Cork student takes a ‘measured’ approach to new grassland enterprise

A 22-year-old Co. Cork student has stepped up to the mark by launching a grassland measuring service. Tim Casey from Innishannon is a final year student in UCC, studying applied plant biology.

He came up with the idea while on a placement with Teagasc in Moorepark, last summer. “I worked under Dr. Mike Egan.

“His research interests are: grazing management practices of intensive grass-based systems, with practical focus on spring and autumn grazing management; the role of white clover in intensive grass-based systems; and the evaluation of white clover cultivars on commercial farms,” he said.

“I worked on the clover trials with Mike. I spent time travelling to different farms around the country. I walked every farm and visually scored the white clover content. This is where the idea for Cork Grassland Services came from,” said Tim.

Walking farms could, depending on farm size, could take anywhere from half an hour up to almost three hours, according to the student. “It got me thinking that a lot of farmers don’t have the time to complete these long walks.

With the expansion of dairy herds and shortage of labour on farms, farmers are busier now than ever before, especially in spring; with the start of calving, grass can be slightly overlooked.

Most farmers know how important measuring grass is, Tim noted. Grassland management and measurement are vital for farmers to: maximise growth rates and utilisation; increase the proportion of grazed grass in the animal’s diet; extend the grazing season; and ensure covers are achieved at critical times, he said.

“Every 1t DM/ha increase in grass utilised can increase net profit/ha by €181/ha on dairy farms, and €105/ha on beef farms, so grassland management is extremely important for Irish grassland farmers. The problem is finding the time to do the walks; that’s where I step in.

Some farmers contract out slurry, sowing, spraying and silage. My clients contract out their grass measuring to me.

“I walk the farm every week and measure the grass with a plate meter, and then upload all the covers to PastureBase,” Tim said.

The student listed out the benefits for the farmer: knowing what average farm cover is; identifying grass surpluses and deficits before they happen; and being able to react to the changing grass supply on the farm.

Armed with this knowledge, farmers then know when to reduce or cut out meal in spring. All of this is achieved without the farmer having to walk the farm themselves, he added.

The majority of farms he visits are dairy farms in Innishannon or in west Cork, but there are also a few beef farmers on his books.”The first client I got was a local farmer who I did a bit of milking with back in September. From there, I approached another local farmer and it kind of snowballed from there.

All my marketing is done through my Twitter page @CorkGrass and, bar the few local farmers, all other clients have approached me through Twitter.

“The weekends are extremely busy. I can cover anything up to 750 acres. So there’s lots of walking involved. I try to get a few in during the week but it can be difficult as I’m trying to balance it with college,” he said.

For his final year project, he is studying the stolon growth characteristics of white clover under varying levels of nitrogen fertiliser. “I started this project last July and I’m hoping to be finished in the next couple of weeks, just before the cows head back out to start grazing. I’m carrying out the work in Moorepark. Measurements are taken every two weeks.”

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Both his parents come from dairy farms. “I’ve been surrounded by farming from a young age. Growing up, we had a pig farm so that’s where my passion for farming first came about. We got out of pigs ourselves in the mid-2000s and now my dad, Willie, is farm manager for a large pig farm production.

“Both my parents and girlfriend have been a great help so far and mom often accompanies me on grass walks,” Tim said.

“I’ve been working in the piggery part-time since I was 12 – all summers and school holidays. The last couple of years I’ve been working weekends on the piggery too. I also do a half day every week there, carrying out trial work. We are looking at the average daily gain, feed intake and feed conversion from birth to finishing,” said Tim.

“Pig farmers are renowned for their recording and love of numbers. The pigs’ weights are constantly monitored throughout the production cycle and feed is adjusted according to weight via the feed computers.

“All aspects of production are monitored and analysed from the born alive number, to mortality rates, weaning weights and the sales weights of finishing pigs. We strive to be as efficient as possible in the production process,” he said.

My background in pigs has helped massively in grass measurement as I’ve learned how important it is to measure, record and use the data collected to make informed decisions on the farm. You can’t improve what you don’t measure.

“At the moment I’m focused on getting to May and finishing my degree in UCC while maintaining my grass measuring service. For the summer I hope to do it full-time as long as the demand is there.

“According to PastureBase Ireland, less than 10% of Irish dairy farms are recording more than 30 grass walks every year. I was shocked at how low that figure was when I heard it.

“I’m passionate about farming and if I can help make some small contribution to increasing this figure and help farms become more profitable and efficient, I’ll be happy.”

An open day in Moorepark last July focused on resilient technologies, Tim said. Milk prices are expected to drop this year and farms must ensure they are resilient and able to be withstand any price decreases. “Resilience is the name of the game and grassland management can help ensure this resilience,” he added.

“Come September, my ambition is to hopefully further my studies with a PhD with Teagasc, all going well, while continuing to grow the business.

At the moment I’m grass measuring, measuring soil pH, and collecting soil samples for farmers. I’m also testing colostrum on farm using a Brix refractometer.

“In the future, I hope to expand into forage and soil analysis. But that’s a long-term goal.”

Farming, he observed, is constantly changing. “Technology is becoming more popular every day. I’ve no doubt that in the future, the reliance on plate meters will be reduced due to advances in drones and solar technology for measuring grass.

“It’s my ambition to move with this technology and continue to provide my grass-measuring service using the latest technology available.”

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