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Matt Ryan

Management Hints

November 2023


  • A recent and very informative farm walk organised by the Irish Farmers Journal clearly demonstrated the consequences of nitrates derogation, even to moderately stocked farmers.
  • With the advent of 220kg N/ha (called organic N) derogation requirement from January 1, 2024, at minimum, an impacted farmer's income will be reduced by 7%.
  • If the farmer has land rented and replacements out on contract rearing, because these are very likely to increase in cost by 30-50%, the income will be reduced by 15+%.
  • However, if and when stocking rate decreases to 170kg N/ha, the income will decrease by 32-35% – pretty disastrous!
    • Some farmers, with their heads buried in the sand, think this can’t happen, but it is in the European Union legislation from 1991.
    • Ireland has been given a derogation so that up to now we can farm up to a max of 250kg N/ha.
    • This is because we have a long grass-growing season, high rainfall, a high proportion of crops with a high N uptake (grass). But this is dependent on water quality improving.
  • These are the costs, whether one reduces cow numbers, leases more land or exports slurry. All routes will reduce farmers’ income, distort the cow sales market (there will be 40,000 less cows milked by existing dairy farmers in 2024) and drive land rental prices through the roof. High priced land rental will be counter-productive to income.
  • Will reducing stocking rates improve water quality in Ireland? Eddie Burges, Teagasc agricultural catchment adviser, says that overriding factors such as weather and soil type can have a greater impact on nitrate losses than whole farm stocking rate (SR), when fertiliser and slurry application are sensible and timely. He says reducing SR from 250kg to 220kg “will not improve water quality”.
  • All of this is galling when we know that: 54% of Irish surface water is classified as good to high quality compared with 44% in the EU; and 92% of Irish ground water has good status compared with 82% in the EU.
  • We also know that farmers have made huge efforts and commitments to be compliant. A little survey of 30 of my group members shows the following:
  1. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) = 0.81kg CO2/kg fat- and protein-corrected milk (FPCM)..
  2. This doesn’t include carbon sequestration.
  3. The target is 0.75; whereas the present world figure is 2.4 (approximately).
  4. Ammonia emissions = 46.2kg NH3 per ha.
  5. Some of my clients have improved their nitrogen use efficiency from 2021 to 2022 by 7%.
  6. I believe the powers that be do not understand, or wish to understand, how slow ‘practice adoption’ is. Dairy farmers in derogation have, over the last few years, invested heavily both financially and in the adoption of science-based knowledge to improve their environmental footprint. All we need is a little more time to allow all farmers to catch up.
  • To have your farm facts, so as to debate your case, all farmers should now join the Teagasc/ICBF AgNav programme – it is free from your local Teagasc adviser.
  • Of 45 farmers questioned, only three contacted his/her local councillor or TD to inform him of the facts associated with these environmental impositions – talk about “wouldn’t someone do something” when we do nothing ourselves but complain!
  • Now, in preparation for next year, you must adapt your system of farming to the new norm.


  • With all this doomsday talk of dairy farming having no future, those of you in full-time, low-profit farming systems should seriously consider switching to dairy. There will always be a market for dairy products.
  • Dairying will always be two to four times more profitable than most farming systems.
  • Recently, I got a very interesting, motivating email from a young, new dairy farmer who came home from a high salaried-overseas accountancy job. He gives the following summary:

“My girlfriend (now my wife) was shocked when I announced my intentions to her but the lifestyle and the ability to have more family time, even if it took a few years, have been the big reward for both of us.

  • I would have been very disappointed to see a serious income potential opportunity from the home farm being missed out on. Previous to my job experience, I would have incorrectly assumed that only farmers work hard. Not so: to make a good income in any job you have to work very hard. And, surprisingly, they don’t accumulate the assets their work hours should reward them with. Dairying does! Having worked for multiple ‘bosses’ over many years, I realised I could work well with my parents. Country living and outdoor working is enjoyable and being your own boss has its perks.”
  • Now is as good a time as any to get into dairying:
    • Dairy breeding stock are very good value.
    • You can now do all your investment planning to meet future environmental requirements – a big advantage!   
    • Before you move, talk to your adviser or discussion group.


