The Irish Grassland Association (IGA) held its annual dairy conference last month. While the organisers used the term 'back to basics' to highlight the theme of the conference it could equally have been called 'Back to Fundamentals'.
In one paper, on ensuring maximum production from grass, a Teagasc specialist outlined the development of a Grass Selection Index and how it is intended that the Index will work in practice. Mary McEvoy showed how the application of the economic index to the data from the five grass trial sites of the Department of Agriculture already provides an insight into the possible performance of grasses even before the official release of the Index in 2014.
This evaluation process has been in gestation for a couple of years now and will be finalised in the next 12 months. The one critical assesment that has been neccessarily excluded, so far is the information on sward persistancy. Naturally, this data can only become available and applicable over time as grass swards are monitored. So the Index will be a 'live' entity capable of change in terms of individual grass performance over time as more information becomes available. This is how it should be.
In essence, the Index shows the contribution of each grass trait to the overall economic merit of a grass and the resulting contribution of that grass to a grass-based production system can be fully defined in economic terms.
Grass Testing Highlighted
Dermot Grogan reviewed the new management protocols the Department is using for evaluating grass varieties in its Irish Recommended List trials. The one good result from the rather rash enthusiasm of some farm mentors to introduce the New Zealand Bealey grass variety onto Irish farms a few years ago, prior to it's full evaluation by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, is that there is now a greater realisation of the need for and the usefulness of the trials that the Department carries out. The trials are carried out at five sites across the country and now include a 'simulated grazing' system to determine how the grasses in the trials respond under a frequent cutting methodology that is intended to replicate intensive grazing. Sward digestibility is also monitored closely and that is surely a very positive development as there is a growing realisation that producing the grass is one part of the package. Ensuring that the grasses that are grown in Ireland are both highly palatable and highly digestible is equally important.
Getting The Soil Right
Stan Lalor's infectious enthusiasm for his subject clearly impressed the IGA audience. The Teagasc specialist, based at Johnstown Castle, listed the five essential steps to ensuring that the production potential of the farm is fully realised and that fertiliser is being used efficiently. First and foremost on his list is soil sampling. Again, that reflects the need to get the fundamentals right. Knowledge of subject in terms of knowing the soil status has to come ahead of any other action. Based on the soil sample results, the soil pH is established in each field or paddock and then an informed decision can be made on optimising that pH. Stan outlined the need to establish an Index 3 P and K fertility profile and then to maintain that status for optimum grass performance. The cost effective role of slurry was also noted as one of Stan Lalorís five steps to exploiting the production potential of well fertilised Irish soils. The economic value of slurry, including soiled water, has appreciated significantly in recent years with the upward spiral in chemical fertiliser prices. Timing, application rates and judicious use of slurry in different field, according to the needs of the soil in those fields is the key to successfully maximising the benefit of slurry, as Stan Lalor clearly showed.
While one aspect of the IGA conference emphasised the need to maximise the production of grass using the best grasses and fertilising them properly to get the best out of them, another aspect of the IGA's ongoing work was highlighted that showed the ability of the organisation to think 'outside the box'.
AutoGrassMilk is a new venture undertaken by the IGA to examine the viability of usng Automatic Milking Systems (AMS) on Irish farms under rotational grazing systems. The work is being co-financed under the European Commission Framework Programme. The IGA is working with Teagasc Moorepark to carry out the practical research involved in establishing whether AMS can work on Irish grass farms. Most of the systems in use on the Continent do not use fresh grass in the cows' diet but there are a number of units here and abroad, including New Zealand and Australia, that confirm the potential, at least, to adapt the system to grazing farms. While the IGA considers the research project to be of considerable importance in relation to the future of dairy farming in Ireland, the organisation emphasises the need to confirm and scientifically prove that automated milking technology is compatible with grazing for successful adoption in Ireland.
Dr Bernatette O'Brien, Teagasc Moorepark, is in charge of the research project. She will be examining the potential of AMS from a range of perspectives including practicality under grazing conditions and the financial and economic viability of the system.
An interesting conversation over lunch at the IGA conference showed the different responses of farmers under different circumstances. One farmer who has adopted zero grazing, because of the increasing safety hazards of walking cows long distances on a public road, thought the AMS concept had huge relevance to him. Another farmer was of the opinion that the 'robots' are too expensive, do not easily facilitate grazing and would diminish the 'hands-on' approach to milking cows that he considers a necessity. It is only by objective resarch as initiated by the IGA and now being carried out on their behalf by Teagasc that we can fully appreciate the relevance of automated milking systems across a range of different situations in this country.
It may be shown in the fullness of time that a hybrid model using an automated milking system in conjunction with a rotary milking parlour is the best compromise between the existing milking systems and what will be available to dairy farmers in the future in terms of automating the milking operation. Rotary parlours, especially for larger herds, seem to work very well in grass-based milk production systems. The expectation is that Irish herds will increase in size after quotas end in 2015. The increased labour output and efficiency available from rotary milking, allied to the 'labourless' AMS concept, together with the huge array of cow health and milk quality information available from the system, may well be the optimal choice for grass-based dairy production farms. In the meantime, we await further research results from the IGA-led research initiative.