Combining a teaching career with the Mountfarna dairy herd in West Cork

John O’Callaghan, a dairy farmer in West Cork, who farms alongside his father, discusses his Mountfarna herd.

The herd was established by his dad in 1970 and, although he grew up farming, he diversified into teaching in 2003.

His dad keeps an eye on the running of the farm during the day while he’s at school in Bandon. Currently, the father and son duo breed bulls and their main markets are the bull sales in Kilkenny, Nenagh and Bandon.

Below is an interview with John O’Callaghan on his switch to automatic milking and the Lely Grazeway and Lely Astronaut.

Why automatic milking?

Initially, the switch to automatic milking was made for a more flexible lifestyle as I was spending five hours a day in the yard and seven in school with no family time, so something had to give.

Farm work now only takes an hour and a half maximum, with the added advantage of doing it at a time that suits. If you need to leave the farm, you can just go.

We have a school graduation coming up and although I don’t need to be there, I now have the time to attend. Being able to keep an eye on the T4C (Time for Cows) app on my phone means I won’t go near the farm unless there is an emergency, and I do the main farm work on a Saturday.

Start up

The cows definitely adapt to the system quicker than the farmer. Within 48 hours there was no cow kicking and in less than two weeks they were all walking freely in and out of the robot.

We started in September 2017 so we only had two months grazing before being inside full time. The following spring they took off themselves.

The biggest challenge was getting cows to think individually rather than the herd mentality. For me, pre-training with the Lely Grazeway is as important as that with the Astronaut.

Cow health

Often, as dairy farmers, we are control freaks and feel nobody can milk our cows like we can, when in fact the cow knows best. Robotic milking reduces stress for the farmer but, more importantly, it has also turned out to be a huge benefit for the cows as far as health and longevity goes.

They now manage themselves, move at their own pace throughout the day and are more relaxed. This has had a direct correlation on overall herd health. It’s very rare to see cows dripping milk, as they are never too full.

Some cows visit the robot four times a day at peak; producing 12-15L each time. This ensures healthier, longer lasting cows.

Vet bills are down and treatments are preventative and generally due to adverse weather conditions. Cows’ hooves have never been in better condition; I can’t remember when I last had a lame cow.

Improving cow efficiency

We thought once-a-month milk recording was accurate, but a certain cow could be high or low on the day, which meant it was not precise enough. Now, with daily results, you can really see the best-performing cows.

We have a higher voluntary culling rate and less profitable cows will be sold, which wasn’t the case with the old system. I now pick and choose to improve the quality of the herd overall and milk speed is a key component of my breeding strategy.

We have some brilliant cows that are milked through the robot in four minutes and some that are taking 14 minutes. They’re the ones reducing the efficiency of the system; they need to be in and out faster.

Daily routines

Regarding the robot itself, a small bit of daily maintenance goes a long way. We spend 15-20 daily minutes cleaning the robot and the loafing area and around the Grazeway. Once the Lely Astronaut is regularly maintained and cleaned you have little or no problems and you will get no alarms.

I spend most of my time with the robot on the T4C management program. The heat detection system has been a real benefit. The Lely Astronaut was flagging up cows that were showing no signs of being in heat when in fact they were silent heats, which I would never have noticed previously.

When a cow is in heat or has an issue, I will route her to the separation area from my phone. She will be ready and waiting for me in a stress-free environment rather than being physically separated, meaning I am not facing any surprises or being held up any longer than I need to be.

The Lely Astronaut and grazing

We plan ahead on a weekly basis and generally spend 20-30 minutes a day back fencing. It took my dad a while to get used to it, as he tended to be over generous with grass allocation.

Due to current weather conditions, there is some work keeping grass under control, so we are taking out more paddocks. It’s key to keep it tight and ensure that paddocks do not get too strong.

We were getting three grazings per paddock but we have now moved this to six with the back fencing, and there are better regrowth rates as well. What’s also very noticeable is that there is no longer any poaching as smaller numbers of cows are coming and going to the robot at their leisure, 24/7.

Future development of the farm

I have no interest in increasing numbers; the aim is to become more efficient and to maximise the herd’s potential with no extra work or stress on the cows. My goal is to produce 2,000L a day and be milking 365 days a year.

The plan is to have 65 cows milking all year round with five to six calving a month and to have a herd average of 150 days in lactation.

With one half of the herd in peak milk production and the other half coming back down, there is no pressure on the system as everything is spread out nicely. This will still allow me to take the months of July and December off from calving for summer and Christmas holidays.

I have more family time and flexible working hours without any repercussions for my cows. We are all less stressed as the cows make all the decisions and manage themselves. We facilitate what we can for them and they do the rest.

Further information

John O Callaghan and his family along with Lely Center Mitchelstown invite you to come and see their Lely Astronaut A4 in operation with their grazing platform on Wednesday, July 17, from 11:00am to 4:00pm in Farnivane, Newcestown, West Cork.

The farm will be signposted from: Crookstown; the Bandon Macroom Road; and the Dunmanway to Bandon road at Baxters bridge (Eircode: P72 NP74).

For further details please call Brian Prendergast on: 087-9326983; or Willie Walsh, of Lely Center Mitchelstown, on: 087-3087505.