Many liquid milk farms will be best served by exiting liquid milk, according to Joe Patton, Teagasc, especially if they are planning on expanding post quota.

Joe was speaking at the IFA Liquid Milk Forum in Dublin last week and said that an average 80-cow herd can be expanded more easily to 120+ cows in a seasonal production system than with liquid milk.

He also said that where individual farms are producing as little as 20% of their milk under contract as liquid milk, the percentage of milk going into liquid milk would further decrease with post-quota herd expansion and the critical mass is not there anymore. “This could leave you with this additional complication of different calving seasons for only 15% of the milk supplied under contract. There is no realistic premium per litre that could cover the additional marginal cost in this situation.”

Such farmers, he said, would be better off in a more streamlined dairy farm. “If 50% of milk is going into liquid milk, it means you require 30% of cows calving in autumn. However, if just 15% of the milk is going into liquid milk you would only need 10% cows calving in autumn. In that case if you have 90% calving in the spring and farmers have to ask themselves ’what is the point of taking 10 cows out of 100 to do this? Some guys may attempt to fill these winter litres with May-calving cows but there is always a danger that this will reduce the focus on good fertility in spring.”

The main technical challenge on liquid milk farms is herd fertility. “This is a huge issue on liquid milk farms. There was a perception before that grazing block size was the main limitation for farms in the sector. But, it really only applies to a small number of producers in  particular pockets of the country. Fertility is the big issue if we are honest about it. And it means there are a lot of people in the system principally because poor herd fertilityprevents them moving to a compact seasonal calving system. Calving intervals and empty rates will remain poor if recycling cows between seasons continues to be used as a safety net. It may not be obvious day-to-day but there’s a huge hidden cost to poor fertility across the year.”

Improvements in herd fertility, he says, more often than not leads to farmers moving out of liquid milk production. “Taking control of calving pattern, by using the right genetics and management, gives you real options in terms of choice of system. It will improve herd performance and profit within a liquid system, but also gives you the choice of a simpler system in the longer term. The logical end point for many herds we’ve worked with to improve herd fertility has been to move out of liquid milk.”