Winter milking has always been a way of life for Meath brothers Pat and Thomas Smith who farm 270ac near Longwood.
owever, it’s not a route most young farmers are going down now, says Pat, as the winter milk bonuses are not good enough to justify it.
“We’re milking all year round and always have been. My father did all winter milk, that’s how it was back then, 50 years ago. Everyone I knew was winter milking.
“Spring calving really only in the last 40 years I’d say. The younger generations coming on don’t seem to be getting into winter milking and that’s because the bonus we’re getting is not good enough. When you take into account the labour, electricity and feeding that’s required in a winter milk system, they’re just not good enough.
“Winter milkers have a huge meal bill that spring milkers don’t have. Having said that, it’s a system we’ve always been used to here and I don’t see us changing from it.
“The main advantage of winter milk is that you have a milk cheque coming in 12 months of the year. The other big advantage I find, is that it spreads your workload over the year.
“Profit-wise, good spring calving farmers are making just as much money.”
The Smith brothers are milking over 200 Holstein Friesian cows and they have around 90 replacement heifers coming on. They split calving and calve around 100 in the spring and 100 in the autumn.
They are on the higher end of the derogation level, says Pat, with a stocking rate of 2.6, but if they have to drop back in numbers, it will be the heifers that will go.
“We’re heavily stocked. Nitrates are going to be the biggest problem coming down the road for us. We won’t be expanding and if we do have to pull back in numbers, we’ll be pulling the heifers, not the cows.”
Pat says he has always liked Holstein Friesians and that the breed has improved over the years.
“My father used to keep Shorthorns and Friesians but we keep all Holstein Friesians and have done for the last 40-odd years.
“They’re a good solid cow; the Holstein nowadays is better than it was 10-15 years ago, they’re not as tall and leggy as they were back then. EBI has played a good part in that.
“I use a lot of sexed semen during the winter because I want heifer replacements.
“The sale of Friesian bulls is getting harder too, they’re getting harder to sell. Aberdeen Angus and Hereford bulls are always saleable but that’s not the case with the Friesians, particularly lately.”
Pat says he finds it easier to get the cows in calf in the winter because they are on a good, steady plane of nutrition that he can control precisely.
“The weather is also unpredictable in spring so they can be out and in and their diet isn’t as steady and uniform as it is when they’re all housed,” he says.
“We start calving the first week in October and then the cows are in until February.
“We don’t calve too many in December or January because they’re too hard to finish. We have an automatic calf feeder and I think that’s a big help when you’re milking all year round, it takes a bit of the pressure off and feeding calves is just part of the system.
“We let everything out between February 1 and 10, depending on the weather.”
The importance of a good feeding regime and high-quality feed should not be underestimated in a winter milking system, according to Pat.
“We feed once a day, in the morning, and we give them enough for the whole day. We batch feed as opposed to feeding all the animals together. The spring calvers get 4kg of meal in the wagon and we top up as we need to.
“We feed the fresh calvers 7kg from the feed-wagon — a 24pc balancer from McAuley Feeds.
“We feed 50/50 maize silage and grass silage. We’ve been feeding maize silage for the last 15 years or so — it works well with a winter calving herd when it’s combined with good-quality grass silage. It’s ideal for high-yielding cows, it’s very good quality forage.
“We also feed 10kg of fodder beet — it’s high in energy and the cows love it and it improves their intake. We don’t grow it, we get it from a local farmer. It’s delivered in a 16ft trailer washed but not chopped.
“Fodder beet only lasts four to five days when it’s chopped before it starts to weep and lose its value. We chop it in the wagon and again we find it great in a winter milking system.
“Our silage quality is good, it has to be in a winter milking system. All of the silage ground has been reseeded in the last five to six years.
“We graze down the ground well before winter so that we’re not carrying a butt of grass on it, then it’s a better base for good grass to grow in the spring.
“We don’t graze it in the spring and then we cut between May 5 and 10, depending on the weather.
