Post-quota expansion of dairy output is widely viewed as a given for Munster and south Leinster. Views on the potential for dairying on land further north and west are sometimes less positive.

For some, the perception of long winters, wet land and fragmented farms means that options are limited in the Border Midlands and West (BMW) region. Is this perception accurate? In most cases, no.

Grass growth and feed costs undoubtedly present a greater challenge on heavier land types but dairy Profit Monitor figures for the region make for interesting reading. Average profit per milking platform hectare in 2012 was €1,349, with the top 25 per cent on €2,174 per ha and the lowest 25 per cent on €655 per ha – that’s a range of close to €60,000 between the highest and lowest farms for the same output.

This shows that a) the range in farm performance is very similar to the national average and b) well-managed farms are capable of excellent returns per hectare.

The Ballyhaise college dairy project was begun in 2005 to help understand differences and produce new information on improving dairy farm profit in the region. At the outset, the main issues identified as hampering profitability were: lower growth and use of grazed grass on wetter soils, farm fragmentation and poor herd fertility.

An important aim was to develop systems which could be adopted easily by farmers and would be robust enough to withstand fluctuating milk prices.

So what are the main findings of the Ballyhaise project?

Herd fertility — the foundation of higher farm profit

Poor herd fertility has a severely negative effect on profit. High culling rates reduce the potential to sell surplus heifers or expand and restrict the opportunity to do any voluntary culling. Spread out calving patterns lead to increased feed costs and reduced milk yields.

Improving the fertility performance of the Ballyhaise herd from a low base in 2005 was essential, and the results over the last eight years have been very encouraging. Fertility performance has improved markedly from the beginning of the programme, from 35 per cent empty rate in 2005 to seven per cent in 2012. This has happened through aggressive breeding and culling policy.

High EBI bulls with a high fertility sub-index have been  used across the herd over the past eight years. Cows empty at the end of the year were sold and replaced with high EBI replacements.

Cow nutrition is also highly important for fertility. This does not simply mean extra meal in the parlour, but good grazing management, feeding to balance grass deficits and managing body condition from late lactation through the following spring – always a great point for debate among visiting discussion groups!

Grazing heavier land — what can be achieved? 

Land type undoubtedly has a major effect on grass production and use. Recent work at Teagasc Ballyhaise has reported excellent pasture growth and utilisation in normal growing seasons, in contrast to the perceived disadvantages relative to drier locations. Grass production has increased steadily from 12 tonnes DM/ha in 2008 to 15.2 tonnes in 2011.

This was achieved by a strong push on reseeding (up to 15 per cent of area reseeded annually), coupled with implementing a plan to improve soil fertility.

Better grazing management (ie grazing at the correct growth stage) has also helped deliver increased grass production. More recently, poor weather during 2012 and during spring 2013 have provided a stark reminder of the high production costs associated with poor grass growth — a lesson not unique to this region.

What does this potentially mean for farm profit? Improved grass yields and more effective grazing management have increased milk solids production per hectare at Teagasc Ballyhaise from 900kg in 2005 to 1250kg 2012 for little or no increase  in purchase feed. In short, better grass use is driving higher milk solids output at Teagasc Ballyhaise.

Milk yield and farm output — lessons for expansion
Milk yield and output is an important point for discussion for visiting groups. There is sometimes a view expressed that Ballyhaise is a low-output system compared with farms in the wider region and that expansion targets will not be met using this approach.

However, data collected on-farm reveals that output is around 900kg of milk solids per hecate with a concentrate input of 890kg per cow.

Ballyhaise produces 38 per cent more milk per hectare than the regional average, with lower concentrate input, indicating excellent scope for expansion by implementing this system.

As expected, the highest profit farms in the region also have higher milk solids output per hectare for lower purchased feed costs.

In summary
Results from the Ballyhaise study have challenged perceptions of what profitable dairying in the BMW region could look like in a post-quota world.

Notwithstanding the vert difficult weather conditions over the past year, work at the site has consistently demonstrated that improved herd fertility, better milk solids and increase grass use are the key points for profitable milk production. This message is backed up by profit results from other herds on similar land types. The challenge remains to gain wider uptake across dairy farms in the region.

By Donal Patton, project manager, Teagasc Ballyhaise Herd