Dairy farming news

Latest news for farmers in relation to dairy farming.

Know your costs

Ann Brown - Business Technologist, Greenmount Campus, CAFRE

As cash flow remains tight on dairy farms due to continuing low milk prices, knowing your costs is crucial. Do you know your cost of production per litre?  If not, by adding up all the total costs listed in your yearend accounts and dividing them by the number of litres you produced will give you a rough indication of your cash production cost per litre. The following article highlights a few areas for you to consider on your farm.

Review expenditure

It makes sense to analyse all expenditure to ensure it is both absolutely necessary and good value for money. A good starting point is to look at your farm bank statements. Take a fresh look at each direct debit. Are you paying for a service you don’t use? If the answer is yes, then consider cancelling, but check first in case there is a notice period required and/or cancellation fee. If you do make use of the service make sure it is a net benefit to your business by either adding value or saving you more than it costs.

If you’re not the book-keeper in the family, take some time to review invoices to keep to date with current input costs. Are you getting value for money? Have you priced around? Could you reduce quantities purchased?

CAFRE benchmarking figures show that concentrate per cow represents 42% of the total cost of milk production and is more than the total of all overhead costs put together. A focus on improved feeding efficiency will reduce costs more than focusing on any other input. This spring, consider getting cows out even for a couple of hours during the day as soon as is practicable. This will save on concentrate and bedding costs, will reduce time spent cleaning cubicles and may also improve milk quality.

Young stock

Do you always have surplus heifers each year? Keeping more stock than required ties up money and time and selling surplus stock will bring cash in to the business. Calving heifers at the target age of 23 – 24 months will reduce the number of young stock carried on the farm and therefore the amount of feed and other inputs required. Significant savings can be made if the age of first calving is reduced from 30 months to 24 months.

Breeding, fertility & veterinary costs

Getting cows back in calf quickly is a challenge on most dairy farms but keeping barren cows is an added expense. AI costs are creeping up on many farms, so consideration should be given to the cost of AI bulls used, keeping the best straws for your top cows.

Veterinary costs

Recent research has shown that cows with no recent history of mastitis can be dried off successfully without using dry cow therapy, just using teat sealant. This will save on veterinary medicine costs.

If the same veterinary issues occur regularly on your farm, i.e. mastitis, lameness, calving/early lactation problems, talk to your vet about prevention measures to reduce recurring veterinary costs.


Do you have all the machinery in the yard but pay a contractor to carry out the work? If the machinery is already there, it may be more economical to pay a tractor driver, rather than a contractor using his own equipment.


Finally, consider postponing major expenditure until prices improve. High interest charges and finance costs just add to the strain in difficult times.

Be aware of your overdraft situation and talk to your bank manager early if you are likely to exceed your overdraft limit. The earlier financial issues are discussed, the more options there are to help resolve them.

All the indications are market conditions are going to remain difficult for much of 2016. The cumulative effect of making a few small changes to improve performance and reduce costs cannot be ignored in the current economic climate.

Dairy ICT – Protect your valuable ICT assets

Dr Ronan Coll, Senior IT Technologist, CAFRE


The dairy enterprise relies on a constant stream of high quality data to allow the farmer to manage the herd and make business decision.  Maximising the potential of animals, feeding, milking equipment and land are all paramount in ensuring that the business is lean and efficient.  Farm data is a valuable asset and so should be treated as such.  The following article will highlight some of the steps in ensuring your data is kept safe, secure and ready to help you answer questions when required.

Why you need a backup solution.

As unlikely as it may seem, hard drives fail, computer are stolen, data can be deleted (accidently or on purpose).  If you have a backup solution in place you are reducing the impact of losing your data by keeping a copy of it elsewhere.

PC on fire

An effective backup solution should be easy to use, cost effective and scalable to meet your needs.  You will have to consider how often you backup, what data you would like to backup and where it will be kept.

How often should you backup data?

Every time your data is changed or updated it should be backed up.  If you have a milking parlour which gathers data about your animals at every milking, then your data should be backed up every day.  Fortunately most computers have software built-in to regularly backup data. Windows computers have “Backup and Restore” and Apple computers have “Time Machine”.  Both applications can be setup to perform a backup at regular intervals to ensure that your data is backed up automatically to a location of your choice.

What do you backup?

If you can’t afford to lose it, you must back it up.  This does not mean that you must keep a copy of all the contents stored on your computer, but you should keep a copy of any files or data which you cannot replace.  For example, applications or programmes such as Microsoft Office or your parlour management software can be downloaded and replaced, but the data these programmes create or use cannot be replaced and must be backed up.  If you are collecting production information such as milk yields which can be used for “feed to yield” calculations or data such as calving dates which are used to calculate calving indexes and animal fertility, you must ensure the data is backed up regularly.  If lost, you will not be able to replace the information, information which you have invested time and effort to collect.

Where should you put your backed up data?

Where do you keep your backed up data?  Not on the same computer as your working copy!  It may sound obvious, but if you keep a second copy of your important data on the same computer as your working copy, chances are when you’re working copy is lost/stolen or deleted; your backup will end up the same way.

Option 1; Keep a local copy, which involves connecting an external hard drive to your computer and copying the necessary files to the hard drive.  If you keep your external hard drive connected to your computer, your backup is still at risk from theft or damage.  The external hard drive should be stored somewhere safe away from your computer.  This will be the cheapest method to use, but will be the least convenient as you will need to connect your hard drive each time you wish to backup you data.

Option 2; Keep a network copy using a Networked Attached Storage device or NAS.  A NAS is simply an external hard drive which is designed to be connected to a computer network.  Once connected to your network any computer on your network, with the necessary permission, can copy data to and from the NAS.  The NAS can be connected to your network using wi-fi (like a tablet or smartphone) or, even better, using a wired option such as Ethernet or Homeplug.  Wired options are preferable as they are more secure, stable and quicker.  NAS’s often have more than 1 hard drive, which means that if any of the NAS hard drives fail your data is still safe, giving you time to replace the broken drive.

Although more expensive than an external hard drive, a NAS offers more backup options particularly if you have more than one computer.

Option 3; Keep you data in the “Cloud”.  As broadband speeds are getting faster, a popular method to keep your data backed up is to send it to an online Cloud service. Services such as Dropbox, Sky Drive and iCloud can all be used to keep your data safe.  Cloud storage has the advantage of being easy to setup and your data will be available anywhere with an internet connection.  Most Cloud providers will offer some online storage for free, but if you require additional space, you will have to pay a regular subscription.  Cloud storage is convenient and secure, but can become expensive if you wish to backup large volumes of data.  You will need a fast broadband connection to upload and download you data files.

Consider for a moment what would happen if you lost your data, including personal files such as family photos and videos.  If your data is valuable to you think about putting a backup plan in place.  For more information about backup options and data management please contact Dr Ronan Coll, Senior IT technologist, CAFRE.  Email: ronan.coll@DARDNI.gov.uk or Tel: 028 9442 6865.

Electrical energy consumption on dairy farms

Stephen Gilkinson, Dairy Technologist, Greenmount Campus CAFRE

The majority of electrical energy used on dairy farms is consumed by the vacuum pump, milk cooling and water heating systems.  Typically these three operations combined account for almost 80% of the electrical energy used within the dairy unit.  The other 20% is consumed by lights, scrapers, augers, parlour heaters and other ancillary equipment.

The average electricity consumption on benchmarked dairy farms in Northern Ireland is 365kWh/cow/year, but the range is 175 – 660kWh/cow/year.  Hence the range in cost of electricity per cow or per litre of milk produced is significant at between £20 - £100/cow/year, depending on quantity of electricity consumed and price per unit.

At current milk prices it is critical dairy farmers control all costs important than ever to keep costs in check.  An audit of electricity consumption is a useful exercise and should indicate possible areas where costs can be saved. 

Vacuum Pumping

Most vacuum pumps are ‘set speed’, or in other words, the electrical motor runs flat out all the time, irrespective of the need for vacuum.  However, new technology, (variable speed electrical motors), have been developed in conjunction with live information on milking plant vacuum levels.  Vacuum levels are continually fed back to the electrical motor system driving the vacuum pump, allowing automatic speed adjustment of the vacuum pump to maintain vacuum level within preset limits.  The net result is a potential saving of up to 60% of electricity consumed by the vacuum pump, compared to the normal set speed vacuum pump motor.  The actual saving depends on the age/efficiency of the existing system and the length of milk times, relative to wash up times.  Electricity consumption by a variable speed vacuum pump in the new dairy centre at CAFRE, Greenmount has shown a saving of on average 10 kWh/day (40% saving, ~£500/year) compared to the same pump run at a set speed.  (The lower than expected savings may be due to the high proportion of wash time relative to milk time).

An online decision support tool has been developed to help farmers evaluate how variable speed vacuum pumping, compares to the normal set speed system, for a particular farm situation.  This is very relevant where a new parlour is under consideration or an existing vacuum pump/motor needs replacing.  The calculator can be accessed via the online section of the DARD website in the energy efficiency section.  Note that some pumps cannot be run as variable speed and also a lack of 3 phase electricity adds a further complication.

