Lessons learned from once-a-day milking in Co. Tipperary

Donal O’Loughlin milks a herd of crossbred cows under a once-a-day (OAD) milking system in Rossmore, Ballymacarbry, Co. Tipperary. Married to Noreen, he has been operating this system since 2012.

Donal, along with his brother Seamus, took over the family’s farm in 1994. This occurred after their father opted to take the Early Retirement Scheme (ERS).

At the time, the family were running a herd of Holstein Friesian cows and were producing milk under a split-calving system.

In 1999, Seamus left the partnership in search of off-farm opportunities. At the same time, more land became available – under a long-term lease – joining the existing “hilly” milking platform.

This land was leased and reclaimed over the years. A further 10ac of land was purchased and added to the milking platform in 2008.

A move away from winter milk

In 2002, the decision was made to move away from winter milk.

The Holstein cows weren’t able for the spring-calving system and travelling on the hilly farm every day. They were getting lame and – after three or four lactations – they weren’t going back in calf.

To resolve this issue, Swedish and Norwegian Red genetics were introduced to the herd.

“One year, I had 28 empty cows out of 88. With crossbreeding, we had better fertility and hardier cows,” Donal told the crowd at last week’s Teagasc Once-a-Day Milking Conference.

The decision to go OAD

Jumping to 2011 and milking a herd of 128 cows, Donal had his milk quota filled by the middle of September. To alleviate the quota situation, he opted to milk OAD until drying off.

“In 2012, I started milking OAD from the start of the year and I never went back milking in the evenings. There were 128 cows milking and, when we scanned the cows at the end of the year, there was only 3% empty.

They produced 330kg of milk solids in the first year of OAD.

In 2013, Donal had a fair idea that OAD milking was the way forward for his enterprise. With 50 heifers coming into the herd, he sold 50 calved cows to a new entrant in Co. Wexford. He went on to milk 130 cows that year.

“I was getting to like it and milk solids production was rising; the cows produced 350kg of milk solids that year.

“I was moving to where I wanted to be and I knew what the right type of cow was; she was 50% Jersey and 50% Holstein Friesian. I continued to milk OAD for all of 2014 and I milked 134 cows.”

In 2015, Donal’s herd grew to 154 cows. When he asked his wife would they go back to twice-a-day milking with the removal of quotas, she simply said ‘no’. Given this, OAD milking was continued throughout the duration of 2015.

In addition, 17ac were purchased in 2015; this grew the milking platform to 84ha. A number of infrastructural developments were also undertaken, including: 60 outdoor cubicles; more feed space; and a new calving shed.

Last year, Donal milked a herd of 190 cows and delivered 398kg of milk solids to the creamery. This level of production was achieved from 300kg of concentrate per cow on a farm that grew 14.5t/ha. Despite moving to OAD, Donal is still a fan of milking early in the morning and the first clusters are put on at 7:00am.

Milk recording results from Donal’s farm in 2017 (excludes sold cows)

The benefits of crossbreeding

The Tipperary-based farmer is heavily involved in his local GAA club and holds the position of chairman. In addition, he partakes in coaching and could be off the farm four-to-five evenings each week during the summer months.

As Noreen works off-farm, OAD milking allows them to balance childcare for their two sons, Darragh (6) and Tomas (21 months), while also ensuring that Donal can meet his GAA commitments.

It’s saving us 300 milkings – between February and January – each year. In addition, it takes us approximately 45 minutes to walk the cows into the parlour, so that time is also saved.

“Cows last longer with OAD milking and there’s the added fact that there’s 300 less milkings in the year,” he said.

The key benefits:
  • Less labour;
  • Less meal;
  • Less walking for the cows;
  • Better fertility;
  • More time for family and hobbies.

This spring, Donal expects 234 cows to calve on his farm. These cows will be calved with the help of a part-time labour unit, who has worked on the farm over the last number of years – especially during the busy periods.

In 2005-2006, Donal started using Jersey sires on his milking herd to see what impact it would have on his system. This venture proved positive and now his ideal cow is 50% Jersey and 50% Holstein Friesian.

She will weigh approximately 500kg mature weight. The bulls that I am using at the moment are PSQ, OKT and FR2213.

Some of the bulls used on Donal’s farm

A word of warning

Despite the positives outlined by Donal, he also touched on a number of factors that warrant consideration when operating a OAD milking system.

“Most of the cows adapt fairly quickly. I actually found it harder to get used to the whole thing myself. I often found myself questioning would I go for the cows in the evening during the first year.

“I stuck with it and I got rid of the cows that didn’t suit the system. There’s a lot of tweaking and a lot of British Friesian type cows put their hands up, as they weren’t suiting the system at all.”

In addition, he stressed that cell count can still be difficult to manage and it was challenging this year.

Somatic cell count hovers between 200,000-250,000 cells/ml for most of the year and it goes down to 140,000-150,000 cells/ml for April, May, June and July and increases from there. I have never had a penalty from Glanbia for cell count.

To tackle cell count, Donal employs a number of tactics, including: breeding bulls that are good for SCC from New Zealand; not breeding from high cell count cows; and culling out high cell count cows.

Donal is a member of the Pioneering OAD in Ireland (POADII) discussion group, which – along with Teagasc’s Brian Hilliard – organised last week’s conference.