Project leader and team:   Ryan Law, Shane McGettrick, Alastair Wylie and Conrad Ferris  
Duration:  36 months commencing August 2011 
Organisations involved: AFBI (Agriculture Branch and Veterinary Science Division)

Background to proposal:
The profitability of the dairy sector can vary greatly from year to year, with milk price and costs of inputs being two of the key factors influencing returns.  With regards milk price, this is largely outside of the control of the Northern Ireland dairy farmer, with local milk prices increasingly determined by world market forces, a consequence of trade liberalisation and changes in CAP support.  Similarly, the costs of feed, fuel and fertiliser (main input costs associated with dairying), are largely determined by international factors outside of the control of local farmers.  These include the strength of the global economy, oil prices, together with weather conditions in the main cereal/protein crop exporting regions of the world.  While farmers have little control over the costs of feed, fuel and fertiliser, they can optimise the use of these resources on their own farms, and in so doing control inputs costs within their own farm business.  This is particularly true for feed costs, and especially the costs of concentrates, which currently represent approximately 70% of variable costs on Northern Ireland dairy farms.  With an increasing world population now competing for many components of concentrate feeds, feed costs look likely to continue to increase. 


CAFRE Benchmarking data indicates that average concentrate inputs per cow on benchmarked dairy farms within Northern Ireland increased from 1.1 tonnes/year in 1997/1998, to 2.1 tonnes/year in 2008/2009.  During this same period ‘milk produced from forage’ decreased from 3200 to 2200 litres/cow/year.  For herds averaging 7000 litres/cow, the range in concentrate use is between 1.5 and 3.5 tonnes/cow.  These values clearly highlight the wide range of efficiencies which exist on local farms. 

Concentrate usage has increased for a number of reasons, including historically low world cereal prices, and the rapid increase in the genetic merit of the Northern Ireland dairy herd during the last two decades (and the associated increase in milk output per cow). These higher yielding dairy cows are without doubt much more difficult to manage nutritionally, especially with poorer quality forage diets.  Nevertheless, this over reliance on concentrates has developed at the expense of making cost effective use of quality locally grown forage resources, the latter traditionally regarded as providing a key competitive advantage to ruminant based livestock sectors within Northern Ireland.  The overall outcome of this trend has been the development of higher cost less profitable dairy systems.

Objective of the proposed study:
To increase the efficiency of feed resource use within the diets of confined dairy cows through precision feeding and improved concentrate allocation strategies.

Proposed programme:
 Three separate experiments will be undertaken during three successive winter periods
 Approximately 80 - 90 high genetic merit dairy cows in each experiment
 Each experiment will encompass the full winter period (September – April), while residual effects of winter diet may be monitored in some experiments
 In some experiments it may be necessary to use cows with a more spread calving pattern (September – April) so as to replicate the situation on many farms
 Each experiment will seek to develop more targeted concentrate allocation strategies for periods when cows are confined
 The proposed programme will seek to examine and develop ‘precision’ feeding strategies which will target feed to individual cows so as to meet their individual nutrient requirements.  These approaches will be compared with a broad ‘herd’ approach to feeding (single group/split group approach).  The use of ‘in-parlour’ and ‘out-of-parlour’ feeding systems now allow targeted concentrate feeding with a high degree of precision.  The issue of transition from one nutritional group to another may also be addressed.  Where possible, treatments will be compared across two forage qualities.  Improving winter feed efficiency has been identified as a key area by CAFRE.  Treatments will be developed in conjunction with CAFRE colleagues the AgriSearch Dairy Committee and industry representatives.


• Milk yield and milk composition
• Live weights and condition score
• Dry matter intake
• Metabolic and hormonal status via blood
• Energy balance
• Cow health
• Vaginal and uterine health, and reproductive performance
• Rumen function and nutrient utilisation
• There may be opportunity for scientists from the UCD fertility cluster to link into the programme to provide more detailed information on reproductive issues.

Milestones with proposed dates:
1. August 2011 – Commence Experiment 1 with freshly calved cows
2. June 2012 – Completion of Experiment 1
3. September 2012 - Publication of key findings of Experiment 1 in popular press
4. August 2012 – Commence Experiment 2 with freshly calved cows
5. June 2013 - Completion of Experiment 2
6  September 2013 - Publication of key findings of Experiment 2 in popular press
7. August 2013 – Commence Experiment 3 with freshly calved cows
8. June 2014 - Completion of Experiment 3
9  September 2014 - Publication of key findings of Experiment 3 in popular press
10. April 2015 – Final report to AgriSearch

Benefits to industry:
1. Identification of optimum strategies to allocate concentrates to confined dairy cows, through precision management
2. Improved nutrition of cows, including targeting of concentrates to meet cow requirements more precisely
3. Increased reliance on home produced forages
4. Improved farm profitability
5. Local research addressing a critical local issue

Outputs with timescales: 
AgriSearch:  Preliminary outcomes of Studies 1, 2, and 3 presented to AgriSearch dairy committee in September 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively, with final report submitted April 2015.
Industry:  Presentation of results to visiting groups at Hillsborough, at a Hillsborough Open Day, Industry seminars, farm walks/events, farming press, and farmer evening meetings (continuous dissemination throughout project: target 30 presentations/year)
Scientific:  Three conference papers and three full scientific papers (within 12 months of each experiment being completed)