CALVING a proportion of Irish herds in autumn could improve access to European markets for milk products, but producers need a significant price premium to make these businesses profitable, research at Teagascs Moorepark Centre in Co Cork has revealed.
Ireland has a highly seasonal national milk production profile and peak output coincides with the availability of low-cost grass.
Most milk production in Ireland comes from spring calving herds, and many dairies pricing policy supports this, say Moorepark researchers Seamus Crosse, Bernadette OBrien and Ger Ryan.
However, this results in a highly seasonal milk supply pattern which presents problems in terms of the product mix which can be manufactured. Although a study 20 years ago showed that spring milk production was best for the economics of the whole industry, there are doubts about whether this is the case today, says Dr Crosse.
"Ireland is on the edge of the European market and seasonal production is restricting our options. If some herds were autumn calving it would allow us to diversify into a wider range of products with higher value." Currently 85% of manufacturing milk is produced from March to October.
There are also many hidden costs at manufacturing level associated with the current milk supply pattern. "We must have capacity for milk at peak supply, but the processors fixed assets are not being used all year. And there are additional costs for collecting small volumes of milk during the winter months."
This late lactation winter milk is also of lower quality for processing than early lactation milk because protein, lactose, casein and casein fractions are altered. Milk composition can change the yield, composition and quality of dairy products.
Milk from autumn calvers is of better processing quality than late lactation milk from spring calvers and mixing milk from autumn and spring calving herds has improved milk for cheesemaking, according to Moorepark research.
Dr Crosse believes that paying for milk on the current scheme should continue for spring calving herds. Producers receive a flat rate depending on fat and protein content.
"Processors should change the pricing structure for herds calving 100% of cows in autumn based on a contract." This should reflect the processing characteristics of the milk. Paying more for winter milk in the past has meant giving bonuses for late lactation milk from spring calving herds which should be avoided.
Late lactation milk from autumn calvers was also found to be of better processing quality than that from spring calvers. The quality of cheese manufactured from late lactation autumn calvers milk deteriorated slightly but the differences were small and would have no real impact.
"But autumn calved herds will need a 25% price premium over the base price," he adds.
This will help cover the increased costs of winter milk production, mainly through feeding more concentrates.
Although Dr Crosse believes that in some systems overhead costs may not need to increase with autumn calving, spring calving herds have a greater opportunity for a low overhead cost structure.
Should a contract for autumn calving herds become available, it will appeal to those with good facilities and adequate labour. Access to silage will also be important, and being able to grow or buy forage maize will be useful, adds Dr Crosse.
A blueprint for autumn calving developed at Moorepark sets a mean calving date of mid-October and suggests a target yield of 6400 litres a cow at 3.9% fat and 3.4% protein. To achieve this performance cows need 3.1t dry matter of grazed grass, 1.5t DM of high quality silage and 1t of concentrate.
"But the premium must be geared for these producers to make more money or they wont do it," says Dr Crosse.
Although the processor will have to pay more for milk they will be able to improve their product mix. Diversification of products manufactured should lead to higher returns.
But processors should offer these contracts with care: Many winter milk schemes failed in the past because they were open to all producers.
For milk collection to be economic, herds offered contracts to calve in autumn should also be clustered together. They should also be larger farms, with high yielding cows and must calve 100% of cows in autumn.
However, processors may need to consider compensating producers while they are changing their production systems to calve in autumn. *
• Could increase product range.
• Price premium needed.
• Higher production costs.
Calving more herds in autumn could improve profitability for milk producers and processors, says Seamus Crosse.
Milk production costs
Spring Autumn calving calving
Winter milk bonus 0 +25%
Output litres/cow 5900 6350
Cows to fill quota 40 37
Output p/litre 22.9 25.9
Costs p/litre 9.2 10.4
Margin p/litre* 13.7 15.5
* Margins do not include labour or finance costs.