Moving to 220 cows: Crossbreds deliver the goods, but there’s room to improve

Joe and Kathleen Kirwan, a husband-and-wife team, currently milk 195 cows in Laurel Lodge, Horse and Jockey, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

On Thursday, the Kirwans opened the gates of their farm to over 200 visitors as part of the LIC Ireland Monitor Farm programme.

Back in early April, AgriLand readers were first introduced to the Kirwan family and why they decided to move away from high-yielding Holstein Frieisians to a crossbred herd.

Previously, the husband-and-wife team milked a herd of 70 high-yielding Holstein Friesian cows on a 66ac block.

But when a 104ac farm became available to rent, just across the road, the couple had to take a deep breath and analyse the viability of expansion.

After drawing up a robust plan, the Kirwans discovered that the venture was viable and put the wheels of expansion in motion.

Joe Kirwan speaking at the open day
Read: Why did the Kirwans decided to go down the crossbred route

Thursday’s open day focused on the performance of the Kirwans’ herd to date and the improvements that they plan on making in the coming years.

The Kirwans’ key goals:
  • Manage 220 cows as a husband-and-wife team (1.5 labour units);
  • Manage a consistently profitable business;
  • Make the farm big enough to be a viable unit for the next generation.

Expansion and investment

The Kirwans’ herd has increased dramatically in recent years. Just two years ago, they were milking 73 cows. This climbed to 136 in the spring of 2016 and 195 this year.

At the same time, they have also invested heavily in infrastructure. Investments include: cubicle housing for 104 cows; a new 30-unit parlour; a meal bin; and a drafting system.

There is absolutely no doubt in Joe’s mind that the expansion journey they have embarked on, which includes plans to milk 220 cows by 2020, would not be possible without easy-care, crossbred cows.

Not only will the crossbred cows allow the Kirwans to achieve the labour goals mentioned above; but they will also produce the type of milk that will see the farm rewarded for every litre of milk sold.

Fertility performance is one of Joe’s key focus areas. Once again, this is closely linked with labour efficiency goals and the overall farm financial performance.

Expanding for the right reasons means that, in the medium term, they have a consistently profitable business.

This will allow them to employ a farm manager when it comes time for them to step back or to have the capacity to accommodate one of their children should they be inclined to take over the running of the business.

Current production levels

LIC’s Pasture to Profit Farm Consultant, Bess Jowsey, gives farmers a run down of the current performance of the Kirwans’ herd and their targets for the future.

“The cows are currently producing 23L/day and an average of 1.83kg milk solids per day.

“Joe and I consider this to be a good level of performance; bearing in mind that 33% of the herd are in their first lactation and 33% are second-calvers – so it’s a relatively young herd.”

On concentrate supplementation, she said: “The target for the season is to feed 500kg of meal.

“We were on track to achieve this up until mid-April when we started to see issues with phosphorous on the farm and cows eating stones.”

As a result, the quantity of concentrates offered increased slightly, she said, as it was being used to supply the cows with their phosphorous requirements.

“So far this year, the cows have had 360kg of meal and the plan is to knock that right down until the end of the season,” she said.

Current situation:
  • Number of cows in milk: 195;
  • Total farm area: 73ha;
  • Milking platform: 63ha;
  • Milk platform stocking rate: 3.1 cows/ha;
  • Average daily milk yield: 23L/cow/day;
  • Average daily milk solids yield: 1.83kg/cow/day;
  • Concentrate input: 2kg/cow/day;
  • Average farm cover: 428kg/ha;
  • Average body condition score: 2.8.

The consultant also touched on the body condition score of the Kirwans’ herd, which stood at 2.8 last month.

“Condition score has dropped slightly over the last month and I put that down to the cows working hard and the pasture quality dropping over the last month.

“However, in terms of where they need to be for drying off, they are on target,” she said.

Joe Kirwan also touched on his herd’s performance, in terms of milk price, constituents and fertility.

“We are hoping to do 8.1% solids this year and we are targeting 9% over the next five years. Already, we are getting 4c/L over the creamery average milk price.

Fat is 4.37% and the creamery average is 3.92%. 66% of the herd are crossbred at the moment and 50% of the cows are Jersey / Holstein Friesian cross.

“Protein is at 3.58% so far this year, which is above the creamery average. It’s probably one of the top herds in the co-op and I think it can get an awful lot better.

“Milk price so far this year is 35.7c/L – that’s 4c/L above the creamery average and we’ve another 4c/L to push out of that.”

A 75% Jersey, a Holstein Friesian and a Jersey / Holstein Friesian on Joe Kirwan’s farm

However, Joe added: “This herd can improve hugely over the next five years. There is a lot of room for improvement here and the financials are no way near good enough.”

Fertility performance – there’s room for improvement

By far, Jowsey said, the most challenging side of the herd is its fertility performance.

We have set quite tough targets for the farm on fertility. I see fertility as one of the key weaknesses in the business at the moment from a labour efficiency point of view.

One of these targets is to have a 75% six wee, in-calf rate.

Farmers should target a three week submission rate of 90%, she said, but the Kirwans’ herd achieved a 76% rate.

“That’s putting a lot of pressure on getting cows in-calf early.

“If you were to read the herd’s ICBF report it would say 82%, which maybe isn’t quite as bad. However, the target at the start of calving is that every cow should be eligible to be served.

“I don’t work out submission rate based on the eligible cows, which is what the ICBF report would have done. I consider every single cow that is milking in the herd as being eligible.

“That figure of 76% is based on the entire herd rather that just those that were eligible based on the ICBF figures of being 30 days calved.

“Already, that has set a challenge for the farm this year and we are hoping that conception rates are exceptionally high to hit our target.

“I expect that those targets are achievable over the next four years; but it will take a lot of time and effort,” she said.

Future targets

Jowsey added: The Kirwans’ target for 2020 is to have 220 cows on the farm, producing 500kg of milk solids per cow and a target of 9% solids in the milk.”

Joe said: “We have done a lot of financials and the biggest improvement I can make is to get the six week in-calf rate up to 90%.

“I’m a long way off it, but it’s improving slowly and breeding takes time. With a little bit of breeding and a lot of attention to detail, we will get there.

Joe admitted that his herd’s fertility performance isn’t wonderful, but it’s an improvement on where he was when he was milking a herd of high-yielding Holstein Friesian cows.

On milk production, Joe said: “We are aiming to produce 1.3 million litres of milk. We will do over one million litres this year; so every 1c/L saving I can make this year is worth €10,000.

You don’t make your farm profitable by making single decisions; you have to chip away and a 1c/L saving on my farm in three years time will be €13,000 profit.