Feeding higher levels of concentrate to dairy cows at grass is sustainable

Economic modelling has confirmed that farmers operating a highly stocked, low concentrate milking system would be highly impacted by a loss of Ireland’s Nitrates Directive derogation.

This would not be the case on farms with lower cow numbers on which higher levels of concentrate are fed. Overall milk output would be the same in both farm scenarios.

In contrast, higher concentrate feeders would be more impacted by a reduction in milk price and/or increase in feed price, in terms of their overall farm sustainability.

The research team driving the Systems herd project at University College Dublin’s (UCD) Lyons Dairy Education and Research Facility cite the stocking rate issue as one that would force real change within Ireland’s milk industry, should stronger environmental protocols be introduced where livestock farming is concerned.

Economic Breeding Index

The Systems’ project is centred on approximately 60 high Economic Breeding Index (EBI) – all spring calving – cows that are managed to produce 625kg of milk solids from 1.5t of concentrates. Optimal use of grass and silage is used throughout the year.

The results obtained from the work over the past five years confirm that it is more than feasible to meet these production targets. But is this management approach economically feasible?

UCD’s Prof. Michael Wallace answered this question, courtesy of his presentation to the recent UCD webinar, which was held to profile the most recent results generated by the Systems’ research project.

All comparisons were made relative to the average performance indicators of a benchmarked low concentrate grass-based system (LCGS). Wallace referred to the Systems’ herd as a medium concentrate grass-based system (MCGS).

From a gross margin point of view, the MCGS outperformed the LCGS on a per cow basis: €1,416 versus €1,263. However, positions were reversed when it came to calculating gross margin/ha: €3,472 for LCGS and 3,445 for MCGS.

Farm profit

Farm profit per cow (excl. labour, rent and interest) averaged €782 for LCGS with the MCGS figure coming in at €907. This trend was maintained when profit margins per hectare were calculated: €2,208 for MCGS and €2,151 for LCGS.

When labour, rent and interest costs are factored in, average profit margin per hectare works out at €566 for MCGS and €507 for LCGS.

All calculations were made using an average milk price of 30c/L and concentrate cost of €340/t DM. Labour costs were imputed at €15/hour with rent charges factored in at €420/ha. Interest charges on capital were imputed at 5%.

Wallace commented:

“Meeting targets is critical with the MCGS. A 1% change in cow output or replacement rate will impact on overall profitability by as much as 10%.

The MCGS is also much more sensitive to changes in milk and concentrate prices than is the case with LCGS.

In concluding, Wallace said that medium concentrate grass-based systems can be sustainable options for dairy farmers, particularly in the context of more stringent environmental regulations being imposed on Irish agriculture.