  • As of now, for next year, we are faced with lots of uncertainties, including: environmental pressures, reduced stocking rates, increased input costs and decreased commodity prices.
    • Dealing with milk price reductions, costs increasing, calf issues, labour availability and environmental concerns, dairy farmers must be very careful with spending and investment.
    • Definitely, no expensive short or long-term land leases. You may be interested – those high price land leases that got a lot of publicity have been renegotiated down to less than €290/acre – will that be publicised?
    • Because of nitrates restrictions, definitely do not invest in extra unwanted housing.
  • Firstly, based on your banding category, decide on the number of cows ‘the system’ will allow you milk.
  • Financial planning is more important than any other farm planning! It starts now for next year and it will be essential to successfully negotiate these challenges. Relevant and realistic figures must be used when making financial and efficiency plans.
  • First up, by way of planning, is your spending on the essentials this November – don’t leave this until December. This will ensure that you have a full set of financial accounts to do next year’s plan with. The essentials are: dry cow treatment, cow BCS, replacement heifer weight targets, investment in lime P and K, labour for spring, pay essential creditors, adequate land area for the livestock planned for next year.
  • Financial planning, which most farmers are very neglectful of, starts now:
    • To do a financial plan now you must update your 2023 financial accounts. This is possible because very few financial transactions take place in December – you will be 95-98% accurate. Look at where you can reduce cost and where you can expect to make more sales. All advice suggests we make plans at 30c/L base milk price.
    • From this you will know the quantities of fertiliser, meal (500-600kg/cow), veterinary products and medicine, dairy products (30-40cc/cow/day teat dip, etc.), insurance, etc.
    • With this information you should get three quotations/tenders from different merchants for each individual input. Take delivery in early January so as not to waste time when busy.
  • A lot of thought needs to be put into your labour requirement for 2024, both in terms of quantity and type.
    • Ask yourself how you ‘got on’ last year; if poorly, get more help for next spring.
    • One labour unit should, in an efficient set-up, be able to manage 120-160 cows with extra help during the calving season.
    • Some large farmers get in a ‘nighttime calver’, which is a great idea! The idea should be considered by two to three medium sized farmers who might share one such person, operating to strict hygiene protocols. How and where can you source this help? You must be proactive through all public media outlets.
    • Talk to the FRS now and if taking on help, be it student or other, take him/her on in December/early January so that you have ‘taught’ him/her what they need to know.
  • Associated with labour is the need to “contract rear calves”. This is determined by the acreage available to “carry planned livestock” in 2024 and not by spring labour availability.
    • Don’t wait until last minute to get your ‘contract rearer’ in place – do it now.
    • Make sure you have adequate calf housing and an efficient way of feeding large numbers over a short period.
  • Good contractors for spreading slurry and fertiliser, feeding out silage, dehorning calves, maintaining roads and fences are invaluable; have them lined up for the spring with specific dates.
  • Vaccinations should also be done in January – talk to your vet.


  • Decisions made now, directly or indirectly, will influence grass grown/growth rates to next May.
  • Facts drive good decisions: every extra day’s grazing you achieve in autumn gives you €2.0/cow profit while the figure is €2.50/cow in springtime.
    • With good planning, even now, you can maximise both.
    • Every day you delay closing in the autumn reduces spring available grass by 12kg DM.
    • Whereas, every day you delay grazing in spring only increases yield by 8kg DM.
  • The key autumn cover target date is December 1.
    • You must know/decide your opening spring target average farm cover (AFC) for February 1. It will be between 800 and 1,100kg DM/ha, depending on stocking rate, calving pattern, soil type, etc. You will know, by consulting PastureBase, all your daily winter growth rates and they generally range between 1-5kg DM/day.
    • From this, generally, you will be aiming to have an AFC on December 1 of 650-900 depending on stocking rate.
    • If you plan to close up on November 1, then you must work out the amount of grass you expect to grow in November and subtract from the December 1 target so as to know your 10th November closing target.
  • There is a case to be made to close one or two paddocks with covers of 1,500-1,600 so as to have adequate grass in early March.
  • If you are not into the detail of grass measurements contact your adviser immediately, your discussion group or other grass training workshops.
  • 60-70% of the grazing area must be grazed off by November 1. If that is not done and a high proportion remains you must get in extra stock to get that proportion eaten off quickly.
  • Therefore, keep grass in cows’ diet for as long as possible, ration the silage and feed some meals now.
  • Every farmer should be using the autumn rotation planner to guide grass allocation per day, but measurement must also be done so as to STOP grazing when target closing covers are arrived at. A grass budget must also be done – get help from your adviser.