Water Heating Options

Electricity is the most popular way to heat water for the parlour hot wash cycle, as this system is relatively cheap to install and maintain.  However, electricity is often more expensive than other sources of energy, even when using the cheaper night-time tariff.  Particularly with large parlours, alternative energy sources may be cheaper, even after factoring in the upfront purchase and installation costs.  Possible alternatives are oil, gas and biomass.  With heat from biomass incentivised through the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), this is an option to consider.  

While photo voltaic and/or solar thermal panels are also options to reduce the need to purchase energy, they are not standalone, as there must be another energy source available to bring water to the required temperature for the parlour hot wash cycle.

A ‘parlour water heating options’ decision support tool again has been developed by CAFRE and is available through the CAFRE dairying advisors.

Heat Recovery

Milk is harvested from the cow at approximately 37ºC and must be cooled down to final storage temperature of 4ºC or less.  At the same time, water must be heated for plant washing.  By transferring heat from milk to water for the hot wash, this reduces the water heating energy demand.  A heat recovery unit (HRU) will do just that.  However, the HRU must be compatible with the bulk tank milk cooling system and fully integrated with the water heating system, so that full advantage is taken of the recovered heat.  The HRU at Greenmount has been monitored over the past 9 months.  Results indicate that around 50% of the heat extracted from the milk post plate cooler is recovered as warmed water.  This equates to 30kWh/day, equivalent to £987/year, assuming 100% usage of night time electricity for water heating @ 9pence/kWh.  Payback time is around 4 years based on these figures.  A HRU decision support tool is available through the local CAFRE dairying advisors and will also be available online in the near future, enabling you to explore options using your own figures.

Plant wash room cooler
Note that a plate cooler works against heat recovery, so it is important to look at the bigger picture, both in terms of installation, running costs, size of electricity supply and whether single or 3 phase, when considering options for any of these technologies.

Versatile Dairy Milk Cooling System at CAFRE Greenmount

A plate cooler is usually the cheapest way to cool milk, but often the water supply is inadequate for maximum cooling.  The ‘Versatile Dairy Milk Cooling System’ installed in the new dairy centre, Greenmount, circumvents this problem by having a water storage tank (30m3) acting as a continuous supply for the plate cooler.  The re-circulated slightly warmer water is available for cow drinking and external wash down of the milking parlour, ensuring no water is wasted.  The primary source of water for the tank is rainwater, harvested from the roof of the main dairy building, topped up by a bore well as necessary.  A water pump, sized to suit the milk flow rate must be installed as part of the system and its cost and electricity consumption need to be considered.  Ideally the water milk volume across the plate cooler should be around 2:1 for maximum cooling.  Continual monitoring of the system indicates that milk leaving the plate cooler is on average, 16ºC in winter and 200C in summer. Thus, over 50% of the required milk cooling is achieved by this ‘Versatile Dairy Milk Cooling System’.  A plate cooler with inadequate water flow relative to milk flow, may cool milk by only 10ºC.


The technologies for vacuum pumping, milk cooling and water heating are continually developing. The ideal mix of these technologies on any particular farm need careful planning.  CAFRE have developed and are continuing to develop decision support tools to help farmers make informed decisions around such technologies, available online via the DARD website.

Reap the rewards of healthy calves

Judith McCord, CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser, Armagh

The heifer calves born on your farm this winter are likely to be your best genetics.  Are you prepared to reap the reward from this investment in future years?  As a calf is born without any natural immunity or protection from disease the first few weeks of it’s life is crucial.  Typical pre-weaning mortality rates are between 4-7% with most losses occurring within the first month of life.  Calf mortality has an obvious or to the business, but poor calf health also impacts long-term performance. Research from AFBI in 2013 highlighted that for each day a calf is ill lactation yield is suppressed by 126 kilos of milk.  Even though milk prices are low can you afford to loose this level of production?  This article focuses on the principles of good stockmanship along with high quality calf nutrition, health and welfare management of the young calf.

Early life management

Calving pens should be clean, dry and draught free.  Use plenty of bedding material.  Cleanliness is key.  Once born the navel should be treated with either iodine solution (2%) or an antibiotic spray to prevent onset of joint-ill.

The calf’s immune system is not fully developed until three weeks of age and so requires passive immunity in the form of quality colostrum from the cow. Colostrum contains antibodies which not only help protect the calf against disease for the first few weeks of life but are also rich in nutrients that help support growth and development.  Insufficient intake of colostrum during the first six hours of life leads to calf health problems in the pre weaning period.  Successful colostrum management means giving calves clean, high-quality colostrum by way of a stomach tube or teated bottle - 10% of its body weight (3.5-5litres) within the first six hours of life and 1.5 litres of.  Colostrum needs to be given within the first few hours due to the decreased ability of the calf to absorb the antibodies as time passes.  Over the first 6 hours, the calf’s ability to absorb antibodies from the gut is very high.  However as time passes this declines to 50% within 12 hours of birth, 25% within 18 hours and only 10% within 24 hours.

Antibodies in colostrum also decrease with each milking with the second milking containing only 60-70% of the antibodies from the first milking.  
Colostrum quality is measured by the level of immunoglobulin G (IgG) concentration with a value of 50mg/ml or greater deemed as good quality.

If calf health is poor on your farm your vet may do a Zinc Sulphate Turbitity (ZST) test on a range of calves to determine colostrum uptake/quality.  The quality and quantity of colostrum produced by a cow is dependent on her lactation and breed.  Older cows will have been exposed to a greater number and range of infections than first calved heifers and should have a higher concentration of antibodies in their colostrum.  However if there is any risk of Johne’s disease in the herd pooled colostrum should not be used.  Colostrum quality should be tested on farm by way of a hydrometer or digital refractometer before feeding.  Vaccinations can be an effective method of boosting a calf’s ability to combat disease.  In designing the most appropriate vaccination programme, seek advice from your vet.  Coupled with colostrum and vaccinations, efficient hygiene management is critical in rearing calves free from infection.  Make sure calf pens and milk buckets are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between feeds.

Adhere to a strict hygiene protocol, maintain a good feeding regime and careful attention will allow early detection of any problem.


Regardless of housing type, a newborn calf needs to be kept in a temperature of not less than 7ºC.  At 4 weeks of age a calf can comfortably withstand temperatures around freezing point.  The most important features of a good calf house are that it must be clean and dry, draught free but not stuffy, have adequate ventilation and are conveniently located for ease of observation and to minimise labour.  Ventilation along with adequate nutrition is one of the most important factors in calf rearing and should be considered in both the design of new buildings and the adaptation of existing buildings.  A good ventilation system will allow small calves a minimum of six cubic metres of air space and larger calves (up to 2 months) minimum 10 cubic metres and this will help in the removal of water vapour from the stock (up to 10litres/head/day).

From birth to 8 weeks of age individual pen requirements must be at least 1.5m x 0.9m, but preferably 1.8m x 1.0m with a slope of 5% to allow effective drainage of water and urine.  From 8 weeks of age calves must be group housed as per requirements in Table 1.  If you have a spread calving pattern don’t be tempted to mix younger calves with older animals as shared air space increases the risk of infection for younger calves. 

Table 1 Space allowance for group housed calves
Calf weight (kg) Calf age (months) Minimum (statutory)
area (m2/calf)
Recommended area
45 0 1.5 2.0
46-99 0-2 1.5 3.0
100-149 3-5 1.5 4.0
150-199 5-7 2.0 5.0
>200 7+ 3.0 6.0

In summary things to consider

  • measure colostrum quality on farm and ensure calves get at least 3 litres within the first 2 hours of birth by stomach tube or teated bottle
  • colostrum is not only an important factor for ensuring calf survival but also has benefits in improving feed efficiency, dry matter intake, growth rate and subsequent milk yield.  There is a legacy impact of calf health
  • house calves on clean dry beds with adequate ventilation
  • reduce risk of infection by avoiding mixing older animals with younger calves
  • plan ahead to get a return on your investment

Ten checks on your electricity costs

David Trimble, Renewable Energy Technologist, CAFRE

Energy prices have been falling in recent times, which is a welcome development in the current economic climate. However, on many farms there is still scope to reduce the amount of energy consumed per unit of output. Improving energy efficiency should help farm profitability in the longer term, although there may need to be some capital expenditure to aid the process. 

There is an increasing focus on greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in government and with retailers.  The Northern Ireland economy has a high dependence on agriculture and as a consequence, the agricultural component to greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland is relatively high, compared to many other countries.    Improving energy efficiency will reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output and improve the ‘green’ image of local agriculture.  

The following points are worth considering:

1. Make sure you are on the best tariff available

The choice of electricity supplier is the most important decision affecting your energy costs.  Larger herds especially can negotiate a price with the supply companies.  For example, Power NI offers reduced rates to businesses using over 50,000 kWh per year, amounting to an overall 12% reduction on standard rates.

2. Remember to change time clocks  

The cheap electricity in summer time is from 2 am to 9 am.  Change the times on the water heater so that all the water is heated on the night tariff.  Don’t forget about the time clock on the slurry agitator – these are big users of electricity.

3. Set a target of 50% usage in the seven cheaper night time hours

The average usage on the night tariff in benchmarked farms is 40%.   Increasing this to 50% will saved £2.50 annually for each cow.

