When it comes to comparing high-cost and low-cost milk production systems, who better to ask than someone who has done both?

GD Young has been living in Westmeath since 2016, having moved with his wife Caroline and young family from their home in Scotland.

Prior to 2011, GD and Caroline were milking 240 cows on a high input, all-year-round system, with the cows doing 9,500l per cow per year.

In April 2015, the Youngs purchased a 408-acre farm on the banks of Lough Ennell in Co Westmeath, and set about converting the drystock and tillage farm to dairy.

The first cows were milked in 2016 and six years later, the farm is growing 13.9t DM/ha and the herd is producing 480kg MS/cow from 700kg of meal.

The empty rate averages about 10% from 10 weeks of breeding, with the Jersey crossbred herd operating a 100% sexed-semen dairy breeding policy.

Dairy conference

GD will be speaking at next January’s Irish Grassland Association dairy conference in Charleville, Co Cork on the subject of managing challenging milk prices. GD said he will be focusing on the importance of the correct system, based on his experiences of the high-cost and low-cost systems.

Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal recently, GD says there is big difference in the level of free cash being generated from a low-cost system:

“Even when there are good returns from the high-input system, there is always something to invest in to keep the system going. These investments can all be easier justified compared to now with a grass-based system,” he says.

“The Holstein cow is like a Formula 1 car. If you keep it on the tar, it will do really well, but if you hit the verge at all, you’re in trouble. There is no margin for error with these cows, whereas there is more wiggle room with a cow bred for a pasture-based system.”

GD says that the high-input system is harder on the farmer, saying that they now stop milking over Christmas and have a much better overall lifestyle, with a lot more free time. He says the fact that there are defined periods is a big help, such as calving and breeding, which allow a single focus during this time.

However, GD says that managing cash flow is easier in the higher input system:

“Managing cashflow is a lot easier because the income is consistent every month, but it’s not in the grass-based system, so we need to manage that.

“It used to be that we needed €250/cow to get us through the spring, but now it’s more like €400/cow. We need that to pay for feed, fertiliser and land lease costs, which all go out before the first biggest cheque comes in.

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“There are other areas where the higher input systems have an advantage. Some things are more structured, such as, we used to get a vet in to do routine pro-active tasks one day a week, such as for fertility or lameness.

"We do tend to have less of these issues now though,” he says.

Challenge of avoiding the ‘drift’

GD says the challenge in the grass-based system is to avoid “system drift” towards higher input systems, but his preference is definitely for the grass-based system in terms of profitability and work/life balance.

He also praises the support that’s available to Irish farmers: “Irish farmers don’t realise what they have got with Teagasc. Independent advice is hard to come by in Britain, and it’s very hard to put a value on that.

"Teagasc isn’t perfect, but it’s really good. The biggest problem I see is that dairy advisers are doing too much scheme work. Let them do the advising and leave the form-filling to someone else,” he says.

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Other topics being discussed at the Grassland dairy conference include cow health and milk quality, and a session with young farmers: Owen Ashton, Laura Hannon and Mark Collins.

Tickets are available at www.irishgrasslandassociation.ie.