  • Firstly, go to the Animal Health Ireland (AHI) website and view the videos to refresh your memory on the correct way to do this task.
  • As the cure rate of mastitis/SCC is 50-70% with dry cow treatment, this is one cost (€3-€7/cow) that cannot be avoided.
  • To use an antibiotic dry cow treatment, you now must get a prescription from your vet. But you must teat seal cows that don’t need antibiotic.
    • Use on cows who have had no clinical mastitis during the year and on the last SCC test were under 100,000 and consistently under it during the year. 
    • The overuse of antibiotics is a major concern for farmers and the general public.
  • Dry off cows that:
    • Are within 56 days of calving;
    • Have a daily milk yield of 7L (0.7kg MS) or less per day;
    • That have SCC levels of over 300,000;
    • First calvers that have milked for 270 days; and,
    • Thin cows, being particularly concerned about high yielders, who ‘milk off their backs’.
  • Drying off cows is not an easy task and much care, time and planning must be set aside for the job. Don’t do more than 20 cows together.
  • The following suggestions should be taken on board:
    • Treat all quarters of each cow with the same treatment.
    • A milk recording one month before dry-off plus a sensitivity test has merit.
    • Abruptly dry-off all cows – no OAD milking.
    • Milk out the quarter fully before infusing the dry cow antibiotic/sealant.
    • Disinfect the teat end, starting from the back teats – vigorously rub the teat end for 10-15 seconds with cotton wool soaked in methylated spirits, starting with the furthest away teats.
    • Do not contaminate the nozzle of the antibiotic tube before insertion into the teat canal, starting from the front teats.
    • Infuse the contents of the antibiotic tube into the quarter – hold teat-end firmly between thumb and forefinger and with other hand, gently massage the antibiotic upwards into the teat (NOTE: This is not done with teat seal).
    • Teat spray (post milking teat disinfectant) treated quarters immediately after infusion at a rate of 20cc/cow.
    • Record cow number, date and product details of all dry cow treatments.
    • Mark the cow (leg band or spray paint on udder) so that cows that have received dry cow antibiotic therapy can be readily recognised.
    • Post treatment, standoff cows on a clean yard for one hour.
    • Maintain dry cows separate and put dry cows in clean, dry paddocks (particularly for the first two weeks after drying off) to reduce teat exposure to environmental mastitis bacteria.
    • The cow is at a greater risk of new infection for the first three weeks after drying off. Keep a close eye on cows to identify new infections.
  • It is not advised to teat seal heifers unless, historically, more than 2-3% of heifers have calved down with mastitis. But, if being done, it must be done extremely carefully and is a tough job.
  • You should cull cows that:
    • Had three or more clinical cases this year and had two-three high SCC readings during the year.
    • It is a waste of money treating these cows as they will continue to spread infection to other cows next year.


