concrete has been cut drastically.