7 April 2000

PRODUCING MILK FOR PREMIUMS

SUCCESSFUL dairy management cannot be based on grass alone. This is the firm belief of a successful Irish dairy producer whose cows produce premium milk at low costs.

Stephen Barratts priority is nutrition to ensure he gains premium prices for his milk produced at The Forge, Lackabawn, Donough-more, Co Cork.

Premiums mean profits and although he would like more milk quota to challenge the production of his cows further, he is unlikely to increase cow numbers again. In the 15 years he has been in charge of the farms reigns the herd size has doubled to 110 milkers.

His logic is to produce milk worthy of premiums. Irish processors pay more of a premium for protein than fat content in milk, based on a standard milk composition of 3.6% fat and 3.3% protein.

Pricing varies between co-operatives and processors, but Mr Barratt can gain an extra 1p/litre by producing extra protein in milk and a winter milk bonus 1.05p/litre. To produce high protein content milk which will fetch extra bonuses its extremely important to get cow nutrition right.

Eye on costs

However, this is not done without an eye on production costs with 70% of milk produced from forage – grass and silage – and cows average yields of 7000 litres on only 1t of concentrates a year.

"Forage must be high quality," he says. But when grass quality drops he is not afraid to quickly move cows to additional feed, such as maize silage or whole-crop wheat.

In really wet times grass dry matter can drop by up to 50%, like last October, says Co Cork consultant Pat OBryne. "When this happens you need to address the problem to maintain production levels and composition."

When cows are eating grass at 17% DM, they need to eat 100kg fresh weight to supply all milk from grass. But when the grass DM drops to 12% then the cows have to eat another 40kg fresh weight of grass to meet their demands, he explains.

The aim is for cows to eat 16kg DM a day of grass and when this isnt possible they are buffer fed. Whole-crop wheat was first offered last September at 3kg DM/cow a day, to produce milk at 3.6% protein.

In wet weather Mr Barratt offers 3kg DM buffer feed a day, with a minimum metabolisable energy of 11.3 to maintain DM intakes. "The problem with grass silage is a big variation in DM, whereas with maize and whole-crop wheat these are a consistent quality."

Whole-crop wheat can also be grown cheaply, probably at similar costs to grass, says Mr OBryne. "It can be in the pit for £53/t DM, without IACS, which would reduce costs by a further £10/t."

Any forage fed to supplement grass must be high quality and be equal in response to supplementing 3kg concentrate, says Mr Barratt. "When we buffer feed quality big bale silage at 11.8 ME, we get a response of 0.1kg of protein in the milk, which is worth 0.3p/litre."

Despite a keen focus on nutrition, Mr Barratt uses many New Zealand grazing management techniques. The cows are turned out for a few hours in the beginning of February, so they start with a small proportion of grass in the diet. Time at grass is extended during February if weather allows.

By summer cows are on a 21-22 day rotation, but if growth is fast Mr Barratt will jump a paddock and cut it after 30 days re-growth for silage.

Measuring stick

Grass DM is estimated throughout the year using a measuring stick. Each centimetre on the stick measures 250kg DM/ha, depending on density of cover, says Mr OBryne. "The best time to check grass measurement is at 3.30pm. Then you can tell whether there is enough grass before evening milking; if not, then you can consider buffer feeding."

Nutrition and grass management are also influencing Mr Barratts breeding policy. "The herd is moving increasingly towards Holstein genetics. We brought in many cows from Holland, giving us a good genetic base, but we still have 10% of the herd as British Friesians."

However, the first year he brought in high genetic cows from Holland, Mr Barratt didnt feed any buffer, just grass. This he soon realised was a mistake when his cows yield averaged 6200 litres, compared with the 8100 litres they are capable of. "I missed out on about £400 in lost income by not feeding them, so it pays to do so," he says. &#42

PROTEIN PREMIUMS

&#8226 Buffer feed.

&#8226 High quality forage.

&#8226 Feed whole-crop when wet.