How is the Kildalton dairy herd managing through the drought?

Like many farms throughout the country, grass growth rates have slowed considerably on the Kildalton Open Source Sustainable Dairy Farm. This is on the back of a serious lack of rainfall and the development of drought conditions.

“We are no better or no worse than anybody else. The drought has affected us here as well,” Teagasc’s James Ryan – Kildalton’s dairy lecturer – said at a recent open day.

“Last week we grew 12kg/ha/day of grass dry matter, which is very poor; it’s rock bottom really. We’re currently feeding 6kg of meal, 6kg of silage in the shed and 6kg of grazed grass.

“At this time of the year, it’s important that we match grass growth to the demand and we’re doing that as best we can here. The average farm cover is 611kg/ha and the cover per cow is 163kg.”

Corrective action

After completing a farm walk on Monday of this week, an average farm cover of 420kg and a cover per cow of under 100kg was identified.

“We have about 13ac of silage, so we took the decision to graze that. By putting that back into the wedge, we found that our cover per cow went back up to 163kg, which is workable with all the other feedstuffs in the system.

“The silage ground has a cover of only 1,400kg/ha and it was cut before the June bank holiday. It’s crispy when you walk on it and it wasn’t actually growing, so we took the decision to graze that.

“That is actually 35% of what we had stopped for second-cut silage and we have to get that back into the system to feed the cows next winter. We are going to try and source feed from somewhere.”

Although things are difficult on farms presently, James pointed to 2013 as an example of what may happen when we finally get rain.

“I don’t want to trivialise it whatsoever, but the growth will come. If you look at the last drought in 2013, Moorepark showed that its highest growth rate came in mid-September.”

Production

Despite having to alter the diet to manage the slowdown in grass growth, James said that production is holding.

Yield has held at 21.4L/cow/day or 1.7kg/cow/day of milk solids and the SCC (somatic cell count) is 123,000.

“The EBI (Economic Breeding Index) of the herd is €158, which puts us in the top 1% in the country. The top 1% of herds are running at €149 or greater.

“Our cows are lasting about 3.4 calvings. That’s the national average and we need to push that up. We generate an awful lot of replacements here and to a certain extent, we are spoiled for choice.”

The herd’s six week calving rate was approximately 85% this spring and calving is going to be pushed back until February 10 next year, due to a change in course requirements.

“We started breeding in the middle of April, primarily because of the bad spring and also the changes to the courses. The students will be here in February next year and we can calve in February.

“We just finished breeding last Friday and tail paint was used for heat detection. We let one stock bull out for the last two weeks and he would have covered less than five cows,” James said.

2017 performance

Teagasc’s Dr. Brendan Horan compared the performance achieved from the Kildalton herd to farms which completed e-Profit Monitors.

“When we compare Kildalton to the 2017 statistics, the farm here compared very favourably to the top 10% of dairy farms. It’s a high-productivity dairy unit.”

Continuing, he said: “In terms of stocking rate, it’s highly stocked. It’s growing about 13.5t/ha and about 50% of the soils are in perfect soil fertility, with the remainder getting close to that at this stage.”

Last year, the farm sold 1,081kg/ha of milk solids. This was achieved from a nitrogen input of 280kg/ha and imported feeds of 1,320kg/cow (dry matter). At a base price of 29c/L, the farm generated a net profit of €860/ha last year.