The 2024 Irish Grassland Association Dairy Conference, sponsored by Yara, was held on Jan 10th following the highly enjoyable IGA social night event & Gala Dinner on the evening of the 9th. The Conference event was held, once again, in the excellent facilities of the Charleville Park Hotel in Co. Cork.
The theme of the Conference for 2024 was “Focusing on our strengths”. Following a challenging year in 2023 in terms of milk price, input costs and periods of difficult weather, it was timely to encourage the attendees to reflect on and be motivated by what makes our dairy farms profitable and what can be controlled within the business. The focus of each of the 3 sessions aimed at encouraging all participants to focus on what happens inside the farm gate and to concentrate on the key elements of what make their business resilient and ultimately, sustainable. To fine-tune this focus the conference was divided into 3 sessions to address these topics:
Session 1: Managing Challenging Milk Prices
The first session of the morning was chaired by IGA Council Member Patrick Gowing and opened with a presentation by GD Young, Dairy farmer from Co. Westmeath. GD has a very interesting and diverse farming background and he gave us an overview of this journey from a high input, split calving, liquid milk system of 240 cows in Aberdeenshire in the West of Scotland (along with beef/sheep & potato enterprises) to the spring calving, grass-based system he now runs with his wife Caroline and family outside Mullingar. GD’s journey reflects a dynamic and adaptive approach to farming, with strategic decisions made in response to economic challenges and market opportunities. The major decision to uproot the family came from a very strong motivation to create a simple, grass based system that allowed for flexibility and a strong focus on work-life balance. Following major investment in land purchase, yard and infrastructure development on to what was a green field (former tillage farm) site, the Young’s now run a highly profitable herd of 400 cows.
Tadhg Buckley, IFA Director of Policy/Chief Economist followed with a presentation giving a broad overview of the current position of the Irish Dairy Industry and a better understanding on the competitive advantage our grass-based system gives us in Ireland. The post quota era development in Ireland has seen a 33% increase in Dairy Cow numbers and a 65% increase in total milk solids and has been done in a sustainable way. Tadhg highlighted the value this has brought to the national and regional economies. Tadhg delved into the key drivers of the lower cost of production within the Irish system. The Irish Economy has one of the highest minimum wages (a reflection of the strength of the economy), highest electricity costs and the highest ratio when we compare concentrate and pasture costs (7:1) across the main dairy producing areas. Therefore it is absolutely critical we do not lose focus on maximising the intake of grass within the production system and to do this it is imperative that we retain the nitrates derogation. Tadhg concluded with a discussion on the short-medium term outlook on global dairy markets.
To conclude the session Patrick Gowing facilitated a broader discussion on a comparison between GD’s grass-based system in Mullingar to the high input/high output system he left in Scotland. The case study figures showed that in a high milk price scenario the high input system is relatively profitable however when adjusted for the on-going milk price volatility that is the Irish reality this high input system can come under serious financial pressure. The parting points highlighted that Ireland is an excellent place to continue with our grass-focussed system and it is critical that a change of focus due to nitrates implications and a limit on cow numbers does not lead to system drift.
Session 2: Getting it Right this Spring
This session brought us 3 excellent presentations on key areas of animal health and milk quality. Ger Cusack, practicing vet in Co. Waterford, gave us huge insight to the effects of lameness within the dairy herd. In grazing herds, white line issues and sole bruising are the most common hoof lesions that he sees. Many vets and hoof trimmers also report anecdotally that Mortellaro (also known as Digital Dermatitis) has become more prevalent in recent years. Ger outlined key areas for action that can be easily implemented in a proactive way on farm. As with many issues, prevention is better than cure and on-going observation, prompt intervention where needed will reduce the overall impact lameness has within the herd.
