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Management hints for April

on .


  • Change your attitude, get into the habit of running a low-cost system;
  • Risk-manage urea spreading to save Ä40/acre;
  • Silage ground must be grazed twice this year;
  • Graze out paddocks well to have quality grass for the remainder of the year;
  • Save money by cutting a large first-cut silage;
  • A breeding plan, using ICBF sire advice, based on fact, is essential;
  • Synchronisation of heifers is an absolute must;
  • Use the ICBF sire advice to choose AI bulls in 2015.

Matt Ryan

Get a cost-saving attitude

We have hit a new era of milk freedom, but it will bring price and cost volatility. So what is the biggest challenge facing dairy farmers? Being able to mentally operate at low cost:

The habit of spending is an attitude; one that is very, very hard to get rid of;

Being able to operate a low-cost system seems to be predicated by low milk price, and that is a strong possibility this year and more frequently in the future;

This year, train yourself to be a low-cost farmer by starting in April;

Low-cost operators are more technically aware than high-cost operators because they have to know the limits of saving without adversely affecting animal performance, animal health or soil production.

More than anything, it is an attitude of doing things differently. A 300,000-litre producer will see his milk sales reduced by over Ä30,000 this year. Therefore, he must be very cost-conscious. As a result, he must prioritise spending to give the most return and save on other input costs:

Don’t waste grass; too many farmers do, by ‘topping’ and not grazing out paddocks, resulting in left-behind grass rotting;

Feed as little meal (soya hulls, citrus, barley) as possible in April – none is required if grass is plentiful, as it will sustain 27l/cow/day;

Use slurry (empty all tanks and spread with umbilical system to minimise soil compaction) on silage fields now to save on N and P and K;

Use urea (not CAN) until early June because it is 77 per cent of the cost and will result in savings of Ä40 per hectare;

Use Gene Ireland package of bulls at Ä8.50 each;

Use magnesium flakes in the water to save on magnesium costs;

Do not give cattle or heifers a ‘let-out’ dose for hoose or worms – why should you?;

Save on drug costs by using generic products as you pay more for trade-named products;

Collect and reuse rainwater and cooling water;

Get calves off meal and milk replacer quickly by using grass;

Synchronise replacement heifers.

Minimise meal costs in April

Feed no meals in April, because grass is plentiful and will produce 27l/day. For every 4.5l a herd is yielding above that, feed 2kg meal.

Even 1kg per cow per day will cost you Ä7-Ä10 per cow for the month. If you feed 3kg per day, it will cost you nearly Ä30. If milk sells at 30c/l, then it will only break even with the cost of meal (Ä180/tonne), and with high-fertility herds you will lose money.

Feed the cheapest meal you can find, soya hulls, barley or citrus pulp, which cost 19-22c per kg of dry matter (DM). Grass is 6-7c/kg. With good-quality second-rotation grass, there is no need for extra protein with these, unless feeding more than 5kg per head per day.

How do you get magnesium into the cows?

They need 2oz per head per day of calcined magnesite in the meal, and some farmers are throwing this quantity on citrus/barley as it is delivered to the farm. Get your co-op to put it into 1kg meal;

Dusting the pastures at 13-17kg per hectare (12-15lb per acre) is popular but costs 15-18c per cow per day;

Add ‘mag flakes’ to water in a five-gallon drum plus dispenser, moving daily from one water trough to the next, it costs 8c per cow per day. Copper, selenium and iodine can be added as extra;

Automatic dispensing system in the water system which is most convenient and costs 12-18c per cow per day;

Some co-ops sell a nut with adequate magnesium in 1kg of meal and, in this era of lowish milk price/high costs, this should be freely available as it is so convenient and attractive.

Urea saves Ä40 per acre!

If you could use all urea instead of CAN this year, you would save Ä40/acre. The thinking must be to use as much urea as possible without incurring losses, called volatilisation losses. See below how to risk manage urea losses.

