What dairy system do you operate and how is it performing?

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The type of dairy farming system you operate will no doubt have been dictated by your farm’s most limiting factor. Profitability, however, is only truly dictated by the ability of a farm’s manager.

The 2018 Kingshay UK Dairy Production Systems report shows there are bigger variations in performance within defined dairy farm systems, than between systems.

Looking at the three main classifications of farm types, the following results were recorded (see table):

Key performance indicators

The focus of a spring calving system is maintaining a tight calving pattern to produce as much milk from forage, with feed rates below 0.2 kg/litre.

The predominant forage in this system is grazed grass. With output lower due to less yield per cow, the cost of grazed grass at 3.5 ppl is key to creating a profitable system, with an emphasis on running a low-cost system to retain as much of the milk price per litre.

The highest output spring calving herds focus on output per hectare, driven by high stocking rate and not yield per cow. Within this study group, stocking rates averaged 2.48 cows/hectare, with the top performers focused on measuring and allocating grass at the right growth stage all season.

The most common production system in Northern Ireland is the autumn/winter calving system, which focuses on high quality silage - a necessity to keep feed rate under control. At a feed rate around 0.3 kg/litre this is the key target for this system.

Getting autumn calvers out early to grass is necessary to take cheap litres from grazed grass in the later part of the cow’s lactation. With a spread calving pattern, grass quality mid-season must be maintained to hold milk levels, without over reliance on meal feeding.

This system suits farms with a more fragmented land block, as the entire herd will be grazed from turnout to end of June. As cows dry off, the herd’s needs from grazed grass are met within the land block, as grass growth begins to decline.

Within the Kingshay study, the best performing herds had higher yields at slightly lower stocking rates, operated simple winter-feeding systems and rotationally grazed cows, when at grass.

The best farms in this group had proper grazing infrastructure, roadways and water, and well-planned paddock set-ups.

All year round calving housed herds have a focus on yield per cow to drive production per cow place. The emphasis is return on capital invested in housing and facilities, with cow comfort, feed space per cow and ventilation all of critical importance.

A key indicator for these herds is margin over purchased feed per cow, the aim being to maximise margin after feed is paid, ensuring sufficient revenue to cover higher direct production costs associated with this system.

From the Kingshay study, key drivers for this system are herd nutrition, quality conserved forage and cow comfort. Interestingly, the top performing herds had higher milk from forage figures, with the poorest performers only taking 5% from forage. The highest milk from forage herds don’t necessarily feed alternative forages but focus on high quality grass silage as part of a balanced ration.

Measuring and monitoring key parameters is essential so performance can be tracked and managed accordingly. There are several costing packages available commercially or through CAFRE, which provide the right performance figures for your business.

Given that the milk to feed price ratio is currently around 1.1:1, the lowest it has been since June 2016, there is a need for dairy farmers to get a handle on performance, focus on improving grazed grass utilisation and make high quality silage. There is a place for more milk from forage, no matter the system.

Dale Farm recently partnered with Kingshay Independent Consultants, offering a margin over purchased feeds recording system. If you are interested in hearing more about Dale Farm’s farmer services, contact Neville Graham on 07795 088263.