Challenges are there to be overcome, says leading Roscommon dairy farmer, Brian Costello.

Faced with the unenviable subject of “Strategies for coping with volatile milk prices”, Brian presented a highly informative talk to an open meeting of Fermanagh Grassland Club where the audience consisted mainly of dairy farmers but also present were beef farmers interested to hear about common issues in agriculture.

Brian said that there were some issues totally outside the farmers’ control such as weather, fuel prices and regulation.

“I keep asking, am I overcoming the challenges or are they overcoming me?” he said.

Brian manages a herd of 180 cows on 63 hectares near Boyle.

He told farmers that they must first ask themselves what they want out of life or out of farming.

Looking at dairy production, he said: “What can we control? The cost of production, grazed grass, grass utilisation and profit.” He said farmers attending agricultural shows will see row upon row of machinery dealers and other companies selling their wares but no-one selling “grass utilisation.” He said that while farms grazing grass represent 60 per cent of milk production in Ireland, more tonnes of grass leads to higher profits while pushing for more and more production per cow can lead to lower profits and higher turnover.

He illustrated his talk how production per cow can lead to a 19 per cent chance of profit increase, while production per hectare can lead to 35 per cent profit increase but grass utilisation per hectare can lead to 70 per cent chance of profit increase.

Looking at how many tonnes of grass is utilised, he said the national average was a dismal 6t per hectare. His farm produced an average of 10t per hectare but some Northern Ireland farms were pushing 9-12t per hectare.

He gave top tips to achieving success - 1, have belief, attitude; 2, good drainage, P & K; 3, roads, water supply, then grass species; 4, know and understand your grass plant; 5, inspection of pre-grazing yield; 6, grass measurement, grow more, stock farm accordingly.

He felt that many dairy farmers were grazing too high covers. They need to know how much grass they had.

He said autumn calving herds wre not paid well enough by processors for all the efforts and recommended calving according to grass budgets.

He began calving on February 20, with a compact calving pattern and good herd fertility.

He said fertility and milk solids fitted hand in glove.

“I have lower production per cow but they are more fertile and I want a cow for seven or eight years with a 260-270 day lactation,” he told farmers.

“If you are selecting for milk yield you lose fertility. Years like this reinforces my cow type. I can feed higher when there is a higher price for milk and lower feed at low farmgate prices.” The Costello farm, he said, was about converting grass dry matter into milk protein with the processor paying for milk protein.

Brian estimated he was receiving 6-7cents a litre above average.

While overall milk yields are lower than in many dairy herds, Brian achieves high milk solids on just half a tonne of meal per cow. With 80 per cent of the herd calving within eight weeks, the bonus is higher fertility.

Regarding farm structure, Brian said there has not been any investment in buildings since 1976 and the only machinery on the farm was a quad bike and telehandler. Any investment on the farm has gone into farm roadways, water supplies and paddock systems.

Contractors are used for all main farm jobs, silage making, slurry spreading and a local farmer is used for fertiliser spreading.

He employed a part-time farm worker who worked full-time at calving and also a student.

“My focus is on managing grass,” he said, explaining how he contracted out the rearing of all youngstock and is organising 30 of his cows to be looked after another farmer during the dry period.

He estimates this to be cheaper than having to make second cut silage.

He also told those attending the meeting that in the Republic of Ireland, labour efficiency was estimated to be 140 cows per man but he stressed the need for a good lifestyle.

Keeping positive, he said low dairy prices were bottoming out globally.

Answering numerous questions from farmers about the ideal grass length, Brian said measuring it on a wellington boot, grass should not be higher than ankle height in summer.

“When grass is growing fast, eat it fast. When it is growing slow, eat it slow,” he told them.

In the autumn, the grass can be eaten when it reaches the top of the welly.

He also said he had an open mind about robotic milking systems.