Dairylink: Vision for the future driven by information

25th April 2016

Dairylink: Vision for the future driven by information

Aidan Brennan reports from the Dairylink farm walk held on Charles Clarke's farm near Bailieborough, Co Cavan.

At the end of the farm walk last Friday, Charles Clarke summed up the day by saying that he has a vision for the future and a map for how to get there. The vision is to have a profitable farm throwing off sufficient cash for an enjoyable lifestyle and to have a good work/life balance.

Importantly, achieving these goals did not depend on increasing the scale of the farm and this was the key message from the three Dairylink spring farm walks held over the last two weeks.

Charles is currently milking 112 cows on 32ha of rolling drumlin-type soils just outside Bailieborough in east Cavan.

The former Cavan footballer is a hard worker. He and his wife Claire have three young children, but Charles is spending six hours a day in the milking parlour, so the time available for other farm work is scarce, let alone family time.

The eight-unit milking parlour is an issue. Milking 14 rows morning and evening is tough going. At the same time, he has 70 calves to feed and all meal fed in the parlour has to be bucketed into troughs.

Charles is slow to modify the existing parlour, as the site is not ideal. A new build is out of the question this year because of milk price.

A medium-term solution is to put in a 16-unit double-up and avail of a 40% TAMS II grant on most of the expenditure and have the equipment to go into a new parlour in a few years' time.

Charles made the decision to prioritise spending in other areas of the farm before expanding the parlour.

Land has been purchased, reclaimed and reseeded. Drains and farm roadways were installed on existing and new land. A 90-cow cubicle shed and silage slab was built and cow numbers have more than doubled. These investment decisions were based on the vision, so money was wisely spent in areas that offered the highest return first.

Charles joined the Dairylink programme 18 months ago, along with five other farmers north and south of the border. He gets a visit from Dairylink adviser Conail Keown once a fortnight and, in return, Charles's farm information is available to the public every week in the Irish Farmers Journal.

The purpose of the programme is to learn from each other and to improve profitability, north and south. Over 100 people turned up for the farm walk last week.


If information is knowledge, then Charles is growing wiser every day. The farm was mapped by GPS and he discovered that the land available around the farmyard for grazing was about 20% less than he thought. This means his stocking rate is 20% higher than he thought, at 3.5 cows/ha.

Charles started measuring grass properly for the first time in 2015. His 36 grass measurements yielded an average grass production of 11.8t/ha. The range was from 8t/ha to 16t/ha.

At the walk, he was asked why certain paddocks were performing so much better than others. Soil type, grass species, timing of grazing, number of grazings and soil fertility were the reasons given for the variation. All of these things can be improved upon, which should see average grass growth increase on the farm.

"Knowing what each paddock grows is important, but it's the day-to-day advantages of measuring and managing grass that really counts," said Charles.

"Before I started measuring, I'd be making decisions about how much meal to feed and how many paddocks to cut for silage without really knowing the implications.

"Now I know exactly how much grass I have, what the growth rate is and when I can take out paddocks for silage. The net result is that I'm grazing lighter covers of better-quality grass," he said.

Charles has 9t less meal fed this spring versus the same period last year, saving almost €2,500. This has been achieved through better grass management.

Average grass growth so far this year is actually up on last year, with an average of 0.71t/ha grown to date versus 0.66t/ha grown to the same date last year. This equates to an extra 1.6t of grass grown across the 32ha milking block.

In addition, more grass was carried over from autumn to spring. Closing farm cover was about 200kg higher than in 2014, so this was an extra 6.4t of grass available this spring.

Between the higher growth rates and carrying over more grass, 8t of extra grass was available this spring, which was the main reason why less meal was fed without compromising production too much.

Milk production is actually up this year compared with last. Alongside feeding more grass, there are less first-calvers, no autumn calvers and calving has been more compact this spring.

This information wasn’t available to Charles before he started measuring and now he is keen to increase grass growth and reduce costs further.

Cows grazed 15% of the farm in February and grazed for 26 days in March, but they were only out for eight days in April up to last Friday.

Most of the silage needed comes from out-blocks, some of which are owned, but most rented. Not all of these blocks can be cut for silage, so some beef calves are kept to graze these areas, which doesn’t help with Charles’s workload.

The soil fertility of these outfarms is low and you would really need to question what they contribute to the overall business.

Overall, only 13% of Charles's farm is at optimum soil fertility for pH, phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Lime is the big worry – a massive 87% is below pH 6.2. P isn't much better, with 65% at index 1 and 2. K is good, with just 7% at index 2 and the rest at index 3 and 4.

Improving the pH is the first step for Charles. He spread 240t of lime over the last few years, but he has a requirement to spread almost as much again.

A key message from the walk is that the pH should be correct before targeting P and K.

As he is in a nitrates derogation, he is restricted as to how much P he can spread, but by having the soil sampled, at least the chemical P allowance and slurry can be targeted at the paddocks that need it most. Every paddock was individually sampled.

The final stop at the farm walk concerned the business plan that he has completed with Conail.

The focus on this farm is to build on the technical improvements that he has already made. Reducing feed costs and increasing the amount of fat and protein sold off the farm is key.

Herd EBI is low at €107. Average fat and protein last year were 4.14% and 3.44% respectively. Last week, the protein was a disappointing 2.74% – the cows were housed for the previous week on silage and 5kg of meal.

The business plan says that the Clarkes should have €72,080 of cash available for drawings, tax and capital debt repayments in 2017 at a base price of 28c/l. This is after €40,000 is taken out for Charles's own labour.

Charles is using a combination of high-EBI genomic and Jersey crossbred bulls this spring with a strong focus on solids. Fertility in the herd is reasonably good, with 8% empty after 14 weeks of breeding.


Tangible lessons are already emerging from the Dairylink project farms.

Like assembling a jigsaw, information such as calving pattern, milk solids production, the number of adjusted hectares being farmed, soil fertility, grass growth and cashflow needs to be put together to see the bigger picture and formulate a plan for the future.

You need to know the weak points on a farm. Planning without the required information is like shooting in the dark.

The weak point for Charles is soil fertility, which is affecting his ability to grow more grass. Increasing the amount of solids sold off the farm is key also.

This needs to be achieved by increasing the percentages of solids in the milk.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Irish Farmers Journal. Please click on the below Irish Farmers Journal logo to be brought to additional dairy articles

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