Table 1 highlights the situations where volatilisation losses are greatest when using urea. The following urea management practices should be applied to minimise or prevent such losses:

Evaluate the relative risks as outlined in Table 1;

Where the risk is high, either don’t spread at all, delay spreading or wait until rain is forecast within one to two days;

If lime has recently been applied, delay spreading for three to four months;

Where slurry is being used, spread urea four to five days before slurry;

In summary, the best situations to spread urea are when temperatures and soil moisture levels are low; in other words, the soil is dry, it is raining or rain is due within one to two days; and when pH is not too high.

High-risk conditions

Low-risk conditions

High soil temperature (>21ºC)

Low soil temperature (<10ºC)

Moist soil or heavy dew

Dry soil

High soil pH (>7.0)

Low soil pH (<6.0)

Low cation-exchange capacity soil (sandy)

High capacity soil (silt or clay dominant)

Crop residue, perennial forage

Bare soil

 Table 1: High and low-risk conditions for urea losses.

Too many farmers make the mistake of not putting on enough nitrogen (N) early in the season. Blaming weather or the fact that grass was plentiful indicates poor understanding of the economic responses to N and how grass grows. But they will run into grass shortage later because of low levels of N available and poor tillering; generally reflected in more meal feeding and too little first-cut silage.

Use N now to match your stocking rate during the following months, May and June, as follows:

Stocking rate May/June (LU/ha)

N (urea) units/acre




N by April 15

3.74 or less




3.75 to 4.0








Late in the month, or if the dry weather persists, it would be appropriate to use sulphur with the N on sulphur-deficient soils:

Use 5-20 units per acre;

Generally, light sandy soil responds best.

Graze silage ground a second time

Due to poor grass growth in late February/early March, this option must be very seriously considered because it will save on:

Meal feeding during April;

Feeding pit silage or maize silage during April (no-one should feed pit silage in April unless desperately short of grazed grass).

With this advice, the closing date will start on April 15 and finish on April 25, and so will average around April 20. With good growth rates, the cutting date will be somewhere near June 6-12:

This is early enough for silage cutting, for late heading varieties;

A split cutting date would be advantageous to facilitate the early availability of aftergrass;

Quality will be very good because of the short growing period and no ‘rotten butt’;

Some farmers, for the second time, will start grazing the silage ground on April 5 and finish on April 15; this will facilitate cutting on June 5-6.

When the silage area has been grazed in April apply:

3,000 gallons of slurry (=24-30 units of N) per acre;

Most fields will have received 60-70 units of N per acre and about 20 units (20-30 per cent of applied N) of this will be available for the silage crop;

Therefore, with the slurry you only need 30-50 units per acre of urea;

In most cases, less than a bag of urea, and this is one of the ways to save money.

Graze out paddocks

Some farmers are not grazing out paddocks well enough. It is a fundamental requirement of good grassland management.

If you leave 1kg of grass DM per cow in the paddock after the cows have grazed, this is the same as throwing 1kg meal (23c) down the drain. That’s Ä23 per 100 cows per day – some waste of money. Every 1cm post-grazing height remaining represents 100kg DM. Why? 

Because none of that ‘left-behind-grass’ will be there when the cows come back to graze in the next rotation – it will have rotted;

The stem area will have increased, making it more difficult to graze out in May, June and July.

Get your adviser or discussion group to tell you, or learn at a farm walk, what the ideal post-grazing height should be. Buy a plate meter for the discussion group to teach yourselves this most important skill. A big advantage of tight (4-4.5cm) grazing in April-May is you will have:

Thicker grazing pastures for the remainder of the year;

This is due to the fact that sunlight can get down to the base of the plant so that it provokes ‘new tillers’ to grow;

The growing point of the plant will be kept low, near the ground, so that less stem will develop and so reduce the need for topping later in the year.

