Dairy focus: Silage and meal in, as drought takes hold in Co. Laois

Farming on the outskirts of Cullohill, Co. Laois, Eamonn Duggan operates a simple, spring-calving dairy operation.

Since returning to work alongside his father at the age of 16, Eamonn has witnessed some dramatic changes to the family’s business.

“I am at home since 1985, with the exception of one year when I went to New Zealand. The changes are dramatic when you look back,” Eamonn explained when AgriLand visited recently.

“We had a very mixed farm here on about five different blocks. We had sugar beet, winter barley, wheat, sheep, beef and we milked 40 or 50 cows.

“My brother Seán came home to farm in 1989 and we entered a partnership. We sold some of the bits of land and decided to buy another block. Seán’s actually farming there since 2000 and now runs his own dairy enterprise.

“We dropped the sheep first, the sugar beet went then and then the barley and beef went. Now the two of us are almost 100% dairy farming.

“Year-on-year, you mightn’t see the changes; but when you look back to 1985, you can say that they have been massive.

“We farm completely separate now, but we’d keep in touch a good bit. We share some machinery still and we share a labour unit.

“We farm very similarly in a lot of ways. It’s a spring-based system we are both operating and cows are out day and night from the time of calving. There’s no winter milking and there’s no cubicles on either farm,” Eamonn explained.

Over the years, the Laois native has increased cow numbers gradually; his herd now stands at 140 cows, carried on a milk platform of 90ac.

The cows

As it stands, Eamonn is milking a herd of 140 cows. Holstein Friesian is the dominant breed type, but a small cohort (5-10%) of crossbred cows can be found scattered among the herd.

When it comes to production, the cows are currently yielding 1.7kg of milk solids per day; that’s back from 1.95kg/day two weeks ago on account of reduced grass supplies and the introduction of silage.

“I’ve had to go in with extra meal and silage because of the grass situation and the cows are currently on 2.5kg/day of a beet pulp nut, 1.5kg/day of a dairy nut, silage and grass.

I’ll have to look at going to an all meal and silage diet shortly, as grass growth rates have been severely affected by the drought.”

Last year, Eamonn’s herd produced 470kg/cow of milk solids.

“I always put a preempt to that, as I dry off all cows on December 1 regardless of how much they are milking,” Eamonn explained.

“Our average lactation is 270 day, so its a short enough season. But, its the system I have set up. I take two months out of the milking parlour regardless.”

Eamonn has introduced a certain proportion of Jersey genetics into his herd to simply bring down cow size.

“Some cows are getting too big and I’ve actually used a Jersey straw on them this year and I don’t want them to get any bigger.

It’s a size thing really; it’s nothing to do with fertility or health – I have no problems with these. It’s just the cows are getting way to big. Some of the cows must nearly be 650-700kg.

“I felt the Jersey was going to make a grand cow out of them. I have a few of them already and it’s nothing new to me. I will just be for one cross and then we’ll go back again to the high-EBI Holstein Friesian.”

Managing with a difficult spring

Calving commences in February and no cubicles are present on the farm, so he has to take a different approach when it comes to managing in a difficult spring.

“I would be out here in February. I don’t have cubicles here, so the cows have to go out as they calve. Having a high stocking rate and no cubicles focuses your mind on getting cows out to grass.

“There’s no point in me calving cows in April because I am going to be drying them off in November anyway. We’d have a fairly high six week calving rate; it’s over 90% and 120 cows could calve in February alone.

“We had no health issue with a cow here this spring and I’d say I never saw the vet as little. It was just the hardship of the snow and rain day in, day out.

“All we were looking for in March was that nice day, but we didn’t get it and that was a killer. Generally you would get an odd nice day in February or March and everything looks brilliant.

“It didn’t come until the middle of April this year and that hurt. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t nice. A lot of fields were damaged after the tough spring and it’s not breaking down because it dried out so quickly.”

Next winter’s feed reserves and drought

Touching on how the farm is coping with the current weather conditions, Eamonn said: “I am stocked at 4LU/ha on the grazing block and a drought will hit us hard, as it’s a very dry farm.

“However, I have 50ac rented and I cut silage off that to support this block. I have a three-cut system and I don’t take a heavy first cut.

“I do my first cut in early May and it’s a light cut and those bales are sitting out there for the summer. If I cut a big first cut, the quality would be down and that’s no good to me.

“Our second cut is the big cut. We cut that in early July and that’s for the dry cows over the winter. We take a third cut at the end of August; that’s always high quality because grass doesn’t shoot out at that time of the year and it stays leafy.

“We cut it at about three bales per acre at covers of 2,000-2,500kg/ha and the cows perform on it.”

As grass growth has slowed considerably on Eamonn’s farm, high-quality silage bales are being offered to the milking herd. As mentioned earlier, Eamonn is facing the prospect of placing cows on an all meal and silage diet until the rain comes and allows grass growth rates to recover.

Along with the cows, Eamonn also retains about 90 heifers each year; 60 of these are later sold on to other farmers. However, this year, he made a conscious decision to reduce the number of replacement heifers to just 60.

“I reduced the number of heifers I kept this year because after all of the rain we had, I just felt a drought was very likely and I planned on the basis that we’d have a dry summer. I don’t expect rain until September and that’s how I am farming at the moment.

“As the farm is dry and is prone to burning, I kind of budget for a dry summer every year.”

Grass growth

Although grazing is challenging currently, Eamonn takes pride in his grassland management.

“Measuring grass is most important in high growth rates. Then again, it’s also important in low growth rates, as you need to know how short you are to fill the gap. Otherwise you’re guessing and I don’t like guessing.

“We are probably feeding more than we ever did, as we took up the stocking rate and I accepted to do that. I don’t worry about feeding up to 1t/cow now and we’re heading that way with the stocking rate.

“We’re bringing milk in and I’m utilising the grass I’m growing here. There’s very little silage made on the home block and it’s grazed constantly.

“I grew 15t/ha last year on the milking platform and I’ve gone up nearly 1t/ha over the last number of years. I would have been back down at 10-11t/ha in 2010.”

Eamonn credits a focus on soil fertility, good management and reseeding as the primary reasons for these increases.

The second enterprise

As mentioned, Eamonn also operates a second enterprise of rearing heifers from his own herd and selling them on to other farmers at 19-20 months.

“Rearing and selling heifers is a big part of what I do. I rear about 90 heifers each year. A lot of people ask me how I get 90 heifers from 140 cows.

“But it’s actually quite easy. I use sexed semen on the heifers for the first three weeks of AI and I retain about 30 of those heifers for my own herd.”

These heifers are carried on a 70ac out-farm, that features a series of roadways and paddocks.

When it comes to breeding, he explained: “90% of the heifers are bred to AI. Vasectomised bulls are ran with the heifers and AI is used to mate them during the first seven-to-eight weeks. After that, a bull is introduced to tidy up.

“Each vasectomised bill is put with 30 heifers. I go down every morning and pull out what is marked from each paddock and put them in the shed.

“I ring the AI man and I don’t have to go back near them. Once he’s finished, he lets them into a little paddock beside the shed.

“The next morning, these heifers are moved back to a paddock with other mated heifers. After three weeks – in a normal year – approximately 90 heifers will be back in this paddock. The three vasectomised bulls are reintroduced and another three weeks of breeding are undertaken.”

Eamonn is more than happy with the performance of this enterprise and he gets great satisfaction in hearing that heifers that he has previously sold in October or November have gone on to be the top-performing cows in other farmers’ herds.