There are many things that dairy farmers can do at farm level to make their farm more resilient to the challenges facing the industry. One area with huge scope to improve nationally was raised by Teagasc’s Brendan Horan, during one of LIC Ireland’s events this week.

He said: “If you look at nitrogen (N) use efficiency, if you look at emissions, if you look at any of the targets we have around the environment, animals lasting longer in our herds will be the single biggest thing we can do, in terms of cows, to meeting those targets.”

Nationally, the average age of a cow milking in a herd is 3.5 lactations with the average culling age being 4.5 lactations.

“We are losing our animals way too young. Nationally, we are losing about 10% of first lactation animals, about 14% of second lactation animals and about 15% of our third and fourth lactation animals. So, we are never really achieving the full productivity of those animals.

“The target would be achieve 4.5 lactations on average; so that we could get 4.5 to 5 lactations on average per cow in the herd,” said Brendan.

Commenting on how improving the longevity of our dairy herd can reduce our environmental impact, he said: “A 3.5 lactation average age per cow has a replacement rate of 24% and, consequently, has about 25% to 26% replacements running around outside to keep that herd going.

If we can get that back down to a replacement rate of about 18% and get the age of our animals up we will reduce our emissions.

Brendan emphasised the fact that if less animals have to be reared for the herd, then less emissions will be produced.

He also added that “the big ticket item” in terms of breeding and the environment is longevity; stating that dairy farmers need animals that are more fertile and more productive in the long term.

But how?

Answering the question on how we can improve the longevity of the national dairy herd, he said: “It is part genetic and I think we need to put more emphasis on breeding a more fertile cow with greater health traits.

“As researchers we probably need to go back and find out the reason behind why those animals are exiting at such a young age. Then the other side of it is management – managing our younger animals better, drying them off earlier and ensuring they are on target in terms of body condition score (BCS).”

Concluding, he said: “While we have a good index and are making progress, we need to be mindful that we are nowhere near where we need to be in terms of the type of animal for a really sustainable system in the future.”