How can I reduce the heavy workload in spring on my dairy farm?

With the expanding dairy herd, the labour associated with calving a large number of cows over a short period of time is fast approaching for many dairy farmers.

Who could forget the workload on dairy farms last year, as storms and snow played havoc with the day-to-day running of farms. However, if current weather conditions remain, life will be that little bit easier during this busy period.

Saying that, with the push for efficiency, many farmers have targeted calving 90% of their cows in just six weeks. Alongside this comes the pressures of milking for the first time in 2019 and – hopefully – pushing to get cows out to grass.

However, there are a number of ways that dairy farmers can use to relieve some of the pressures at this difficult time of the year.

These include: feeding silage at night; once-a-day calf feeding; the outdoor rearing of calves; once-a-day milking in early lactation; and shortening the milking interval.

Feeding silage at night

Research from Teagasc Moorepark has shown that restricting silage feeding time during the day resulted in less night calvings, compared to allowing cows full daily access.

According to Teagasc, this practice reduced the number of cows calving between 12:00am-06:00am from 25% to 10-15%.

To limit feeding time:
  • Allow adequate silage feeding space (0.6m/cow);
  • Put silage at the feed barrier during the day (avoids machinery work at night);
  • Use lockable headgates (where available) to keep cows back from silage and open at the designated time in the evening.

Once-a-day feeding

According to Teagasc, no differences in calf performance or health were observed between calves fed once or twice a day in trials carried out in Moorepark.

However, there was less time spent with calves fed once a day (OAD) and a 36% overall saving in total calf care time was achieved. But, if feeding milk OAD, calves still need to be checked thoroughly twice a day.

Rearing calves outdoors

Given the expansion that has occurred on many farms, some farmers may find that they are short of space next spring.


A simple solution to this may be to turn calves out earlier than normal and – with current weather conditions – this is definitely an option.

Experiments at Moorepark have determined that calves turned out at four-to-five weeks could be reared without compromising weight gain and vitality, compared to calves reared indoors during the milk feeding period.

Outdoor rearing tips:
  • Select a dry, sheltered paddock near the farmyard;
  • Provide a temporary shelter. Ideally, this should be portable.
  • Have a suitable method of feeding calves and transporting feed to the paddock;
  • Provide a trough for concentrate and fresh water at all times;
  • Try not to use the same field each year to minimise parasite build up;
  • Give calves a new section of grass every four-to-five days.

Once-a-day milking

To minimise labour demand in February and March, some farmers may opt for once-a-day (OAD) milking for a few weeks during the peak calving period.

OAD milking has been shown to reduce the labour requirement, while only having a minimal impact on annual milk production.

It’s a great option to reduce labour during the peak work weeks; especially with compact-calving herds or where there a large number of rows of cows to be milked.

Milking interval

A discussion group survey – carried out by Teagasc last year – found that the average start time for evening milking was 5:15pm. However, the most labour-efficient farmers were found to start milking at 4:20pm.

According to Teagasc, a concern some farmers have about starting milking earlier is that it will affect milk yield.

However, a Moorepark study compared a 12-hour milking interval (12:12) and an eight-hour milking interval (16:8). It found that the milk yields and milk composition were not affected by the milking interval.