4. Ensure that your plate cooler has an adequate water supply

A plate cooler is the dairy farmer’s friend, potentially saving over half the cost of cooling the milk.  However in many cases the plate cooler is not working at its full potential because the water flow through it is inadequate. For maximum benefit there should be a flow of two litres of water for each litre of milk.  Any investment made to improve the water supply to the cooler will be repaid quite quickly with lower electricity bills.

5. Insulate

Hot water tanks and pipes should be well insulated to save money.  Many of the older water heaters have a thin metal lid which loses heat to the environment.  A 30 mm layer of insulation will greatly reduce this heat loss.

6. Use low energy lighting

Lighting can be a bigger cost than is generally realised.  Installing low energy bulbs leads to real savings on bills.  LED lighting is now an economic option where lights are used several hours a day.

7. Good housekeeping

Simple jobs save money.  These include removing dirt and dust from light bulbs, cleaning condenser units and turning off unnecessary lights.

8. Consider a variable speed drive vacuum pump

These can run on as little as half the amount of electricity as a vane pump.  They become more economic as herds become larger.

9. Consider heat recovery from the condenser

In larger herds it can be economic to recover waste heat from the condenser and use it to pre-heat the plant wash water.  

10. Consider renewable energy technologies

A number of dairy farms are using either a solar hot water system or electricity diverted from a PV system to heat water.  Where a larger volume of water is required, for example 600 litres per day, then a wood pellet boiler is a serious option.  

For further information contact David Trimble at (028) 9442 6682 or david.trimble@dardni.gov.uk

Winter feed planning

Gary Haslem – Dairy Development Adviser, CAFRE - Mallusk

The simple definition of feed efficiency is - feeding the cow what she needs, when she needs it!

The importance of efficient feed allocation in the dairy herd cannot be over emphasised.  On the average CAFRE Benchmarking Farm, concentrates and forage account for over 40% of the total costs of production and it is therefore critical that feed is allocated efficiently to the herd.

At low milk prices, the natural reaction is to cut costs.  However it is important that producers don’t just reduce feed rates across the whole herd as such actions will have significant repercussions in relation to herd fertility and body condition.  Remember you are in a production an action taken today will have a knock on effect i.e. a slip in calving pattern will impact cashflow 12-15 months down the road. Changes to feed plans should be based on the analysis of available forage and sound principles of dairy cow nutrition.

Forage analysis

The first step in any winter feed plan is to get your forages analysed.  This will give an indication of the key measures in silage quality; these include

  • intake potential
  • dry Matter (DM)
  • crude Protein (CP)
  • metabolisable Energy (ME)

While it is important to get an initial silage sample analysed, you should also remember to get subsequent, representative samples analysed during the winter, as silage quality will vary through the pit.  An unrepresentative sample is worse than no sample!

Fodder balance

On most farms there appears to be an adequate supply of silage for the winter ahead.  However, its good practice to complete a quick fodder balance calculation to check silage supply against expected demand.
For example a silo measuring 35 meters long by 12 meters wide and an average silage depth of 2.5 meters has a silage volume of 1050 cubic metres (35 x 12 x 2.5).

To convert cubic meters of silage to tonnes of fresh weight the calculated volume is multiplied by the appropriate conversion factor from Table 1 below.  Assuming the silage analysis has shown a Dry Matter of 25% multiply the volume of1050m³ by 0.68 to get 714 tonnes, fresh weight, of silage in the pit.

Table 1 Silage conversion factors from volume to tonnes of fresh silage
Silage dry matter (%) Tonnes of silage per cubic meter
20 Multiply by 0.77
25 Multiply by 0.68
30 Multiply by 0.60
Whole crop 40% dry matter Multiply by 0.67
Forage maize 30% dry matter Multiply by 0.75

Once you have calculated how much silage you have, the next step is to calculate how much silage is needed.

Table 2 below shows average silage requirements for a number of classes of dairy stock.

Table 2 Silage requirements
Livestock class Silage required per month (tonnes)
Dairy cows in milk 1.4
Dry cows 0.9
1-2 year old heifer 0.9
0-1 year old heifer 0.6

To calculate the silage required, simply multiply the number of cattle to be fed by their monthly silage requirement and the number of months the animals are likely to be housed.

On completion of this calculation, for all stock on farm, you can compare the silage requirements with the silage available.  It is better to know if you are going to need additional forage earlier in the winter to secure additional supply before you actually need it.

Concentrate allocation

As concentrates are the single biggest cost in milk production it is important they are allocated to the right cows in the most effective way.  Irrespective of the feeding system: Total Mixed Ration (TMR), out of parlour feeding, in parlour feeding or a combination of all three, it is important that the milk production potential of the base forage is known (M+).  This then allows you to more accurately allocate concentrates; meeting the nutritional shortfall between forage supply and yield requirement.

Ways to improve concentrate feed efficiency.

  • feed plan MUST be formulated based on accurate laboratory forage analysis
  • in parlour and out of parlour feeders MUST be calibrated regularly
  • if feeding a TMR, cows MUST be housed in groups according to yield or stage of lactation
  • TMRs MUST be formulated to feed the lowest yielding cow in the group (M+)
  • cows MUST be fed to yield with concentrates above the TMR M+ figure or forage base, at a rate of 0.45kg concentrate/litre.  (10kg of concentrate will support an additional 22 litres of milk yield)
  • early lactation cows should have concentrate allocated on a gradual build up over 21 days with cows then lead fed to day 80-100 of lactation
  • once cows have passed day 100 they should be fed to yield at 0.45kg concentrate/litre
  • first lactation heifers should be expected to produce 3-4 litres less than the M+ figure for the ration, when compared to cows, and should fed accordingly

Body condition

One way of assessing how a ration is performing is to monitor the cow’s body condition.  The following targets are a guide to body condition scores at various stages of lactation.

Stage of lactation Body condition score
Claving 2.75 - 3.00
Early lactation 2.25 - 2.50
Mid lactation 2.5
Drying off 2.75 - 3.00


Just because “We did it that way last year!” isn’t a good enough reason for feeding the herd the same way this year.  With increasing financial pressures on many farms, it is important that producers take a critical look at their winter feeding plans and identify any areas for improving efficiency.
CAFRE Dairying Development Advisers are organising a series of Feed Efficiency and Cashflow workshops during October and November.  If you miss the event in your area, CAFRE Advisers are available to discuss your situation and the issues covered in this article.

Transition Cow Management in the Greenmount Future Herd

Zara Morrison, CAFRE Dairy Development Advisor, Coleraine

The end of lactation, dry period, pre calving and calving is a time of transition for dairy cows. During this period management, nutrition and health practices implemented will have a major impact on the cow’s productivity and profitability in her next lactation.  The following article will describe how cows are managed in the dairy herds at Greenmount Campus.

Late CAFRE Lactation Management

Within the Greenmount Future Herd the dry cow management programme begins 10weeks prior to drying off with cows being body condition scored (BCS).  This allows time to modify the feeding programme to achieve the desired BCS.  Research has found that cows should be managed to maintain condition throughout the dry period rather than gaining or losing condition, so the aim is to achieve a BCS of 2.75 at drying off and maintain this throughout the dry period.  Cows that are above target have feed supplies restricted while cows that are below target are fed additional concentrate during this time.

The “Dry” Period

The dry period for both cows and heifers is usually 8 weeks however this is dependant on BCS with cows of a BCS of less than 2-5 given a longer time.  Cows within the Future herd are dried off abruptly when milk yield falls below 15 l/cow/day.  The cows are dried off in groups and treatments that are carried out include dry cow tubes, teat sealant, routine foot trim, Rotavec, mineral bolus and fluke treatment.  

The cows are split into two groups (far off and close up) and are fed once per day in the late afternoon to promote day time calving.  Cows in the far off group have a daily energy requirement of around 90MJ/day.  It is recommended that they are fed less grass and silage with straw introduced, this provides a bulky diet to retain rumen capacity reducing the risk of displaced stomachs.  Straw in the diet will also limit energy intake reducing the risk of over conditioned cows at calving.  Pre-calving minerals are also fed.  

Silage for dry cows is prepared specifically for the purpose using grass that has only received N fertiliser and is allowed to grow out to maturity.  The resultant forage is designed to reduce the risk of milk fever in fresh calved cows.

The close up group have an energy requirement of approximately 120MJ/day and are fed a partial Dietary Cation Anion Balance (DCAB) diet with additional magnesium chloride and 2kg/head/day of pre-calver 3-4 weeks before calving.  Limited availability to calcium in the diet is designed to stimulate the cow to mobilise calcium from her body reserves coming up to calving therefore reducing the risk of milk fever.  Cubicle hygiene and comfort during the dry period is a must as this is important to maintain udder health.  It is vital that clean water is available, troughs should be tipped daily as per milking cows and the normal foot bathing regime is maintained.

Transistion Period

The Future Herd cows are moved five days pre calving from the cubicles to straw pens within the maternity wing (cows are moved in groups to minimise stress).  At calving cows are then moved to individual calving pens where they remain in the pen for a maximum of 12 hours.  A high energy/calcium drink is offered to the cow immediately after calving and the calf receives around 10% of its bodyweight in colostrum within the first six hours.  The calf is removed once colostrum has been received and the cow is then moved to a post calving straw pen for five days where the milking TMR is introduced with the aim to minimise negative energy balance and weight loss.  She is then moved back into the main herd after evening milking to minimise stress.


