Recent survey work shows scope for up to 40 per cent expansion among established milk suppliers in the Lakeland Dairies catchment area. Potential for new milk from start-ups  in the region is also considerable. In every case technical efficiency and business planning are needed to make expansion worthwhile.

This principle underpins the recently established Teagasc/Lakeland Dairies joint advisory programme. From the outset, the programme team identified three main areas for technical improvement among Lakeland suppliers — milk protein content, grass utilisation and herd fertility. To  date, the focus has been on improving
milk protein.

Why focus on milk protein?

Protein is the key element driving milk price for Lakeland suppliers. Under the A+B-C payment structure, the value of 1kg protein was 2.6 times greater than that of 1kg milk fat in 2012. The range in milk solids content within the supplier base is large. In financial terms, moving from the average to the top 10 per cent for milk solids is worth €88 per cow, or €6,100 in extra milk revenue for a typical 70-cow herd.

Improving milk protein —what does research tells us?

The revenue benefit of improving milk solids content is clear. Fortunately, projects in Teagasc Moorepark and Ballyhaise have also shown that methods for increasing milk protein are not expensive, giving a positive effect on overall profit. The three main factors identified by the research are:

Breeding: Genetic merit (EBI) for protein explains over 60 per cent of the difference in milk protein between herds and over 80 per cent of the difference between cows within a herd.

Feeding: Plane of nutrition accounts for up to 30 per cent of the difference in milk protein between herds. The main factors are the amount and quality of grazed grass in the diet.

Management: Making up the remaining 10 per cent of difference in milk protein between herds is a combination of calving pattern, dry cow and heifer management.

What is affecting milk protein at farm level?

Farmers who attended a protein workshop were offered a follow-up consult with a joint programme advisor to look for the specific factors affecting milk protein for their herd. Each farmer visited then received a concise plan for improving milk solids over the next five years. Examining the issue in this way has helped to build a good understanding of the situation ‘on the ground’.

Programme advisers found the following factors causing lower milk protein on-farm.
Bull selection: In line with the research, breeding was seen to have a huge effect on milk protein levels on-farm. The highest protein herds had used generations of high EBI AI bulls; the lowest protein herds were dominated by high milk volume genetics with little focus on EBI or milk solids. Without doubt, a major problem is the use of low EBI stock bulls — it was clear from checking stock bull figures that most were extremely high in volume and negative for protein and fertility.

Calving pattern: A spread-out calving pattern, with a high percentage of cows calving from late April through July, was common for low protein herds. The full potential for high protein milk from grazed spring grass, and high protein milk in late lactation, was being missed as a  result. The problem reflects low fertility genetics. Higher protein herds had tighter control on calving pattern.

Replacement heifer management: It may not directly affect herd milk protein content, but there was a tendency for low protein herds to calve heifers at 30 to 36 months, instead of the optimum 24 months seen on the higher protein herds. In many cases, this was due to a perception that heifers were too small for bulling at the 350kg target weight. The result is over-grown first lacatation heifers with poorer lifetime performance.

Grass management: Managing grass quality throughout the main season was found to be a major is protein herds is that not enough pad docks are removed as silage in good growth conditions. The consequence is cows grazing stemmy, poor energy, covers during high growth periods. When growth rates are poor, meal/silage is not included in time to hold rotation length. In contrast, higher milk protein farms monitor the quality and quantity of grass covers ahead of cows.

Reseeding and soil fertility: Soil fertility (P, K and lime) status was unknown on many farms; some high as well as low milk protein producers. A major grassland issue on the lowest milk protein farms is a lack of reseeding — in some situations, 70 per cent to 100 per cent of the farm required reseeding due to low ryegrass levels in swards.

Silage quality (DMD) is important where farms are producing some of their milk on silage-based diets. Poor silage, combined with a spread calving pattern, is a disaster. We have noted some herds spending three months below 3.00 per cent protein in winter due to low DMD silage.

The highest protein herds produce a smaller proportion of their milk from silage diets but carry a reserve of high quality (usually baled) material for this purpose. Silage quality (usually baled) for this purpose. Silage quality is strongly influenced by reseeding and soil fertility – a significant problem is cutting out-farms and rented land that has not been reseeded.

In short

Clear messages on milk protein have emerged from the work completed under the Teagasc/Lakeland Joint Programme. Shifting the breeding focus to EBI and milk
solids/fertility must be a priority for low protein herds. This should be done through AI but should also be remembered when purchasing stock bulls.
In terms of feeding, key areas for attention are soil fertility, reseeding and managing mid-season grass. Progress may be slow, but focus on these areas makes lifting milk
protein predictable, cost-effective and very worthwhile.

By Martina Moran, Teagasc Lakeland Dairies Joint Advisory Programme Team and Dr Joe Patton, Dairy Specialist, Teagasc Agricultural Grassland Research and Innovation Programme, Grange

Cows on grass. Photo O’Gorman Photography