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Farming

The benefits of once-a-day-milking: ‘Switching to OAD was the best thing that ever happened’

They say necessity is the mother of all invention and this was certainly true for dairy farmer Eamon Connaughton, who was faced with losing a third of his grazing platform in 2018 with just six weeks’ notice.

ith 140 cows to milk and feed, he was left with limited options for his holding at Carrowclough, Loughrea, Co Galway, but was determined not to panic.

“My mantra has always been that if you have your health that’s the main thing, you have to accept you can’t always control what goes on outside the door,” Eamon says.

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He had travelled to a once-a-day (OAD) milking conference in January that year with a neighbour who had been keen to make the switch, but Eamon hadn’t been considering a move that quickly.

“Two months after the conference I got the notification that I was going to be losing the 22ha I was leasing next to the parlour in six weeks,” he explains.

“It was a bit of an eye-opener but in hindsight it was the best thing that ever happened.

“I knew I was facing a financial hit no matter what way I turned, but I didn’t want to go down in cow numbers so I decided to go OAD.”

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Eamon feeding his high-EBI Jersey-Friesian crosses

The first few nights he tried it out, a neighbour called to advise him that something must be wrong with his cows because they were bawling at the farmgate in the evenings.

“After two days they stopped and got used to it,” Eamon says. “After that it was fairly seamless and everyone has been very supportive. No one has said anything negative to me about making the switch to OAD.

“The whole thing just made sense to me anyway because it was a business decision.”

Many farmers have concerns about mastitis and somatic cell count (SCC) with OAD, but Eamon says the SCC actually came down the first year.

He admits that SCC has been creeping up again recently but says this is a management issue with some problem cows that need to be addressed.

There are also numerous positives too, he explains, with overall less stress on the cow, less lameness, improved fertility and improved cull values.

In a twice-a-day (TAD) system his cows were under more pressure to get to and from the parlour as his furthest field is 2.5km away, with two busy roads to cross.

His philosophy is to keep things simple. Heifers are contract-reared by his brother and brought back to Eamon’s farm once they’re in-calf.

“An awful lot of systems get complicated with zero grazers, and I’m not knocking zero grazers, but a lot of people complicate their systems for no real reason,” Eamon says.

“For me it’s about harvesting the milk, harvesting the grass and keeping things simple.”

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Eamon’s philosophy is to ‘keep things simple’

He is a firm believer in grass management and grew 14t/ha DM last year. He has plans to make more use of clover but stresses that cows on OAD need as much feeding as cows on TAD.

He believes that the reason for this is that cows on OAD will be quicker to reduce milk output, especially in the autumn, if they don’t have good-quality grass.

“I believe that the OAD cow needs to be fed the same as the TAD because she’ll give up the ghost quicker than the TAD cow,” he explains.

His meal feeding has gone down slightly since going OAD but only about 100-200kg/cow.

Eamon’s advice for anyone considering OAD is to be sure of their numbers and grass management.

He also warns that there is no rushing milking on OAD, with his herd taking two and half hours to milk at peak on a 14-unit DeLaval swing herringbone parlour.

While there has been some discussion about the ‘best’ cow for OAD, Eamon has not changed his breeding from high-EBI Jersey-Friesian crosses and says they have not had any issues with the change to OAD.

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Eamon says his herd have not had any issues with the change to OAD

He has set himself a target of getting to 450kg of milk solids over the next few years and says the involvement of his local discussion group is vital to ensure that he keeps challenging himself.

“It’s like I’m in a quota situation with a limit on the amount of land, so my target in the next couple of years is to increase milk solids,” he says.

The economic side of the farm business has not seen as big a hit as some farmers may think; Eamon bought land in 2019 and describes the business as “cash-positive”.

“I had more labour in the system on TAD with someone doing evening milkings,” he says.

“When I take away all that, my bottom line hasn’t changed hugely. I’m not worried about finances and I’m not hugely over-borrowed.”

He is also stocked at a lower rate of 2.4lu/ha and says this has given him breathing space and the confidence to prepare for any new restrictions that come down the line.

‘OAD just gives you so much free time compared to TAD’

One of the best parts of OAD according to Eamon is the change to his work/life balance. He’s married to Caroline, and they have three children: Áine, Michael and Seán.

His sons have been helping him on the farm as they’ve been home from college during the pandemic and he says the farm is a real family affair.

“We’re in hurling country and I’ve young lads here and I’m able to go to the matches. OAD just gives you so much time compared to what it used to be like,” he says.

“There’s only seven days in the week and 24 hours in the day and dairy farmers are the best in the world at filling those up.”

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Eamon is enjoying the extra spare time afforded by his switch

Asked if he’d ever consider going back to TAD he laughs: “They say never say never, but no, I’d never go back.

“I go to the golf course, I go to hurling matches, it’s a totally different lifestyle. If you want to go doing a job in the evening you can go off at 4pm mowing grass or shaking fertiliser.

“If I had 100ac at the back of the parlour I’d say I could make more money on TAD but I have a better quality of life on OAD.”

All farmers should consider once-a-day milking — Teagasc

Teagasc have pointed out that an element of once-a-day milking can be incorporated into twice-a-day systems to ease workload at certain points of the milking cycle.

There are only be 200 dairy farmers practising OAD milking in Ireland, but the attraction of a better work/life balance attracted over 300 to tune into Teagasc’s OAD webinar.

Dr Emer Kennedy outlined the current Teagasc OAD trial with three herds operating on a variation of OAD: one in early lactation, one in late lactation and the one in full OAD.

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Dr Emer Kennedy of Teagasc

She explained that cows were selected for EBI with an average of 241 and said overall their research had shown that good grassland management was key to OAD.

In general, farmers are concerned that OAD can knock milk production, and although studies in New Zealand have shown that milk production in OAD systems can be regained, the Teagasc study did not have the same success rates and milk production was down 24pc.

However, there were also significant benefits, with 30pc less time spent milking and OAD cows having better fertility and being about 70kg heavier.

This increase in weight was also seen in cows in late-lactation OAD as well.

Dr Kennedy said that with labour an issue on many farms, farmers could consider utilising OAD in spring during the calving period to ease workload and stress.

A key to the success of OAD was also controlling somatic cell count (SCC) levels.

Teagasc’s Don Crowley admitted that achieving anything under 100,000 SCC was “going to be a fair trick” but outlined key management tools.

He said the first thing to do was to tackle any chronically infected cows, as cows would only be seen up close in the parlour once every 24 hours as opposed to once every 12 hours, which meant a longer time for a bacterial infection to take hold.

“Deal with problem cows before you go OAD,” he said.

“Something else I would not skimp on is changing liners in OAD herds. Milk recording should happen within 30 to 40 days of calving season.”

He also gave examples of damage done to cows’ teats by poor milking machine systems.

“Teat openings should be no more than 2mm wide. That’s a narrow boreen and that’s a four-way highway for infection,” he said pointing to different examples of teat openings on-screen.

He advised farmers to go over the basics and ensure that operating milking vacuums should be at 46kpa and automatic cluster remover settings should be at three seconds to ensure no damage was done to teats.

He said all farmers needed to observe simple housekeeping rules in their parlour but this was doubly important for OAD farmers.

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