The main objective of any dairy farmer is to produce milk from the cow as profitably as possible.  Management of the dry cow is an important aspect of the cow’s lactation, which has a major impact on the health, efficiency and profitability of the dairy cow.

It is important to make your plan for your cows.  If you wish to discuss aspects of transition cow management in more details contact your local Dairy Development Adviser.

So what is important?

Michael Verner. Dairy Development Adviser, CAFRE

Dairy farm businesses are under significant financial pressure and we need to look at what we can do to try and improve the bottom line. It is so easy to be so busy to have no time to stop, think and plan for the coming winter.  In this article I have tried to draw your attention to a number of areas where some thought and planning will deliver real benefit.

Managing cash flow

Sometimes we get caught in the ‘big picture’ long term planning trap but we need to deal with the day to day issues.  On all dairy farms, cash flow has, is and will continue to cause concern.  At this stage you should have completed a 12 month cash flow forecast to let you see where pinch points are and to enable you to speak with your bank and make arrangements in plenty of time.

Analysing forage

Have you had your silage(s) analysed?  How much silage have you got and to what groups of animals do you plan to feed it?  It is always good to feed your best forage to your highest yielding cows and if possible minimise changes to the diet to try to maintain performance levels without causing dietary upsets.  If you have wet silage, as many farmers do, what can you feed along with it to try and encourage dry matter intake and maximise performance? Feed planning is essential.

Setting feed rates

For some the temptation is to dramatically cut concentrate feed rates but what impact will this have on cow body condition score, subsequent fertility performance, milk yield and future yield?  You really need to meet the energy and protein demands of the cow irrespective of the milk price.  This means if feeding a TMR the feed levels should be set to the lowest yielding cow in the group, NOT the average yield of the group.  Additional litres should be fed on a strict feed to yield basis.  If feeding through a computerised parlour ensure you have set a realistic base yield in respect to the forage being fed and again feed to yield for additional litres.  In parlours without auto id or computerised feeding could you use tail tape to split the herd into, a few yield bands to ensure concentrate goes to the cows who are deserving of it?

Controlling lead feeding

On many farms cows are ‘led fed’ for a period of time after calving to try to encourage high peak yields.  On some herds this is carried out for around 40 days whilst on other farms cows are led fed for 100 days.  Look at when cows are peaking on your herd and see is it necessary to lead feed for such a long period of time.

Preparing for breeding

Many herds which start calving around now likely commence re-breeding sometime in November.  It is important to look for heats well in advance of the start of breeding, identify any cows not seen in season and present them to your vet for examination and treatment.  It is also important to pay particular attention to cows served three weeks to ensure repeats are not missed.  Voluntary waiting period (VWP) is a term describing the time a farmer deliberately waits from calving until he starts breeding.  This should be 40 days but on some farms this is 100 days meaning calving interval is going to be at best 400 days – too long to be profitable.  Cows repeatedly served or cows too many days in milk and not seen bulling should be earmarked for culling.  On many farms the bottom 10% of cows could be culled without having a big impact on milk sold.

Getting value for money

Some will, and others have, been tempted to feed a cheaper ration.  The question you have to ask yourself is if this is good value or does it simply contain low value ingredients.  The old sayings, ‘quality pays’ and ‘you get what you pay for’ are almost always true!   When purchasing a ration you will be looking for both good energy and protein sources as well as suitable sources of digestible fibre.  Some who perhaps normally forward buy may have to review this practise in light of current pressures on cash flow.

Cutting costs

While this is at the forefront of all our minds you need to be careful not to be ‘penny wise and pound foolish’. Vaccination policies and other herd health management practises such as foot bathing shouldn’t be simply stopped in an attempt to cut costs.  Practises carried out last winter will in all likelihood need to be repeated this winter if herd health and performance is not to suffer.  Consult your vet for their professional advice.


Sometimes we spend vast amounts of time discussing things outside our control like, the weather, milk price, or global markets.  Really this winter we need to focus our thinking on the things within our control and attempt to do the best job we can.  Feed well, breed well and control costs.  Careful monitoring, whether this be monitoring the financial health of the business, monitoring the feed efficiency of the milking cows or monitoring the herd’s fertility performance is vital as we go into and through this winter to ensure what we are doing is working. CAFRE Dairying Development Advisers are available to discuss any of the issues covered in this article. 

Are Your Heifers on Target for Two Year Old Calving?

Aidan Cushnahan, Dairying Development Adviser, Greenmount Campus, College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise

Rearing dairy heifer replacements represents a significant investment on your farm.  Analysis of CAFRE benchmarking data has indicated that the average cost associated with rearing a dairy heifer is around £1,900 per animal.  In addition, further analysis would suggest that the costs associated with this livestock enterprise is optimised by managing these heifers to calve down at two years of age at 540 – 580 kg liveweight.  However careful planning is required when managing heifer replacements at grass to ensure that they achieve growth and weight targets to successfully calve at two years of age.  Issues to consider include identifying appropriate performance targets, monitoring animal performance and setting up grazing systems to cope with difficult grazing conditions.  The following article will discuss these points in more detail


Liveweight targets are often used to assess the development of heifer replacements during the rearing process and ensure that they calve down successfully at two years of age.  Key targets for heifer replacements at various stages of development include:

  • spring born calves (3 – 4 months age) should be around 100 – 125 kg liveweight
  • autumn born calves (6 – 8 months age) should be around 170 – 220 kg liveweight
  • heifers approaching 15 months of age should be around 360 – 400 kg liveweight
  • typical liveweight gain targets for heifer replacements at grass are around 0.7 - 0.8 kg/ animal/ day

Managing heifer replacements at grass

The difficult weather conditions experienced in 2015 have posed additional challenges for maintaining heifer performance at grass.  Issues to consider include:

  • maximising grass intakes through the grazing season
  • effective health management programme

Managing heifer replacements at grass

The management strategy adopted will largely depend on the stage of development of youngstock, the amount of available grass and weather conditions.  Aim to put replacements into areas that have a pre grazing grass cover approaching 3,000 kg DM/ ha (average grazing cover over the grazing platform of around 2,100 kg DM/ ha).  Turn out yearlings and older animals before younger calves.  Identify sheltered sites close to the farm yard for younger animals during their first grazing season.  March born calves and younger calves not achieving target liveweights should continue to be kept indoors for at least the early part of the grazing season.  

Grazing system and concentrate supplementation

Consider adopting a leader – follower system for grazing replacements where calves form the leader group and older animals form the follower group in an effort to optimise grass intakes and utilisation.  The level of meal feeding will be around 1 – 2 kg/ animal/ day for younger calves and little or no supplementation for in calf heifers.  Alter the level of concentrate supplementation according to grazing and weather conditions to ensure that target growth rates continue to be met. This flexibility and adaptability is necessary to ensure two year old calving is achieved.

Health management

Set up an effective vaccination and worming programme to minimise the risk associated with clostridial diseases and intestinal parasites for heifer replacements at pasture. This is particularly important if ‘clean’ grazing is not available due to farm layout or labour for regularly handling young stock. Consult your farm vet to put in place an appropriate health plan.

Monitoring animal performance

Monitoring animal performance is important to ensure that liveweight targets set at the start of the rearing programme are being met.  Animals should be weighed several times a year.  If suitable weighing facilities are not available, a weighband can be used instead.  Always ensure that there are adequate handling facilities to allow measurements to be taken in a safe manner.


An effective heifer management programme should be designed to optimise animal performance at grass and ensure that specific liveweight targets are met during the animal’s development.  Contact your local Dairying Development Adviser to discuss the options available to allow you to achieve this.

Herd Fertility Management this Spring

David Mackey Dairying Development Adviser, CAFRE, Magherafelt

Managing herd fertility is an all the year round job.  Research highlights that it begins in late lactation with the aim of getting cows to a body condition score of 2.75 at drying off and holding this through the dry period. Mineral nutrition of the dry cow which centres on low calcium and potassium diets can help on some farms, to reduce clinical and subclinical milk fever, retained foetal membranes and endometritis leading to poor fertility in the next lactation.  Autumn is the time for sire selection with heat detection and service being conducted throughout the winter. Autumn calving herds should now be settled in-calf. PD results from your vet should be used to cull cows not in-cald as you cannot afford to carry passengers this year.
Like many herds, Barry, Ruth and Andrew Stewart who farm at Castledawson have seen the calving pattern spread on their 60-cow Holstein Friesian herd over recent years. Previously cows were AI’d almost all the year round, typical of many farms. However with a focus on fertility on the farm no services were conducted during the summer and early autumn.  The bulk of the AI’ing was completed from mid-November onwards. The average calving interval from Northern Ireland milk recorded data is 420 days and highlights why farmers need a renewed focus on herd fertility. On the Stewart farm AI bulls that have good non-productive traits including fertility and lifespan are being used with Leif and Massey to the fore.