  • Cows that are dried off thin will calve down thin, which will result in:
    • Calving difficulties.
    • Poor milk yields next year, as every 50kg below target (1 condition score) will result in a loss of 450L.
    • Surveys show that cows calving down in body condition scores (BCS) of less than three have a lower chance of going back in-calf.
  • Drying off thin cows in early November means they need no meals during the dry period if the silage is good.
    • The cheapest way of managing thin cows this autumn/winter is to dry off early and feed no meal if silage is good enough – see Table 1.
    • However, weight is put on more efficiently during milking (50mj to put on 1 kg weight) compared to dry period (72mj). But it must be low % protein.
  • Divide up your cows into three groups, based on condition score (CS):
  • Group (1): BCS 2.75 - 3.25
    • Most of the herd will be in this group and will need no special attention with silage 68% DMD or better.
  • Group (2): BCS 2.75 or less
    • These cows need meal, the amount depending on the quality of silage (see Table 1) and, if calving in February must be dried off in early November. A cow that is 2.75 BCS now and due to calve in early February in a BCS of 3.25 and being fed 68% DMD silage; she has 84 days to calving of which there are 40 days where no BCS is added. Therefore, she only has 44 “effective” days for meal feeding and she need to put on extra 0.5 BCS or approx 25-30kg of weight. This will require 150+ kg of meal or 3.4 kg/cow/day for the 44 days. Therefore, the meal feeding period is too short.
  • Group (3): BCS 3.25+ cows:
    • Cows that are very fat at calving down will underperform by milking poorly and have a lower in-calf rate next year.
    • Some farmers push on the leftover silage from groups (1) or (2) to these animals.
    • Other farmers will feed only 5kg DM per day of silage with straw. That means only giving them 25-30kg of fresh (20% DM) silage per cow per day plus 4-5kg fresh straw.

Table 1: Recommendations for dry cow feeding (10-12 weeks dry period).

Silage DMD

Body condition score at drying off


< 2.5



>  3.0

>  72

Silage + 1kg

Silage ad-lib

Silage restrict


68 – 72

Silage + 2kg

Silage + 1kg

Silage ad-lib


64 – 68

Silage + 3kg

Silage + 2kg

Silage + 1kg


60 – 64

Silage + 4kg

Silage + 3kg

Silage + 2kg

Silage + 1kg


  • Some farmers see these three grouping requirements as impractical but it will result in three-four more cows per 100 being in-calf, less calving problems, less feed wasted on fat cows and higher peak yield next April/May. If separate grouping is an issue with you, then you must invest a small amount of money in this requirement.


  • Weigh your weanling (called R1s) and your incalf (R2s) heifers now to see how they compare with the targets (Table 1). Targets: R1s and R2s should be 40% and 80%, respectively, of their mature weights.

Table 2: Target weights (kg) for R1s and R2s on November 1.


Mature weight (kg)

R1s (40% mature weight)

R2s (80% mature weight)





British Fr/NZL Fr




Jersey x HF





  • Animals under target should get extra meal as per Tables 2 and 3. With good silage, for every 10kg R1s are under target they need 40kg of extra meal and for every 10kg R2s are under target they need an extra 60kg meal over a period to bring them to target. Because of the good response to low level meals feeding, feed at least 1kg/day to all R1s until January. 


Table 3: Meal requirements for weanling heifers (R1s) on silage.


Silage DMD





Gain on silage only (kg/day)
Light weanlings





Meal required to give 0.7kg/day
Heavy weanlings




Meal required to give 0.5kg/day





It is obvious from above that silage must be analysed (contract rearers must do so, as well) and a weighing scales (grant aided) is essential to manage heifer target weights.

All this information is essential to bring to the attention of contract calf rearers so that subsequent hassle doesn’t arise.


Table 4: Protein levels (%) in meal required to supplement silage of different % proteins to R1s.

Kg meal

% protein in silage
















Many farmers give the leptospirosis vaccine now or earlier to R1s to minimise spring work.

Mix the in-calf heifers with the first calvers so as to minimise stress now and particularly after calving when stress then can have a detrimental effect on her subsequent weight gain.

Extra Bits of Advice

  • Over 90% of farmers’ fields are deficient in either lime, P and K.
    • Soil test and correct P and K levels
    • Lime your low pH fields if weather is dry.
  • Animal health.
    • Engage with your vet to get this task correct.
    • All animals must be treated for lice and fluke (get samples done).
    • R1s must be treated for worms at housing and maybe R2s but really, they should not need a dose.
    • Deal with fluke, if an issue.

“You have to be optimistic to learn something new.”