Don Crowley, Teagasc Milk Quality Specialist, focussed his presentation on early lactation management of SCC & milk quality issues. Set against the backdrop of the requirement to reduce antibiotic use within herds (for example through the use of selective dry cow therapy SDCT) due to anti-microbial resistance (AMR), Don highlighted key areas important for this: the benefits of good information to assessing and managing the first 100 days incorporating the first milk recording within 60 days of the first cow calving, servicing the parlour & changing liners. Cubicle allocation and hygiene are massively important as is the management of cows within 2 weeks of calving and those freshly calved – these are the groups that are most susceptible to infection. High SCC in February is not normal so vigilance is critical as is the management of cow body condition with milk fever being a gate-way disease to an animal developing other problems. Analysis of ICBF reports will be crucial to get to the root cause of any on-farm issue e.g heifer mastitis, use these in conjunction with your Vet/Advisor to keep on top of things. For the year ahead Don urged a policy that all cases of mastitis will be sampled for potential culture and sensitivity. Identification of chronic cows is a crucial part in the control/ or prevention of mastitis. A lot of these cows are at best marginal in profitability and they should be culled out of the herd.
Laura Hannon, former Nurse now farming in partnership with her parents in Co. Meath, outlined her approach to calf rearing and calf health. Laura is a recent winner of the ‘Animal Health Dairy Farmer of the Year’ award and from her clear demonstration of attention to detail she was a very worthy winner. Housing facilities on her farm, as she described, are not state of the art but her management approach is. For example scour treatment protocols have been developed with her Vet as have very clear SOP’s for all staff on the farm. Laura is meticulous about hygiene particularly in the areas of calf bedding and feeding equipment. New-born calves are tube-fed colostrum as needed and blood tested for antibody levels. Calf weights are monitored every 4-6 weeks and Laura was clear that looking at average weights of groups of calves in not ideal. She uses the maintenance sub-index (with the EBI) of each calf to guide her as to the target weights and to monitor weight gain. This facilitates identifying additional care a calf may need and Laura highlighted that early identification of poor performing calves is a huge benefit. Routine dung sampling is used to identify whether calves require dosing. Laura concluded how she has resolved issues with summer scour in calves and 3 cases of CCN in 2023 through vigilance and early intervention and developing a programme that works for her farm.
Session 3: Managing a System to suit your Business
The final session of the conference took the form of a facilitated panel discussion with audience Q&A. Chaired by IGA Council member, Michael Egan, we first got an overview from the 3 Dairy farmer speakers on their career to date. The focus of the session discussions revolved around how each of the farmers have adapted their farm businesses to reflect key focus areas within their systems.
David Dolan, farms alongside his parents Louis and Bernie near Claremorris, Co. Mayo. The 50 ha farm carries 110 crossbred cows. The farm has undergone significant change over the last 6 years going from a split calving high output system with multiple out blocks, to a spring calving medium output system on a single block. David is focusing on reducing the environmental impact of the farm and making more room for biodiversity. 20% of the farm is now in high clover swards with plans to introduce multi-species swards in 2024. David has just completed his Nuffield Scholarship, titled ‘Net Zero Emissions Farming: Challenges and Opportunities for farmers and co-ops’.
Mark Collins is farming in Tipperary in partnership with his parents, Padraig and Ena. The partnership is milking 450 crossbred cows on 170 ha with a 10 ha out block and all youngstock are contracted reared. Mark has a strong focus on a simple efficient system that produces quality milk solids from resilient pasture in a sustainable manner, and this year he implemented a 10 in 7 milking routine. There is a strong emphasis on keeping a positive working environment, to achieve the farm’s goals and the personal development of staff.
Owen Ashton is farming in a cow leasing/ contract milking deal with Kevin and Margaret Twomey in Castlelyons, Co. Cork. Not from a dairy farming background, he has always had a passion for dairy farming, and this partnership with the Twomey’s has allowed him to realise his goal. Owen has a strong focus on producing high quality milk from a grass based production system, with a good work life balance.
Each farmer showcased a unique approach, highlighting adaptability and innovation.
Together, they serve as compelling examples of the industry’s future driven by youthful energy and commitment.
Overall the conference was an excellent mix of technical presentations, panel discussions, Q&A sessions, and opportunities for networking to facilitate the exchange of ideas and experiences among dairy farmers, industry experts, and event sponsors Yara. Overall, the theme “Focusing on our strengths” showed it is clearly possible to adopt a proactive approach to overcoming challenges and building a sustainable future for the Irish dairy industry.
Papers and presentations
Thanks to all our speakers and session chairs for their time in preparing their papers and talks and for such high quality presentations on the day.
The 2025 event takes place on the 7th and 8th January at the Charleville Park Hotel. Delegates are encouraged to book B+B early (as accomodation sold out in October 2023 in advance of the January 2024 event).