The Stewarts have typically pregnancy diagnosis three times a year but is now undertaken routinely to monitor fertility.  Cows are PD’d at turnout as this is a critical time since it identifies the empty cows that need particular attention at grass.  Without a sweeper bull to pick up cows on heat and serve them, the onus is on Barry and Andrew to do the heat detection so action lists and the use of Kamar strips are important.  CAFRE Fertility Benchmarking established that heat detection is the weakest area of fertility management in the herd with a stand-alone pedometer t system being considered.

Fertility management of the herd begins with good herd recording using Kingswood.  All calvings, fertility and health events are kept up-to-date meaning that any reports generated provide full and accurate information. Andrew routinely uses the pregnancy diagnosis report and the drying off report to produce lists of cows. He finds the Actions/Warnings/Reminders report very helpful.  This highlights cows that are not yet ready for service, those more than 42 or 60 days calved not yet served, those potentially on heat in the next few days based on previous heat and services, and those ready for pregnancy diagnosis.   

With Andrew now taking a more active role in the farm he has reduced the voluntary waiting period to 42 days and uses the vet to examine cows not showing signs of heat after 35 days. On-farm research from AFBI Hillsborough shows that conception rates increase in line with calving interval and there is no benefit in delaying first service beyond this time.

Fertility Management in your herd this spring:

Pregnancy diagnose your cows before turnout to identify empty cows.  Heat detection is much more difficult when cows go to grass and conception rates in the first 4-6 weeks after turnout tend to be lower through a combination of nutritional change, energy balance and high protein content of the grass.

Consider splitting your herd. This might not always be practical, but turning out cows confirmed in calf and continuing to house the fresh higher yielding cows yet to be served or awaiting PD can help focus your mind on fertility at what is a busy time of year.  Doing this has been proven to get stragglers back in calf quicker and tighten up the calving pattern.
Consider use of a sweeper bull.  If splitting your herd is not possible, an effective sweeper bull can, combined with good heat detection tighten up the calving pattern. An easy calving beef bull can be used with the added advantage this year of producing calves of higher value than a Ho/Fr bull calf.  Set a date to pull him out and PD six weeks later to identify empty cows for early re-breeding in the autumn or culled.

Practical feed efficiency this spring

Michael Garvey, CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser Armagh

Feed efficiency is a measure of the amount of concentrate needed to produce a litre of milk.  Concentrates are the single biggest cost on dairy farms and any improvements in feed efficiency has a major impact on profitability.  This means getting milk from grazed grass and targeting concentrate feeding to cows which need it most.  On a dry matter basis, grazed grass is 65 percent of the direct cash cost of grass silage and 20 percent of the cost of concentrates.  Every producer can make more of the potential of grazed grass on their farm.  May grazing has the potential to produce 2527 litres of milk but typically farms achieve less than half of this.

Table 1 shows that as feed efficiency improves the net margin £ per cow (excluding labour, conacre and finance) increases.

Table 1 - CAFRE benchmarked herds 2013/14
Net margin Bottom 25% Average Top 29%
Meal fed per litre (kg) 0.36 0.35 0.33
Net margin £ per cow £504 £851 £1,193

The message is simple, “improved efficency, means higher margins”.  In practice on farm this spring, grazed grass and parlour supplementation will meet the nutritional needs of cows yielding up to 40 litres.

At CAFRE Greenmount Campus a group of Future Herd cows went to grass on the 10 March.  The 40 cows grazed for three hours each day and targeted a 5kg of grass dry matter intake in this period.  The new milking parlour has integrated milk recording, auto ID and automated drafting of cows.  At milking, cow’s yields are automatically recorded and this information forms the basis for drafting cows for grazing or grazing / housing at night.  Initially cows selected for the grazing group were back in calf (scanned PD positive) and more than 100 days in milk.

In early April the numbers in the grazing group increased, with a group of cows at grazing full time by the end of the month.  The highest yielding cows were turned out in mid April for half-day grazing with all cows grazed as one group.  Currently 140 cows are milking and grazing during the day.  Table 2 outlines when cow groups went to grass.  After evening milking as cows exit the parlour, they all pass through the automated drafting gate.

High yielding cows are drafted for night housing and buffer fed a TMR of first cut silage, maize silage and 4 kilos of a 17 percent blend.  The current yield allowing a cow to be housed / buffer fed at night is 40 litres+.  Cows yielding less make their way out of the house to their night time grazing area.

Table 2 - Timetable of cows to grass at CAFRE Greenmount Campus
  Highest yielding cows lower yielding cows
Early March Housed Out day/housed night
Mid April Out day.housed night out day and night

Cows are supplemented in the milking parlour using the herd management software on a “feed to yield” basis above an M+ figure (Table 3).  The supplementation rate is 0.45 kilos of concentrate per litre of milk. 

Table 3 - current M+ figures
  Grazed group Housed Group
Diet provides for M+ (cows) 24 litres 28 litres
Diet provides for M+ (heifers) 22 litres 25 litres

The 15 cows yielding less than 24 litres receive their nutritional requirement from fulltime grazing.  The 78 cows yielding more than 24 litres and less than 40 litres receive their nutritional requirements from fulltime grazing and parlour supplementation at milking.  The 47 cows yielding more than 40 litres receive their nutritional requirement from daytime grazing, buffer feeding TMR at night and parlour supplementation at milking.

Figure 1 - Future herd yield profile
Figure 1 - Future herd yield profile

Using the Future Herd experience, can you? -

  • identify your cows into yield groups for grazing fulltime or grazing during the day and housing at night
  • set an M+ for groups of cows grazed full and part time
  • parlour top up concentrates to cows yielding above the M+ at 0.45 kilos per litre
  • house cows yielding more than 40 litres at night with access to a quality TMR ration

It is important to maximise feed efficiency on farms this spring.  If you require help to set the appropriate M+ for your cow groups or make an assessment of your herd’s performance contact your local CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser.

Prepare for turnout

Mark Scott, CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser, Newtownards

The grazing season is almost upon us and there are two important points to remember:

  • grass is the cheapest feed available for milk production
  • regardless of system or calving season, all herds will have cows which can make use of grazed grass

On a dry matter basis, grazed grass comes in at 65% of the direct cash cost of grass silage and 20 percent of the cost of concentrates.  In the current climate of milk price pressure every producer must make the most of the potential of spring grass on their farm.  

Growth Rates and controlling grass covers in early season

Typical growth rates across Northern Ireland in mid to late March average around 9 kilograms of dry matter per hectare (kgDM/ha) per day, moving quickly to 20kgDM/ha/day in early April.  Coupled with the mild winter there is potential for swards to get ahead of the grazing herd if the grass wedge is not controlled early in the season.

Cows grazing between morning and evening milking (5-6 hours) could be expected to eat 5-6 kilograms of grass dry matter per cow per day.  If a group of 50 cows are grazing to this level 250-300 kgDM is required per day.

Therefore if this group of cows are turned out to a 1 ha paddock with a cover of 2500kgDM/ha it will take 3-4 days to graze the grass down to the target exit cover of around 1600kgDM/ha.  In other words in this situation the group should be offered 0.25 – 0.3 of a ha per day.

The aim in many areas should be by the third week in April to have the grass wedge established.  This simply means that the grazing paddock grass covers step evenly from the paddock last grazed to the paddock next to be grazed as illustrated below.

The value of early season grass

During the past winter many herds will have been fed grass silage with lower than normal energy levels, so in most cases cows will be turned out to grass with a higher energy value than the silage.  The example below highlights the improvement in milk from forage, and concentrate savings gained, by moving from a diet of average silage to a diet where cows are grazing between milkings.

Fully housed and partial grazing diets formulated to support 24 litres of milk.

  Silage intake (kg DM) Grass intake (kg DM) Meal intake (kg) Milk from forage (litres) Concentrate savings (kg/cow/day)
Housed diet 10.3 0 8 6 -
Partial grazing diet 5 6 6.5 9.5 1.5

Through partial grazing, using the figures and diets above an additional 3.5 litres of milk from forage per cow per day is gained through a concentrate saving of 1.5kg per cow per day or over half a tonne of concentrate per week for 50 cows.

Autumn calving herds

Some producers with higher yielding herds calving in the autumn and winter will feel that they cannot make use of early grazing due to the higher daily milk output of individual cows in the herd.  The fact is that even within this type of herd a group of cows could be grazed which would gain the same benefit from grass as illustrated above.  

Select cows that calved in the autumn or before and have been settled back in calf again.  An 8500 litre cow that calved 15th September and PD’d 12+ weeks in calf, will be yielding around 30 litres in March.  This level of yield can be supported quite easily on either a partial or full time grazing scenario during the spring with the correct grass allocation and concentrate feeding regime.


  • grass is the cheapest feed available to Northern Ireland milk producers
  • covers carried over the mild winter coupled with early spring growth rates can mean swards get ahead of cows quite quickly
  • get grazing covers established in a wedge formation by the third week in April
  • early season grass has the potential to improve milk from forage, therefore saving on concentrate input
  • regardless of system or calving pattern there will be a group of cows within your herd which can make use of grazed grass

Early season grassland management

Judith McBride, CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser, Armagh

Spring will soon be upon us as both day length and air temperatures are increasing.  Management decisions now need to focus on grass production for grazing and silage.  Farmers are aware that grass is the cheapest feed available for dairy cows but it is often a poorly utilised resource.