Managing the second rotation

Most farmers should finish the first rotation between April 1 and 15 (wet land). On many farms, covers are low, approximately 1,000kgDM, on the early paddocks of the second rotation because:

Poor growth rates and an inadequate percentage grazed before March 1, and/or many paddocks suffered some soil compaction/poaching damage;

Too much ground grazed after March 17.

This will result in farmers grazing the second rotation too fast due to low covers. The first paddocks of the second rotation should not be grazed in the third rotation until after April 25.

Paddocks need 25 to 30 days to regrow because growth rates in April will average 40-50kgDM per day. Therefore, do not let this rotation become too short.

To provide quality grass and be able to graze out paddocks correctly:

It is essential to go into grass covers of 1,500-1,600kgDM per hectare;

Very low stocked farms should go into lower covers;

Very high stocked farms will need meal with a cover of 1,600kg.

Plan a large first cut

This is one major way to save on contractor and silage feed costs per cow.

First cuts yield 10-12 tonnes per acre compared with 5-7t for second cuts;

Quality is 4-6 per cent units better;

If little or no second cut is taken, more land is available for summer grazing, a saving on N;

Pit second-cut silage is 25-40 per cent more expensive than first cut.

The way to maximise first cut is to keep cows, cattle and calves at high stocking rates as follows, on the grazing area during April-May.


100 cows on

30 (330kg) yearlings on

Very high stocking (4.8 cows/ha)


4ha (2,500kg/ha)

High stocking (4.5 cows/ha)


4.5ha (2,200kg/ha)

Medium stocking (4.0 cows/ha)


5.5ha (1,800kg/ha)

Calves can be stocked at 22 per ha during Apr/May. With this info you should subtract the grazing area required (for cows, calves and replacements), as calculated above, from the total farm hectares to give you the area that can comfortably be cut for first cut. This exercise will alert you to the fact that you may be overstocked to provide enough winter feed and may need to rent silage ground or buy ‘pit silage’.

To achieve these stocking rates, use the N levels recommended above. You will need very high growth rates to sustain the very high stoking rates without some meal (2kg). Amazingly, this planning exercise is a fundamental mistake many farmers are making.

Make 70-73 per cent of your silage requirements from first cut, therefore, close 40-45 per cent of your farm for first-cut silage in April.

Cow/heifer breeding plan

It’s a new scene now that quotas are gone. Decide on your mating start date (MSD) based on your targeted median calving date for 2016 and the number of days from start of calving to median calving date in 2015.

Based on research, the following mean calving dates are advised:

South (dry land): February 14 (most cows in calf by May 7);

North (or wet land): February 24 (most cows in calf by May 18).

The target number of days from start of calving to median calving date is 15-20 days. The median calving date is that day when 50 per cent (half) of the cows have calved. Look up yours on the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) site for your herd for 2015. Then, subtract your days from the target median calving date in 2016, to help you decide on the start of mating date.

A farmer targeting a median calving date of February 20, 2016, should follow this plan: 

April 20 (-10 days) – tail paint all cows red and record heats;

April 23 (-7 days) – MSD for heifers. Tail paint and serve for next six days;

April 29 (-2 days) – PG all heifers not served. Bull as they show heat;

April 30 (-1 day) – New paint colour on all cows that have shown heat; 

May 1 (0 day) – MSD for cows;

May 11 (+11 days) – vet examines all non-cycling cows (red paint). 

This plan will help you achieve the three-week 90 per cent submission target and the 90 per cent six-week calving target next spring.

Make heat observation easy

Because heat detection is difficult and you are tired we must make it easy:

Each standing mount only lasts two to three seconds;

The average number of mounts by Holstein-Friesians and heifers is 11;

Bulling lasts 3-30 hours, averaging 11 hours;

So, you only have a window of 25-40 seconds to see some cows bulling.

If you miss her, you have lost Ä80-Ä90. You must use heat detection aids. Only 59 per cent of farmers use them, which shows an amazing lack of commitment to making money.

