‘Effectively we have the same number of cows as we had in 1988’

Average dairy herd size – in the last decade – has increased from 50 cows to around 75 cows, Teagasc’s Brendan Horan told those attending the dairy conference at this year’s Virginia Show.

Putting the figures into context, he said: “About half of the dairy cows in the country are now in herds of 100 or greater. There are a lot more larger herds and that brings its own challenges.”

However, Brendan stressed the importance of pointing out the gains dairy farmers have made, adding: “Effectively, we have exactly the same number of cows as we had in 1988 – just shy of 1.4 million dairy cows.

“Compared to 1988, we are producing about 62% more product from the same number of animals and that’s a reflection of the massive productivity grains that have been achieved at farm level.

“As it stands – if we just look at the last 10 years and the gains at farm level – we’ve increased productivity per cow by about 20% on our farms, with no increases in fertiliser or feed imports during that period.

Farmers have made fantastic progress and it’s about continuing and keeping our focus on sustainable, intensive production in the future.

“There’s been a lot of talk in terms of the increase in animal numbers; but the increase in animal numbers has only been responsible for about half of the increase in productivity.

“A lot of it is down to much better run dairy farms than any time previously; that’s a very important part of the overall scenario. With this in mind, the end game is to have stronger systems.

“We can talk about maximising production or minimising costs – individual facets of the farm business – but ultimately dairy farmers have to run a business and they have to achieve a whole load of targets,” he said.

Ornua PPI Kerry milk price milking

The stocking rate story

In terms of the stocking rate story, Brendan said: “Somebody who’s far better than me once described stocking rate as: ‘There’s no greater source for good or evil than the stocking rate on a grazing dairy farm’, and that’s not overstating it.

If you have the wrong stocking rate, it’s more or less impossible to have a well-run dairy farm. Too high or too low, it’s all about balance and achieving the right stocking rate.

“No two farms are the same, so how can we decide the right stocking rate for a dairy farm? There are lots of negatives when we get the stocking rate wrong.

“Typically farmers that go up in stocking rate to too high of a level tend to see big increases in fertiliser inputs and supplementation and higher levels of feeding; that has a damaging effect in terms of environmental sustainability and there are lots of studies to show that.”

Continuing, he said: “The ideal stocking rate is a balance. It’s about getting high levels of productivity from a grass-based dairy farm; but also meeting high animal performance levels, well-managed animal welfare and good output in terms of productivity.

“It does require good management practices. We can’t just farm in the same way as we are now in the future if we are planning to have more animals. We have to do it better. We have to be much more focused on our stocking rate if we want to achieve that.”

Matching stocking rate to grass growth

Brendan added: “It’s about setting the animal requirements at a level that can be met predominately from the grass growing on the farm and, again, that will be different for every farm; that’s the number one factor.

“If it’s too high, you’re going to be overgrazing; you’re going to have underfed animals. If it’s too low, you will have problems with under-utilised swards and low levels of efficiency in terms of grazing.

“It’s all predicted on a very compact-calving, high-EBI dairy cow that allows you to have a longer grazing season to achieve high levels of grass utilisation.”

He added: “There’s no way I can tell you what stocking rate you need unless you can tell me something about the farm in terms of grass productivity.”

The right direction?

Broaching the suggestion by some that Ireland has too many cows and it might be better to have fewer animals, Brendan said: “A grazing system is a very delicate bio-system. If you want to think of grazing systems, you have to think of them actually as a spectrum.

“Irish grazing systems tend to be very extensive, with low stocking rates – the average stocking rate is about 2LU/ha on Irish dairy farms – and low levels of fertiliser inputs.

“If you look at mainland Europe with cut-and-carry systems, they are much more intensive with higher stocking rates.

In terms of the spectrum of grazing systems, Irish dairy farms are very extensive with low stocking rates.

“In fact, the evidence says that as we increase our stocking rates in line with grass growth, we will actually improve a large number of areas we need to improve to be more sustainable in the future.

“Being lowly stocked is not a solution in terms of environmental sustainability. In fact, as we increase stocking rate – based on the practices we are talking about – we tend to increase animal production and performance; you increase grass utilisation and grassland productivity.

“Why is that important? Swards that are growing more, hoover up more nutrients; they are more nutrient efficient. They are also better in terms of carbon sequestration.

“There’s a big question in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Ireland has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions globally [for dairy animals].

“But as our farms intensify from where they are today, we expect our carbon sequestration to increase even more because our pasture productivity will increase – hoovering up extra carbon as we go – so it’s actually a positive.

The point is really as farmers intensify from 2LU/ha up to 2.3-2.4LU/ha, you are going to see improvements in sustainability in a grass-based system.

“Whereas, if we go too high in stocking rate where you move to the mainland European and other systems, you all of a sudden start to see carbon loss in the system; you start to see nutrient loss in the system; you start to see animal performance tapering off; and grassland utilisation reducing probably because of overgrazing and other aspects.

“So, it’s all about a fine balance, but we don’t need to be afraid of that sustainable intensification. It will be beneficial.”