Maximising milk yields from grazed grass is a key factor in profitable milk production particularly when milk prices are low and other feed costs remain high.

Northern Ireland saw considerable variation in grass growth in 2014 with growth rates of over 100kg DM/ha/day recorded in early May but falling sharply to 50 kg DM/ha/day in early June.  There was another boost late September as growth rates remained high at 47kgDM/ha/day - almost twice the seasonal average.  The 2014 grass year proved management techniques needs to be flexible if grass quality is to be maintained throughout the season.  

Efficient sward management in the early spring is critical if you want quality grass available for cost effective milk production in 2015.

Planning your grazing system

A well planned grazing system is important to ensure the grass grown is utilised efficiently by the cows.  As herd size is continually increasing the grazing system needs to be flexible enough to meet the herd’s intake demands whilst maintaining grass quality.  A good starting point in the planning process is the farm map which gives details of the area of each field and their location in relation to the main farmyard. The farm map will also be useful when planning access to the grazing area and deciding on which grazing system best suits the herd and farm infrastructure.

In some situations it may be practical to use a combination of grazing systems whereby paddocks or fields are sub-divided with an electric fence.  Easy access with several entry / exist points will improve grass utilization particularly in difficult weather conditions.  Normally farmers plan for a 12 hour grazing period and this allows the herd to fully graze out the area. Where cows spend longer than two days in the area, this will have a detrimental effect on grass re-growth, so use a back fencer to provide greater control and improve sward quality.

Grazing infrastructure

Sufficient roadways/farm lanes around the grazing fields will allow access to grazing whilst improving cow flow and cow cleanliness. It is important to remember that cows will make roughly 600 journeys from the field to milking parlour each year.  Therefore laneways must have a suitable surface (hardcore base of 200-250mm and 50-75mm of a fine compacted surface material), are wide enough (3 - 5 meters depending on cow numbers) and are adequately fenced.

Ideally avoid sharp bends and where possible the lane should be sloped to one side to facilitate surface drainage. Construction and/or improvement of existing laneways should be carried out during dry conditions.  Investment even at low milk prices in grazing infrastructure will pay dividends.

Access to Water

Cows drink 10-15 times a day on average and could drink up to 10 litres at any one time.  Thus daily consumption, particularly in warm conditions can be 100-115 litres per cow.  Bearing this in mind ensure the water system around the farm is sufficient to deliver this quantity of water and that troughs are fast filling.  How many times have you noticed large groups of cows waiting around the water drinkers due to low water pressure, poor flow or small trough size.  It is recommended to have a flow rate of 10 litres per minute.  If water pressure is sufficient then doubting the diameter of the water pipe can increase the flow rate to the trough by up to six times.  If you are laying new water pipes decide on whether to put one or more drinkers in, herd size should dictate.  Remember two adequate sized drinkers are far better than one large drinker as this reduces the amount of bullying, poaching and time to fill. For future reference and in case of leaks, clearly mark the location of the shut off values – simple, but think of the time saved if there is a leak.  Before the start of the grazing season go round and clean out all the troughs.  Not only does a cow need 100+ litres of water but it must be clean and fresh for drinking.  Any restriction in water supply will have an immediate impact on milk yield.  The water trough should be located at the correct height for the cow.  The edge of the trough should be 850mm from the ground.  The water level should be 50-100mm below the edge of the trough to minimise splashing and reduce poaching around the drinking areas.

In Summary things to consider

  • putting management decisions in place early can increase the potential of your dairy enterprise
  • early management of the grazing has the added ability to control sward quality later in the season and avoids the build up of a low digestible material
  • select a suitable grazing system that best suits your herd
  • construction of farm road/laneways best utilises the grazing platform
  • think about the quantity of water required each day and plan accordingly
  • have a nutrient management plan in place

Nutrient Management Planning

Alan Warnock, Dairying Development Adviser, CAFRE

With spring rapidly approaching many dairy farmers are considering how to produce good crops of grass by making maximum use of available slurry and minimising the cost of purchased fertiliser.  A nutrient management plan is the basis for producing grass cost-effectively.  The main steps involved in nutrient management planning are:-

  • carrying out soil analysis to check the level of nutrients
  • allowing for the nutrients supplied by slurry
  • balancing the sward’s requirement for nutrients by using the correct amount and type of fertiliser

Soil analysis

Soil analysis is a reliable method of measuring the reserves of phosphate and potash and the lime status in the soil. The cost of soil analysis through DARD is £8.70 (excluding VAT) for a maximum field size of 4 hectares (10 acres) and is valid for 4 years. Fields should be sampled now before any slurry or fertiliser is applied.

The soil analysis report expresses the level of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) as an index (index 0 = deficient to index 3 and above = high/very high).  For first cut silage a comparison of the P and K indices with the recommendations in Table 1 will provide the total amount of phosphate (P205) and potash (K20) required.  For example, a field with typical analysis results of P index 3 and K index 1 requires 20kg/hectare P205 and 110kg/hectare K20.

TABLE 1 – Phosphate and Potash recommendations for first cut silage
Soil index P or K 0 1 2- 2+ 3 >3
Phosphate kg/ha 100 70 55 40 20 0
Potash kg/ha 140 110 80 60 30 0

Note:  To prevent excessive uptake of K no more than 80-90kg/ha of potash should be applied in spring with the balance applied in the autumn.

For grazing fields refer to Table 2 for recommendations.  For example a field with typical analysis results of P index 2+ and K index 1 requires 20kg/hectare phosphate and 30kg/hectare potash.

TABLE 2 – Phosphate and Potash recommendations for the grazing season
Soil index P or K 0 1 2- 2+ 3 and above
Phosphate kg/ha 80 50 35 20 0
Potash kg/ha 60 30 0 0 0

Low pHs

The soil analysis report states the pH of the soil which is a measure of its acidity. It also recommends the application rate for ground limestone to correct a low pH and achieve the optimum level for the crop being grown. Over a period of time the pH of soil declines and in N.Ireland 64% of soils have low pHs. The availability of soil nutrients and nutrients in the fertiliser applied is reduced in acid soils.

Slurry nutrients

Slurry contains valuable plant nutrients in the form of nitrogen, phosphate and potash.  A 4,500 litre (1,000 gallon) tanker of dairy cow slurry if spread by splash plate in good condition in the spring can supply up to 4.5kg nitrogen, 5.5kg phosphate and 15kg potash. This valuable resource should be fully utilised to minimise the need for purchasing fertiliser. 

For soils with index 2+ for P and index 1 for K an application of 34 metres3/ha (3,000 gallons/acre) of slurry will provide all the phosphate and potash requirements for first cut silage.  A straight nitrogen fertiliser will provide the remaining nitrogen requirement.  

It is important to remember that under the Nitrates Action Programme a fertiliser containing phosphate can only be used on fields where a need for phosphate has been identified through soil analysis and after taking into account any phosphate applied in organic manures.

Alternative slurry spreading techniques

Spreading slurry during the growing season using systems such as the Trailing Shoe, Shallow Injection or Trailing Hose can improve the utilisation of slurry nitrogen compared to the traditional splash-plate. Research at AFBI, Hillsborough has demonstrated that spreading slurry using a Trailing Shoe slurry tanker increases the utilisation of slurry nitrogen by up to 26% compared to conventional splash-plate application systems.
Other benefits of the technology include:

  • reduced phosphorus run-off
  • a wider window of opportunity to apply slurry
  • higher slurry application rates
  • opportunities to use slurry on grazing fields
  • spreading to within 3 metres of a waterway
  • reduced smell from slurry spreading


A nutrient management plan will help to reduce the cost of fertiliser while optimising soil fertility to maximise grass production. Soil analysis should be carried out to check the nutrient status of fields before slurry or fertiliser is applied.  After taking account of the nutrients supplied by slurry use the correct type and amount of fertiliser to meet the crop’s requirement. A Crop Nutrient Management Calculator is available from the DARD online services section of the DARD website www.dardni.gov.uk. to help with the calculations.

For further information contact your local CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser.

Keep the Cash Flowing

Ask any dairy farmer at the moment and they will tell you “cash is tight!” The sharp fall in milk price has put a number of dairy farmers under financial pressure. Now more than ever it is vital to consider the importance of cashflow.

What is cashflow?

Cashflow is simply the movement of money into and out of your business. It only includes transactions where money actually changes hand i.e. what happens in cash terms. It is possible to get a good idea of the cashflow of the farm by looking at the monthly bank balance. But in addition you also have to include any dealings that were cash only, as these would not be shown in the bank statement. The cashing of cheques is often delayed, therefore included only when cashed.

How does cash flow affect a business?

All businesses need a sufficient supply of cash on a monthly basis to meet the essential running costs. It allows you to pay the bills, (including tax), cover the cost of repairs and make essential improvements. In profitable times it is also possible to finance expansion, whether stock purchases or changing machinery. Just like oil in an engine, there needs to be enough to ensure things run smoothly, but if there isn't enough it seizes up and stops! In the long term, a business with more money going out than coming in cannot keep going.