The brothers pride themselves on having a low somatic cell count, which they say is down to having good drying off routine and good hygiene.
Labour currently isn’t a problem, says Pat, as they have a full-time employee and have seasonal workers for busy times.
“We have a girl with us full-time, Clare, and she’s great. She and Thomas do most of the milking and I take care of the feeding. We also have another girl called Gemma who comes to us one day a week. Then my daughter Aoife milks once every two weeks for us. And my wife Audrey is a great help behind the scenes.”
‘There’s not enough cows being calved in the autumn’
“Liquid suppliers do autumn calving because they have a contract and a certain amount of supply that needs to be fulfilled, and that’s why they split their calving profile.
“They need fresh cows in the autumn to efficiently deliver that contract. But what does a calving pattern actually dictate?
“Well, first of all, it dictates milk profile, and when we (Teagasc) look nationally, there’s not enough cows being calved in the autumn on liquid milk farms. People think it’s strange when I say that because a lot of the noise is that we should be switching to spring calving. But I’m saying, for the vast majority of farms, we should be calving more cows in the autumn.”
This is because cows calved in October and November are the most efficient cows on any dairy farm during the winter period, Dunne says.
“What we don’t want is a pile of stales or late calvers from a spring herd and a large portion of our liquid milk contract being filled by those cows, because they just aren’t as efficient in terms of converting feed to milk.”
The calving pattern on a farm will also dictate the level of concentrates and the type of forage required — such as good-quality silage, says Dunne. Having the right amount of young stock coming on is essential in a good winter milking system too, he adds.
“A big one is the requirement for young stock on the farm. What we see on winter milk farms is heifers aren’t being calved down at two years of age. That’s a big one going forward because you can reduce the level of replacements on the farm if you are calving the heifers at two years of age and haven’t got heifers calving down at 30+ months.
“When there are extended calving profiles, you have heifer calves coming through at different stages and it’s much harder in terms of the rearing process and getting those calved down at two years old.
“There is an additional labour input when we split our calving profile, and you need to get rewarded for that. All of that fills into the overall farm profitability: your calving system really dictates the overall farming system and the level of profitability that’s made on farm.”
Having a good, concise calving interval is extremely important, he adds.
“When we extend it, ultimately, we’re not getting the potential production out of our cow, irrespective of whether that potential is 7,500L or 9,000L.
“As we extend that calving interval, that cow will spend more days in a stale period so we’re losing out on that potential production. We need to target it to get it down into that 370-375 days to increase overall herd output.
“The autumn and spring six-week calving period… we want to compactly calve those cows down in a tight period then.”
Hanging on to cows is a pitfall for a lot of farmers, says Dunne, even though the aim is to have the majority of your herd mature.
“Everyone has favourite cows, but out of every 100 cows you’re only allowed five favourites. One of the biggest inefficiencies is — and it’s a very easy thing to do it — is hanging on to cows too long. We often see replacement rates of 20-22pc.
“The ones you do want to keep, with low somatic cell counts… if they move from the autumn to the spring, it’s not as big a deal as if they move from the spring to the autumn because you’re going from a high-cost period to a low-cost period, versus going from a low-cost period to a high-cost period.
“Lactations per cow is important going forward too and that really needs to be driven by the percentage of fourth and fifth lactation cows we can keep in the herd rather than being driven up by keeping poor-performing older cows.
“If we looked at this figure in isolation we could very easily just hang on to cows and we’d get there, but we want a large proportion of our herd in that fourth, fifth and sixth lactation period. We don’t want an awful lot of ninth, 10th and 11th lactation cows because they will give us trouble down the line.
“Cell count, lameness and fertility is a big driver in that.”
For the vast majority of winter milking herds, the beginning of October is the right time to start calving, according to Dunne.
“Unless you’re very heavily contracted, you don’t need to be calving cows in the first week of September,” he says.
“If you get your winter feeding right and your genetics are right, you can deliver the same constituents as your spring-calving counterparts.”
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