What heat detection aids are available?

Tail paint with non-drip household emulsion at a cost of 20-25c per cow for the season;

Specialised tail paints with brush on bottle costing Ä1 per cow for the season;

Aerosol sprays, costing 30-80c per cow;

Kamars, costing Ä1.50-Ä1.80 each;

Paint sticks, costing 15c per cow or so every time it is put on;

‘Scratch cards’;

Vasectomise bull, but do not use him until five to six weeks into the breeding season. You still have time to get the vet to ‘fix up’ an uncastrated yearling. They are worth anything late in the season.

To convince you on the paint, the following research data is worth remembering:

If 90-100 per cent of the paint is removed, then there is a 95 per cent chance the cow is bulling;

Even if 50 per cent of the paint is removed there is a 70 per cent chance she is bulling;

So, you should bull cows when paint is gone.

To avoid confusion it is essential to put paint on correctly:

A nine-inch long by two-inch wide strip from the top of tail head forward;

If it is wider or longer than this you will be confused if some paint removed;

Come down a bit the tail head for heifers but definitely not for cows.

Use ICBF sire advice to select bulls

Use ICBF sire advice to choose your AI bulls from the active bull list. Follow these stages:

Click on sire advice;

Go to ‘select bulls using traits’;

Tick the following trait boxes – EBI, Fertility, Kg Fat, Kg Protein, % Fat, % Protein. Choose the ‘top 25%’ for each trait;

Press ‘next’. Then, assign bulls to cows and heifers (with a ‘calving difficulty’ of less than 1). Don’t assign bulls that are greater than minus Ä3;

Of these bulls don’t assign any bull that has greater than minus Ä2 for ‘health’ traits;

Press ‘assign to cows’ and save when done.

Cross breeding has merit. Consider it very seriously if:

You have an infertile herd;

You have wet land and you want a small efficient cow;

You have herd health problems (use Norwegian red);

Jerseys and Norwegian reds are the main bulls for this purpose;

These bulls would not want to be greater than Ä60-80 less than a B&W bull on fertility.

Use a stock bull if you wish to lose Ä80-Ä100 per year for every cow in your herd. You also run the risk of injury.

Synchronise heifers

Anyone who tells you they don’t do this is telling you they don’t believe research as this is essential if you want compact calving next year. You must calve the heifers one week before the cow herd. Allow heifers settle-in in the milking parlour. Because the herd’s calving date slips by four to six days each year, you must calve all the heifers in the first three weeks of calving. This can be organised by synchronising heifers as follows:

Day 1 – apply the heat detection aid (scratch cards or crayons are best) to all heifers;

Day 1-6 – bull heifers seen on heat;

Day 6 – inject non-bulled heifers with 2cc prostaglandin

Day 7-11 – most heifers will come bulling and should be served;

Day 12-18 – put on heat identification on all heifers;

Day 19-24 – heifers will repeat, so AI on paint removal;

This reduces heat detection time from 21 to nine days.

There are other options:

Inject PG on day 1 and re-inject on day 11; breed at detected heat or at 72 and 96 hours post-second injection. Heat detection time reduced to two to four days or eliminates it totally. Bull on the day semen advised;

Inject with PG; breed at detected heat; reinject those heifers not AI’d on day 11; breed at detected heat or 72 and 96 hours post-second injection. Heat detection time reduced to seven days. Useful for heifers indoors.

Short reminders

As breeding heifers’ calves will be the most valuable animals (possibly Ä400-600) on all dairy farms next year, at this stage you should plan to be bulling heifers that are only 250kg now and bull on June 1. Feed these 2kg meal (18-20 per cent) with very good quality grass and delay service to late May/June 1.

Forthcoming events

Teagasc/Aurivo/IFAC farm walk on April 17 on Joe Dunphy’s, Easkery, Co Sligo.