But don't confuse cashflow with profit. It is possible, particularly when a business is expanding, to be making a loss for several years, but survive since there is enough cash in the system to pay debts. It is equally possible for a profitable business to be struggling because of a lack of available cash. To make sure your cashflow serves its purpose, it needs to be effectively managed.

What is a Cashflow Budget?

A cashflow budget is a forecast of the money that is expected to be received and spent over a certain period of time. It helps you build a time line throughout the year and plan for the future. It should include realistic estimates of performance, prices and timescales. The dairy farm enterprise receives monthly income in the form of the milk cheque. Others like a suckler cow unit will make most of their income in the autumn.

However, in both situations cash is needed throughout the year to keep the business afloat. While it is ideal that there is always more coming in than going out, this seldom happens. The budget shows the difference between money coming in and money going out each month, and the knock-on effect on subsequent months. It highlights times in the year when borrowing money may be necessary to keep the business going until sufficient income is generated. A bank overdraft is ideal for short term, flexible borrowing such as this, but not for longer term borrowing.
Loan structure should match what the money is to be used for. Short term loans are suitable for building refurbishments or improvements while longer term loans put in place for major projects such as the purchase of land.

Discuss your options

Since the cashflow budget is a prediction of how the year will “pan out”, it needs to be regularly updated to take account of such things as input prices or changes in milk price. If it looks like there will be a shortfall, it is vital that you discuss your options and not ignore the problem. If additional borrowing is required, it is always better to approach your bank sooner rather than later. Having a document such as a cashflow budget helps give the bank confidence in you and your business and is often required before they consider lending you money. It also helps you choose the most appropriate source of finance and so maintain a positive cash flow.

Many farmers and growers are facing a significant tax bill this year, but may find it difficultto pay. If you are in this position it isis important to talk to your accountant or bank manager about the options available to reduce or spread the tax burden.

Use the right tools

Cashflow budgets can be done using pen and paper, but using a computer makes it a lot easier. There are many financial software products available to help you manage your business but these may be too complex if you want to do a business health check. A spreadsheet may be all that is needed to draw up a simple but effective cashflow budget to provide you with the confidence to manage your finances or discuss the options with your bank manager or accountant. 

Healthy Feet Healthy Cows

By Dr Alastair Boyle, Dairying Technologist, CAFRE (Greenmount)

Lameness in dairy cows is a welfare issue as a lame cow is suffering pain.  The average cost of a case of lameness is £323 or with a herd of average size (112 cows) almost £7500 per annum.  The overall cost per case includes production losses such as, cows producing less milk (200-600 litres), increased time to get in calf (20-40 days) and an increased risk of being culled.  Therefore, it is important for every farm to have a plan in place to address lameness.

Early detection is vital

The first step in any plan is detecting lame cows early, with one such method being mobility scoring.  Mobility scoring is a system whereby cows are scored on a scale of 0-3 based on their mobility, with 0 being good and 3 being a severely lame cow.  The aim, when scoring your herd is to focus on identifying the cows scoring 2 (moderately lame) or 3 (severely lame) and prioritize these cows for treatment as soon as possible.  Research has clearly shown using mobility scoring, where moderately lame cows are detected early and treated, these animals will have less severe foot diseases along with improved recovery rates.  

It is important to remember, generally cows don’t go from being non lame (0-1) to severely lame (3) immediately.  They will be moderately lame, mobility score 2, for a period.  This allows you to take action and treat the cow before any further deterioration.

Effective treatment

Once the cow has been identified early it is important that the treatment is effective.  This means that the person trimming is appropriately trained, the foot trimming set up is quick and easy to use, and is both safe for you and the animal.  The easier the set up for trimming the more likely it is to be carried out.

Footbathing - getting it right

The footbath is one of the most important tools on your farm in terms of controlling infectious diseases, such as digital dermatitis (DD).  Recent research from AFBI (Hillsborough) has shown that in NI almost 80% of farmers surveyed use footbaths to control DD.  One interesting finding is that almost three quarters of farmers were unaware of the concentration rates used in the footbath.

Four key aspects of footbathing:


Calibration is ensuring the correct concentration of solution in the footbath. Measurements of your footbath can be entered into the new online CAFRE footbath calibration tool (go to DARD online services log in/ Cafre business tools/footbath calibration), which will determine the quantity of water in your footbath along with the quantity of product to add.


The length of the footbath is a critical component of the design.  If footbaths are too short cows will not get enough contact time with the solution.  Research has shown for cows to achieve a minimum of two immersions per foot, the treatment footbath needs to be at least 3m long. In order to achieve three to four steps the footbath needs to be longer than 3m, for example, the newly installed footbath at the Cafre Dairy Centre is 3.7m long.  It is also important to note that if you have a pre wash footbath, there should be at least one cow length between the two footbaths, as this allows excess water to drain off, thus not diluting the treatment bath.


There is no “one size fits all approach”, footbathing regimes need to be adjusted according to the level of infectious disease in the herd.  Regular footbathing is recommended, with a minimum of 4 consecutive times per week to control infectious causes of lameness such as digital dermatitis may be necessary.

General management

Cows’ feet should be clean prior to entering the footbath, and they should return to an area which is cleanly scraped to allow the solution to take effect.  The footbath should take no longer than 10 minutes to set up, so have a wide drain to allow fast emptying and an accessible water supply close by.

Environmental and management aspects to reduce lameness in your herd

  • how comfortable are your cows? Cows with longer standing times have increased risk of becoming lame. Therefore, in order to reduce cow standing time and allow cows to express lying times of 12-14 hours/day, legislation requires 5 percent more cubicles than cows. Other aspects such as cubicle design and lying surface are also important. A good time to determine cow comfort is early afternoon, when 85 percent of cows should be lying down in cubicles.
  • what is the condition of the flooring surfaces cow’s walk-on?  Consider the level of grip/ repair any broken slats or concrete.
  • what is the depth of slurry accumulating on the floors?  How frequently are your floors scraped?  As slurry is thought to be a contributory factor towards digital dermatitis, frequent and effective scraping of cubicle passages and feed areas is important.  Automatic scrapers should be set to pass every two hours during active time of day e.g. 4am-10pm.
  • are your cows standing too long at milking?  Ideally cows should spend no longer than one hour in the collection yard.  One practical way to reduce this time if possible is to split the cows into two groups.


In conclusion, it is important to realize that lameness has hidden costs in terms of reduced yield and fertility. So, healthy feet leads to improved welfare and more productive animals.  Two key strategies to manage lameness are:

Early detection and prompt treatment

  • identify lame cows via mobility scoring
  • promptly treat cows before they are severely lame
  • make a record of the cow and hoof disease
  • follow up if required


  • use preventative foot trimming at key times during lactation
  • footbath the entire herd regularly
  • ensure good cow comfort and hygiene within cow buildings
  • manage the transition cow to minimise stress

For further information on hoof health contact your local CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser. 

Investment in Calf Rearing Facilities Pays Dividends

David Mackey, Dairying Development Adviser, CAFRE, Magherafelt

Brian and Ian Thompson farm around 350 acres at Culmore Point just outside Londonderry.  They have a predominantly autumn-winter calving herd of 220 Holstein-Friesian cows.  Like many farms there has been considerable investment in the last five years beginning with the installation of a new 24 point milking parlour and collecting yard.  The subsequent herd expansion, in turn created a need for additional heifer and dry cow housing with additional calving pens and calf housing.  To meet all these requirements a new shed was built.  

A 9-bay livestock shed was built in 2012 with a 3-row cubicle system for dry cows and maiden heifers down one side of a central feed passage and multi-purpose pens down the other.  These were designed to serve as both calving and calf rearing pens, with a straw bedded area to the rear and slatted area of multi-purpose slats to the front, next the feed passage.  The bedded area has a sloped floor that drains through semi-circular holes in the reinforced concrete kerb to the slats that helps keep the bedding clean and dry.  As well as being able to open all the pens from the feed passage to bed them individually and move stock in an out, the gates between the pens can all be folded back to close livestock on the slatted area to allow cleaning out by the loading shovel through a sliding door at the bottom end of the shed.  This has paid dividends in terms labour saving since much of the work can now be completed by one person.

Cows are milked out immediately after calving and the calf is given two stomach bags of colostrum (4-5 litres) within the first 24 hours.  Cows that calve in the morning are generally milked in the evening, and vice versa.  This allows good colostrums security and minimises the risk of disease spread.  Calves are moved the next day to the automatic calf feeder, which is generally the first teat that they see and makes training easier.  Brian and Ian rear around 160 calves a year through their Forster Technik calf feeder with two feeding stations.  This is set up to feed 33 kg of milk powder over 8 weeks in a feed plan as follows:

No. days Start (litres) End (litres) Concentration (g/l)
3 4.0 4.5 125
3 4.5 5.0 125
40 5.0 5.0 125
10 5.0 2.5 125

The calf feeder was moved from the previous calf rearing facilities in a lean-to shed around Christmas 2012.  The existing rearing facilities were fine for an 80-100 cow herd but with expansion to 160 cows at that time the lean-to shed had become overstocked leading to poor air flow on a clammy day, increasing the risk of pneumonia.  Being much airier and brighter, the move to the new shed has overcome any potential problems and has created a much better environment for the calves and the Thompsons.  Brian and Ian comment “since moving to the new house, scour is no longer an issue it has paid dividends, in terms of overall health of these young animals with better performance meaning that the calves are able to meet their target weight throughout the rearing phase.  This has a carryover night through with maiden heifers at the correct size and weight at bulling allowing us to be able to calf heifers down at 24-25 months of age.”

