‘Breeding and grass are the pieces of the jigsaw for sustainable dairy farming’

Breeding and grass are the pieces of the jigsaw for a successful, highly-profitable dairy farm, according to dairy farmer Denis O’Donovan.

Denis spoke on Wednesday, January 9, at the Irish Grassland Association’s (IGA’s) Dairy Conference which took place in Co. Cork.

A farming tour to New Zealand over 10 years ago proved to be a turning point in this man’s dairy farming career. He learned that crossbred cows are highly-fertile and have a big impact on the milk production system.

So, with this in mind, the Co. Cork native decided to put these key aspects into practice on his own dairy farm.

“It was my first time to see the benefits of breeding fertile cows that had a compact calving pattern. I saw hundreds of thousands of cross-bred cows in New Zealand; it was my first time seeing so many cross-bred cows together.

These farms were calving half the herd in two weeks – something which I hadn’t come across at home before.

“Some people were talking about it, but these farms were actually doing it every year. It was also my first time seeing golf-ball grazing; it was a great eye opener,” Denis added.


Currently, the farm consists of 150 cross-bred dairy cows with an Economic Breeding Index (EBI) of €155. Last year, each cow in Denis’s herd produced 437kg of milk solids, on average.

“Cross-breeding to me is a no-brainer; it ticks all the boxes. 88% of the cows in the herd calve in six weeks. There is a 13% replacement rate and only 6% of the herd were not in calf after a 10-week breeding period.”

Denis O’Donovan speaking at the IGA Dairy Conference

In order to tighten up the calving pattern of the herd, Denis said: “We sold the later-calving cows and replaced them with heifers. These were 100% perfect cows, but it allowed us to get a compact calving. Once we got the herd compact, it was a lot easier to keep it compact.”

Denis also explained that having the cows at the right body condition score (BCS) at calving and at insemination is key for a successful breeding season.


Touching on his grazing system, he said: “We give no paddock an excuse not to grow grass. We soil test to get pH, phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) right,” he said.

“We’re now better grassland managers. We grew 16t of DM/ha of grass in 2017, but that will be back by 3-4t of DM/ha on that figure for 2018 due to the drought.”

In the past, the Cork man used a rented block of land to grow a fodder crop which would be brought back to the home farm and fed to the cows in the shoulders of the year; the stocking rate was pushed up on the home farm as a result.

“That was grand, but it complicated things. Currently, the stocking rate is at 3.4LU/ha on the milking platform.

“By driving the stocking rate up, we didn’t get any more profitable. Focusing on utilising more grass and not bringing in extra feed has been more profitable.

I now have a simple grass-based system that’s fairly bulletproof.

According to Denis, driving stocking rate to the amount of grass the farm can grow and feeding 500kg of meal/cow/year at the shoulders of the year is what makes the farming system “bulletproof”.


Denis is a member of two discussion groups and credits them with much of the development that has taken place when it comes to the profitability of his farm.

“I have a huge amount of time for the discussion group I’m in. Anyone who’s not in a discussion group; you are missing out,” he explained.

Speaking about what influences him and his system, he said: “The focus on profit in our discussion groups is key and that keeps you focused for the year.

If I see a set of figures from someone in our discussion group, I think if he can do it then there should be no reason why I can’t produce milk at high profit with low cost.

“I try to benchmark my farm against the best farms in the country,” he added.


Touching on labour, he said: “We always have two-to-three relief milkers and we try to take every second weekend off – once the breeding season is over.”

In addition, Denis uses the services of a contractor to do most of the machinery work on the farm.

“Up to 10 years ago, we were doing all the machinery work ourselves – from cutting silage, reseeding and all other tractor work.

Now, we have changed that. All the machinery work is carried out by a contractor except for the fertiliser spreading and feeding; that was a big change for us.

“We decided to focus on the grass, the cows, rearing the heifers and let someone else deal with the headaches of the machinery,” he concluded.