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How Irish Dairy Farmers are Using On Farm Data to Increase Profitability

Loving one’s work is a nice thing to have but in the end work without reward does not equate to being in business for the long term. Every day we read about the dairy industry’s viability and sustainability but on an individual farm basis it comes down to having total revenue exceed total expenses. Some new revenue sources are possible on some farms, like the sale of embryos from top cows or heifers, but on most dairy farms revenue means the milk cheque. So having a successful dairy farm is all about maximizing milk revenue and keeping costs under control. And that takes careful management. Profit can generally only be had by careful management.

Herd Size Determines Management Style

Herds under 50-60 cows are frequently managed by recording and analysis using hard copy records with DHIA handling the production and SCC side of the information. But once over 100 milking cows the manager needs an electronic way to record or capture the on-farm events and information. At the present time that means the purchase of herd management software and someone entering the data for medium sized herds or the parlour electronics capturing the data at milking time in larger herds where the capital investment in an automated parlour can be justified. Of course on farms with robots the data is captured by the system and is available for the manager to address the exceptions or situations requiring attention. But for all herds the same rule applies – you can not manage without having the data.

Ireland took a Bold Step.

In 2001 the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation decided that farmers needed access to all the data from their farms in order to give them the opportunity be progressive and profitable. With public support from the National Development Plan (Transforming Ireland) the federation decided to bring together eight AI companies, nine regional milk recording agencies, the breed herdbooks, the department of the Irish government responsible for calf identification and animal movement and several farmer organizations to form one central database system. That was a major undertaking. The figure below provides the partners coming to the initiative in 2001.

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Dairy Farming in Ireland

Ireland has a pasture based, spring calving dairy industry. Cows must calve when the grass begins to grow each and every year. Cows not able to calve again on time for the spring are not retained at drying off time. As it would be too costly to overwinter a cow that would only have a short milking period in the subsequent year. Cow fertility is important in that system of dairying. In fact over the decade leading up to 2001, considerable emphasis had been placed on increasing milk yield much to the detriment of cow fertility and farmers were faced with the major cost of having to raise extra herd replacements for cows that may have produced more milk but were not able to get in calf. Something had to be done and 2002 was the year to get it done.

Irish Success

The theme chosen for the initiative was “Less Paper – More Profit (2002)”.  By 2006 the new data system was in place. There is “once only” recording of information or events and all data goes to the central database from farms, AI technicians, milk recording supervisors, veterinarians and many other organizations that touch Irish livestock farms. The figure below shows the many groups and individuals that provide data to the central database from Irish dairy and beef farms.  Data is entered via online entry from farms, handheld devices, mobile phones and third party data providers. Congratulations to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation ( for bringing all the players to the table.

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What do Farmers and their Service Providers Get?

HerdPlus® Dairy provides users with a suite of reports and online services. Some of those products include:

Key HerdPlus® Reports

  • Calving Report – due dates, births, calving intervals, abnormal calvings, calf identification
  • Key Performance Reports – fertility, production, udder health, inseminations
  • Milk Co-op Performance Report – shipment details and milk quality by month and year

Key HerdPlus® Online Services       

  • Sire Advice – recommends sires according to producer’s goals including considering Inbreeding Checker
  • Catalogue Maker – for breeding stock sales
  • Stocking Rate & Nitrates Reports – for environmental reporting purposes
  • Discussion Group Reports – farmers can talk online to their fellow group members and compare results

Education Service

  • Young farmer training now includes a HerdPlus® training module
  • Farm service providers including economic advisors learn from the results, comparisons and benchmarks


  • More informed and aware of industry performance and challenges
  • Can focus where to provide assistance with research and development

Successes Everywhere

This success story was presented at the September 2012 ICAR meetings and can be found at (K Downing – Using an integrated database to increase profitability on dairy farms).

A synopsis of the benchmarks of successes that have come about by having the integrated database as reported by Kevin Downing include:

At the Farm Level

  • Over 6050 farms participating by 2012 with focused goals and objectives (increasing at 9% per year)
  • 86% of the farms use the service online (14% use postal)
  • It is an excellent value at 60 euros per year (less than $US100)
  • Breeders are using superior sires through AI
  • Fertility performance has turned the corner and is improving

Beyond the Farm Level

  • Accurate nationwide benchmarks are now available for use by everyone
  • Both fertility and production per cow for the national herd are making significant improvement
  • Farm advisors, including veterinarians, now have all the facts when they advise the farmer
  • Farmers and their organizations have a national system that covers animal traceability, food safety and biosecurity

The Bullvine Bottomline

The Irish Cattle Breeding Federation central database has been a great move forward for farmers and the dairy industry in Ireland. Definitely the goal of “Data & Knowledge = Profit” has been achieved. It makes us all think about the big benefit there is to having all the facts in order make the best decisions possible. Managing for profit makes for a long rewarding and successful career in dairy farming.


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