The annual IGA Dairy Conference took place on Thursday 7th January in the Radisson Blu Hotel, Limerick and was kindly sponsored by Yara. This years’ conference theme focussed on strategies to overcome volatility. Key speakers at the event included leading dairy farmers and members of the dairy industry working in the areas of research, consultancy and agribusiness.
On the morning of the conference, a breakfast meeting took place with guest speaker Dr. Edmond Harty who addressed the topic ‘The importance of innovative ability in times of volatility’. Dr. Harty is CEO of Dairymaster, one of the leading dairy innovation and technology companies in the world. The key message from Dr. Hartys presentation was that in order for a business to remain innovative in their product range they must constantly identify and stay in touch with what their customer needs. Using examples from Dairymasters range of award winning products, Dr.Harty spoke about the increasing importance of technology in todays’ world and the opportunities this creates in providing solutions to customer problems.
The main conference was divided into four sessions. The first session addressed grassland management, the second session discussed dry and early lactation nutritional management of cows in grass based dairy production systems. The third session had industry speakers consider various strategies in managing volatility. The final session discussed herd health risks when expanding and William Kingston gave a review of how his farm has progressed in 13 years and his plans for the future.
Dr. Michael O’Donovan from Teagasc Moorepark gave the first presentation of the conference. Michael discussed the importance of improving the focus on spring grass and the latest recommendations and guidelines for maximising the use of grass as supported by data from Pasturebase Ireland participants. Speaking on the variation in grass DM production on Irish farms, Michael reported that high grass DM production can be achieved on dairy farms with good grazing and soil fertility management irrespective of location. It is the ‘man in front of the cows that dictates grass performance’. Farms recording farm cover on PastureBase Ireland have grown between 12-15t DM/ha/yr over the past three years. Michael then highlighted the following as factors influencing spring grass supply which are controlled by the farmer: Autumn closing date, closing cover, spring nitrogen application and spring grazing management. Winter grass growth and spring grass growth are also factors that the farmer can influence to a lesser degree. Michael found that farms finishing their first rotation before April 10th grew 20% more grass in spring 2015 compared to farms who finished the first rotation after this date. He believes that targets within the spring rotation planner need to be adhered to in order to utilise spring grass and ensure a high April growth.
Shane Crean, a Kerry man farming in Cork presented his experience of transition to a grass-based system of milk production and his plans for the grazing season ahead. Shane outlined his journey in arriving to his current farm in Cork, explaining how his experience as a Stephen Cullinane scholar in New Zealand showed him how he could have a low input, grass-based system that would also work in Doneraile. Shane set about addressing the areas of breeding policy, soil fertility and reseeding and grassland management. In looking to the future, Shane says the two biggest components that make his business successful and profitable are to utilise more grass per hectare by aiming to grow 18,500kg DM/ha and increase his six week calving rate to over 85%. He will also be keeping a close eye on production costs while keeping a good work/life balance.
The second session saw Dr. Mary Herlihy of Teagasc Moorepark present her findings to date from her farm-based study of cows after calving. Mary’s paper discussed the trends in body condition score and its impact on reproductive performance. Reproductive performance has long been recognised as a major contributor to the overall profitability of any dairy system. Cows with a low body condition score at calving or between calving and breeding are more likely to have reduced submission and conception rates and this will have a negative impact on compact calving patterns. Mary’s key messages for a successful breeding season in 2016 are as follows
Dr. Finbar Mulligan of UCD presented his paper with the latest research and guidelines for the management and nutrition of the dry and transition cow in grass based systems. In compliment to Dr. Herlihys presentation, Finbar reiterated the most important aspect of dry cow nutrition is to ensure an appropriate body condition score (3.0 to 3.25) at calving. He also emphasised the importance of grass-silage analysis to ensure the appropriate energy, protein, mineral and trace element allowances can be provided.
The third session of the day saw an interesting line up of speakers from industry who presented their thoughts on market outlook and suitable business strategies that dairy farmers could adapt to remain financially viable in times of low milk prices. Noel Gowan of Grasstec identified the main drivers of profit as cost of production and grass utilisation. Using ideas from a UK discussion group, Noel illustrated various useful cost cutting measures that this group had decided to apply in the coming year to try reduce costs by 15%. He then explained the importance of grass utilisation as an indicator of profit on dairy farms. For every one tonne increase in DM utilised per ha, profit will increase by approx. €267/ha. Using a grass utilisation calculation, it shows that those farmers with relatively high stocking rates and high output/ha from low concentrate inputs are those who are driving high profits from their systems.
Tadhg Buckley of AIB then showed that since 2007 milk price volatility over any three month period has increased by 300%. While volatility is a relatively new phenomenon for Irish dairy farmers, it is set to be a fact of life in the future. Tadhg said that those farmers with strong financial awareness who have simple and stable farm systems are able to manage volatility better. He said that these farmers also have certain traits such as a strong information and feedback network in the form of discussion groups or otherwise, they have excellent people management skills which helps in dealing with banks etc. and also hold the ability to make timely decisions.
FDC’s Dave Sheane stressed that farmer attitude and outlook is critical in addressing volatility. Dave recommended that farmers develop a proactive approach based on a medium-term outlook, incorporating a five year rolling business plan, periodic market assessment, financial management and cash flow projections.
The final session was opened by Dr. Riona Sayers who presented twelve steps to minimising the herd health risk in an expanding dairy herd. Riona emphasised the importance of having an effective biosecurity plan in place that should include such measures as good purchasing strategy, quarantine procedures, good hygiene, stock proof fencing and vaccination protocols. She then highlighted the following strategies to prevent disease introduction.
The final speaker for the day was Cork dairy farmer William Kingston who hosted the IGA Dairy summer tour back in 2002. William reviewed the progress made on his farm since that time. Today the business is much bigger, he is still farming 120ha but now owns 80% of it, all the beef is gone and heifer rearing is contracted out. Over 360 cows (mostly Jersey crossbred) will calve down in spring 2016, while in 2002 he was milking 165 Holstein Friesian. His milk fat and protein have lifted from 3.62% and 3.33% respectively up to 4.65% and 3.9%. The lift in milk quality was worth about 7c/litre. This highlights the value in breeding for composition, better fertility and good grassland management. Williams key message to dairy farmers was to keep focused and stick to what you know – ‘if you are in dairying stay at dairying – leave other farmers to look after beef’. He also advised young farmers to be patient particularly with challenges that farming brings. Write your plans down as when it is on paper you are more likely to stick to it better. He believes that if you hold tough, farm as well as you can on your own farm and the opportunities will come your way.