Dairy Summer Tour 2014

Posted in Category(ies):  Reviews

iga dairy summer tourDairy Summer Tour

Took place on the 12th of August in Co. Laois
On the farms of David and Paul Hyland and David Kerr.

Over 400 delegates attended the event and lively discussion took place throughout the day.

David and Paul Hyland

David and Paul Hyland are in a three-way partnership with their mother Lucy, on their farm at Ballacolla, Co. Laois. The farm comprises both owned and leased land with a milking platform of 114 ha grazing 360 cows. The farm has seen a lot of expansion over the past decade with cow numbers increasing by over 50% in the period, from 236 cows up to 360 this year. Since the mid 1990’s the milk output from the farm has increased more than threefold. Stocking rate is high at 2.75 LU/ha. The complicating factor is that the milking block is split in two, with a 1 km stretch between the nearest points of both blocks. The herd is grazed and milked as one unit so the normal grazing rotation is also split between the two land blocks, with the cows walking down the public road about every ten days. Milking is facilitated by two parlours – a 16 unit parlour on one block and a bigger 20 unit parlour for milking the cows on the larger land block.

Expansion through a Partnership

Since 2011 the Hylands have taken the opportunity of increasing the number of cows grazing on the milking platform by entering into a partnership with a farmer some distance away. As part of the partnership, the Hylands milk all the cows while the other partner rears the young stock. This allows the calves to leave the Hyland farm as soon as they are weaned; only returning to the farm just before calving two years later.

Managing Cows and Grass

The overwhelming emphasis on the Hyland farm is to manage grass so that the maximum amount is grown and utilised. Regular soil sampling is used to monitor soil fertility and correct deficiencies. The paddocks are walked every week during the grazing season to establish growth rates, record the grass covers and adjust the grazing management as required. Last year the farm recorded grass production at an average of 14 t DM/ha. Even still, the Hylands acknowledge that there is a considerable difference between the highest and lowest yielding paddocks. The intention is to increase overall grass production by lifting the lower yielding swards through reseeding and fertilising according to the soil analysis results. About 10% of the farm is reseeded annually.

The cows on the Hyland farm are from a British Friesian base. Gradually there was a changeover to Holsteins and then, in recent years, Paul and David began to use New Zealand Friesian breeding on the older cows in the herd, with replacements being inseminated with Jersey semen. This year the more Jersey type Friesian heifers are bred to easy calving Friesians with the Friesian types bred to NZ-cross AI bulls. 

This year 70% of the herd calved in the first six weeks of the calving season (10% of the herd calves in the autumn to provide fresh calvers for the winter milk contract). The first three weeks of the breeding season saw almost 90% of both the cows and heifers inseminated. 

The EBI of the herd is closely monitored. The young stock on the farm have great potential with an EBI estimated at Ä190 for 2014-born calves. The previous year’s (2013) crop average is Ä180. The milking herd average EBI is calculated at Ä147. Last year a total of 426 kgs of milk solids per cow were sold to Glanbia. The herd average protein yield is an impressive 3.58%.

Controlling Costs and Expansion

Priorities for the Hylands are remarkably simple: ‘’The first is to get the milk into the tank. Compliance is the second most important requirement on the farm.” A cash reserve at certain times of the year is another priority for the Hylands. ”Things don’t always work out exactly as planned and there has to be some cushion, if at all possible, to handle the unexpected.”

The maintenance of optimum soil P and K levels on the farm is another straightforward priority, as is adequate labour to get the work done efficiently. ‘’Everything else is secondary. You can have very fancy extras, in the parlour for example, but a straightforward unit to get the milk from the cows to the tank is all that is really required.” 

The Hylands think carefully about the return from any money they borrow and spend. “We differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ debt. P and K is good debt. The same can be said for an efficient milking parlour and a well bred herd of cows. Excess machinery could be considered bad debt. Those are the distinctions we make to operate efficiently.”

‘’Before expanding you need to be operating efficiently already. You need to be able to show the Bank Manager a well developed expansion plan, including full costings, cash flow projections and debt repayment capacity as well as several years’ farm accounts, if possible.”

Paul Hyland outlines a number of the key management priorities: ‘’The financial aspect of expansion always took priority. When an opportunity arose we looked carefully at how it was going to be financed. Each project had to stand on its own feet, financially speaking.” There are a saying that opportunities come to pass. Unless you are ready to take an opportunity when it arises it will pass you by. That is definitely the frame of mind of the Hyland brothers. ‘’It can’t be impulsive investment from cashflow. If the proposition is good enough it should be developed on a long term basis with long term finance.”