Feeding Dairy Cows This Winter

Jane Sayers, CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser, Omagh

The clocks have gone back an hour and the winter is upon us with dairy herds adjusting to the housed feeding regime.  While most farmers will have sufficient silage for the winter months generally the quality of the first cut is below average. This shortcoming in silage quality will need to be taken into account when drawing up a well balanced diet for the dairy herd.  This will ensure healthy, fertile cows producing a satisfactory yield and quality of milk.

Silage quality

Silage analysis will provide key figures on silage quality including intake potential, dry matter (DM) crude protein (CP), and metabolisable energy (ME). Remember to use an auger to get a more representative sample of silage just don’t take one from the silo face.

Table 1 – Summary of Silage Quality
  2013 first cut 2013 second cut 2014 first cut 2014 second cut
Dray matter % (DM) 29.47 24.21 29.08 32.66
Metabolisable energy (ME) (MJ/kg DM) 11.0 10.6 10.6 10.6
Crude protein % 12.0 11.7 12.3 12.3
Intake value 93.4 87.6 90.7 95.3
Silage intake @ 0 kg concentrate (kg DM cow/day) 12.4 1.6 12.0 12.6
Milk yield @ 0 kg concentrate (litres/cow/day) 12.8 10.4 11.3 12.6

Source: AFBI Hillsborough

Table 1 highlights that first cut silages this year have a lower DM, ME, CP, silage intake and milk yield potential figure than last year. Due to the good growth conditions in the spring grass was ready for cutting up to 10 days earlier but had to be delayed  because of unfavourable weather conditions in May. In contrast, this year’s second cut silages have analysed better than first cuts and are capable of supporting a milk yield of 12.6 litres/cow/day compared to 10.4 litres/cow/day from first cuts.  As a result many farmers will consider feeding second cut silage to early lactation cows.

Feed sufficient forage

It is important to ensure maximum silage intake by dairy cows especially fresh calvers to reduce the risk of digestive upsets.

The following practical steps should help to ensure higher silage intakes:

  • consider keeping a separate group of first lactation heifers to avoid bullying by older cows
  • keep a fresh supply of silage in front of cows at all times
  • be prepared to move the last 10% of silage not eaten and offer to dry cows or young stock
  • allow at least 600mm (24 inches) of feeding space per cow
  • provide a fresh supply of water with 10 cm drinker space per cow.

Level of concentrate

The level of concentrate feeding will depend on silage quality, cow body condition and required milk output.  Where silage is of poor or moderate feed value, increased levels of concentrate  feeding will be required to maintain milk yield. When feeding a higher level of concentrate it should contain increased amounts of digestible fibre for example sugarbeet, citrus pulp or soya hulls. The maximum amount of concentrate which should be fed daily through the milking parlour in two feeds is 10 kg for cows and 8 kg for heifers. Where higher levels of concentrate need to be fed consider using either out-of-parlour feeders, midday feeding or total mixed ration. When concentrates are fed on a little and often basis digestive upsets are minimised.  

Concentrate build-up

Immediately before and after calving the cow’s intake is reduced by about one third even with good silage fed ad libitum.  Recent research findings from AFBI Hillsborough suggest after calving concentrates should be introduced gradually to the diet until maximum feed levels are reached at day 21 to day 28.  This is to ensure the rumen is functioning properly and reduce the risk of acidosis later on in the lactation.  

Protein content

The crude protein content of the total ration for early lactation cows should be 17 to 18%. Normally the crude protein of grass silage is between 12 and 14% and this needs to be balanced with a 20% protein concentrate on a freshweight basis to meet the cow’s requirements.  If the crude protein of the silage is lower as is the case on many farms this winter then a higher protein concentrate should be fed.  It is important to have a balance of rumen degradeable e.g. rapeseed and undegradable protein sources eg soyabean.  

Farmers who have the option of including forage maize or wholecrop in the diet can replace up to 50% of the grass silage leading to improved dry matter intake, milk yield and milk protein content.  However maize silage and wholecrop are both low in crude protein  (usually 8 – 9%) and this needs to be taken into account when formulating diets.  

Evaluate performance throughout the winter

It will be even more important this winter to assess cow body condition as excessive loss of body condition in early lactation will lead to low milk compositional quality and poor fertility. The body condition of a dairy cow at her various stages of lactation is a reflection on the quality and quantity of the ration being fed. Recommended body condition scores for each stage of the cow lactation cycle are given in the following table.

Stage of lactation Body condition score
Calving 2.75 - 3.00
Early lactation 2.25 - 2.50
Mild lactation 2.5
Drying off 2.75 - 3.00


Assess silage quality now to enable informed decisions on type and quantity of concentrate input for the winter ahead. With poorer quality first cut silages feed levels will need to be adjusted accordingly. Keep a check on silage intakes, milk yield and milk quality performance and cow body condition. Feeding a balanced diet of sufficient quantity ensures healthy, productive dairy cows.

Effective Transition Cow Management

Aidan Cushnahan, Dairying Development Adviser, Greenmount Campus, College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise

Managing cows during the transition period covers the time from when cows approach drying off through to calving and introducing them back into the milking herd.  An effective transition cow management  programme should ensure that cows are dried off and calve down at body condition score 2.75 - 3.0 and the risk of contracting transition disorders such as milk fever, ketosis and metritis is reduced. The findings from AFBI Research over a number of trials has emphasised the importance of adopting good management practices to ensure health and performance during the following lactation. The following article will discuss the management aspects of an effective transition cow management programme in more detail

Monitoring and managing body condition

Monitoring and managing body condition is a critical component of a successful transition cow management programme.  Cows that calve down in poor condition/ over condition will not maximise their feed intakes post calving which in turn limits milk yield and other performance parameters.  Target condition score at drying off and calving is around 2.75 – 3.0.

Now is the time to monitor body condition among the late lactation cows in your herd as this will allow you time to modify your management programme to achieve condition score 2.75 – 3.0 at drying off.  For example, feed supplies should be restricted to over fat cows (condition score > 3.5).  Likewise the feeding programme should also be adjusted for late lactation cows that are in poor condition (condition score < 2.5) to optimise condition score at drying off.  Alternatively some thin cows may be given a longer dry period than normal to build up body reserves.  However ensure that an appropriate dry cow tube is used to give adequate protection for this period - if in doubt consult your local veterinary surgeon.

Management during the dry period

The dry period (usually 6 – 8 weeks) is the stage in the cow’s production cycle where the udder is given a chance to rest and repair itself and that the cow is primed for the next lactation.  Steps which require serious attention include the following:

  • maintain a body condition score of 2.75 – 3.0 during the dry period
  • consider the use of 2 dry cow groups  - far off and close up groups
  • monitor energy intake - target around 100MJ/cow/day at drying off, rising to 120 MJ/ cow/ day as the cow approaches calving
  • monitor potassium (K) levels in the diet - target less than 1.5 % K in the dry matter
  • feed less grass and grass silage and introduce chopped straw in the ration
  • feed a good quality dry cow mineral
  • introduce a high quality pre calver feed 3 – 4 weeks before calving
  • introduce some of the lactation ration in the period coming up to calving (7 – 10 days pre calving)

It is also important to give thought as to where cows are housed during the dry period.  Dry cows should be housed in areas which are not over crowded (< 85 % stocking density), have adequate feeding space (at least 75 cm/ cow) and have a clean, comfortable lying area.  Try and minimise the stress associated with group changes by moving cows at times which do not coincide with feeding animals.

Health issues

The cow’s udder is susceptible to infection.  Therefore dry cows should be moved to a clean, dry area after dry cow treatment.  Drying off cows will also allow you the opportunity to examine cows’ feet as well as controlling parasites and carrying out vaccinations.  Ensure that cows consume adequate amounts of feed to reduce the risk of transition disorders such as metritis and ketosis.  Record all incidences of transition diseases.  Doing this will allow you to benchmark your herd against industry targets and allow you to determine whether or not modifications are required within your management programme.

Calving management

Move cows to calving areas within 3 – 5 days of calving.  The calving pen should be large, clean and dry with plenty of bedding and access to water.  Calving aid utensils should be sterilised and left ready for use.  Offer a high energy/ calcium drink to the cow immediately after calving.  The new born calf should receive around 10 % of its bodyweight in colostrum within the first 6 hours after birth.


An effective transition cow management programme incorporates the following elements:

  • assess body condition 6 – 8 weeks before drying off and manage the animal to achieve condition score 2.75 – 3.0 at drying off
  • manage cows during the dry period to maintain condition score 2.75 – 3.0
  • offer dry cow minerals to cows during the dry period
  • monitor energy and potassium intake during the dry period
  • do not ignore health management issues at drying off
  • give consideration to management of the cow around calving

Contact your local Dairying Development Adviser if you wish to discuss aspects of transition cow management in more detail.

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