Paul also highlighted the importance of being involved with a good discussion group. The brothers, interestingly, are members of different groups, with the deliberate intention of maximising exposure to other farmers actions and management strategies. ‘’There’s a multiplication factor in the benefits gained from discussion group involvement.”

Paul elaborated on an interesting concept of which there is no current example in Irish farming circles. ‘’Internationally, in business, there is a well developed system of mentoring. That could have a hugely positive impact on young farmers entering agriculture and dairying. The development of a mentoring network among the farming community is something that should be positively considered.”

Liam Phelan AIB, Eddie O'Donnell IGA Vice President and the Hyland Family Host Farmers

Group Photo

David Kerr

The visit to the Kerr farm was an impressive exercise, not least because of the open manner in which David outlined his achievements, his attitude to life and farming, and his plans for the future development of the cow herd and the farm. 

David has streamlined work on the farm, to the extent that, even though there are four times more dairy cows on the farm than there were a decade ago, he is satisfied that there is less work than previously. Some would call this working smarter, rather than working harder. David puts it down to common sense. His farm planning has centred around the strategy that the spring calving dairy unit will be run using his own fulltime input along with some seasonal labour. To achieve that objective, all work outside of that directly involved in milking the cows and managing the grass is contracted out. All fertiliser and slurry spreading, along with winter feeding of some of the herd, is carried out by contractors. The added benefit of this strategy is to keep machinery costs on the farm down to a minimum. Contract rearing of replacement stock is another labour saving strategy. It also has an added benefit in that it releases all land around the milking parlour to grow grass for lactating cows.

The farmyard itself is designed and laid out to get the job done efficiently. The 22-unit parlour can milk 140 cows in an hour. That’s without cluster removers.  It does have a backing gate, allowing the milker to stay in the pit. Extra, empty places allow cows to be lining up for milking and a narrow pit maximises the efficiency of cluster turn-over. Air-operated exit gates again speed up cow movement.

Managing Cows and Grass

David’s on-farm investment priorities are clear: ‘’I made a number of investment decisions looking to the future. My strengths are managing cows and grass. Those are the areas that give maximum financial return for my time and commitment. So those are the areas that I concentrate on.”

David has been measuring grass growth for almost two decades. His farm grew an average of 14 t DM/ha last year and is on target to match or improve on that this year. It’s a difficult enough farm with some very heavy land. Stocking rate at full capacity is planned at 2.6 LU/ha, buffered with 500 kg of meal per cow. When stocking rate and milk output is optimised by the end of quotas, David intends to harvest upwards of 1,110 kg MS/ha from the farm. This will need the farm to produce at least 13 t DM/ha and utilise 11 t of that grass production each year.

David acknowledges that the highest return on investment on the farm is from P and K fertiliser inputs. Low soil test results showed huge potential from investment in that area. The farm achieved up to 14 t DM/ha with relatively low soil fertility, in very good growing conditions, admittedly. “There is room for a lot more when soil fertility levels are brought up further. When P and K levels are brought up to optimum there will then be scope to reduce investment for a period if and when required by low milk prices.”

While David applies best practice to his farm management decisions he has clear goals and objectives for his farm. His more nuanced approach to cow breeding is a case in point: ‘’I focus more on the sub-indices of the Economic Breeding Index than solely on the headline figures. I target the areas of weakness in the herd where I can drive productivity. Lifting milk solids production is one definite priority. That results in chosen bulls that are not in the highest EBI category but they possess the traits I have identified as my priority breeding areas. High milk solids accompanied by good fertility are what I’m after. Cross breeding is being used for hybrid vigour with genetic improvement coming from the sub indexes of the herd EBI.”

Controlling Costs and Expansion

David’s farming philosophy is quite clear: ‘’The way I look at it is we are in a commodity business producing milk and dairy products. There are two areas of cost that you have under your own control – fixed and variable costs. The variable ones by their nature will vary each year depending on factors such as the weather and your ability to control them. But the fixed costs are made at the initial stage and when milk price comes under pressure those fixed costs can have a disproportionate effect on profitability. That situation needs to be focused on more on farms.”

There is a lot of investment taking place on dairy farms at the moment and David’s perspective on finance planning is clear. ‘’There is a temptation to spend from cash flow. In an expanding scenario that puts pressure on finances because there are so many calls on cash at that time, including the cost of rearing non-productive replacement stock. Long-term planning should be financed by long term finance.”

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Posted on Wednesday, 19 November 2014  |  By Irish Grassland Association
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