In this week’s Dairy Focus, Agriland made the trip west to Co. Galway to Riverview Holstein organic dairy farm.
Brendan Gildea farms alongside his wife, Helen, and their five sons; James, Tommy, Andy, and twins Brendan and Mikie.
James has a degree in agriculture from Harper Adams University and works as an nutritionist in England; Tommy is a third year student at Galway Mayo Institute studying ag-engineering; Brendan is a second year at Galway Mayo Institute studying agricultural and environmental science; Mikie is studying sports science at University of Limerick; and Andy is doing the Leaving Certificate.
Brendan took over the farm from his father Jimmy, who at 81 years of age remains active on the farm.
The pedigree herd, which has imported genetics from Canada and Holland, includes cow families such as Altitude, Blackrose, Roxy and Peggy.
Riverview farm produces organic milk which is supplied to Arrabawn for its liquid milk contract.
In the last 20 years, herd size has increased from 70 cows to 230 cows currently being milked on three Lely Astronaut A4’s.
The farm has been operated as an organic dairy farm for the last 15 years, with a total of 230 cows being milked on the farm. 200 cows are milked all year round.
A total of 100 replacement heifers are reared each year with surplus sold, mainly into conventional dairy farms.
Brendan is farming a total of 600ac, half owned and half rented, with the help of two part-time labour units and his sons.
The Gildea’s cut their own silage and spread all of our their slurry, using a trailing shoe.
200ac is used for silage – which has a high content of red clover – 100ac for tillage and 300ac for grazing.
The crops grown on the farm are fodder beet, barley pea, oat pea and wheat pea, with everything that goes in diet feeder grown on the farm.
Grain is purchased from organic tillage farms, mainly on the east coast for concentrates.
This year Brendan has carried out his own trials with mixed species platina, chicory and mixed herbs. Brendan plans on planting a 20ac trial of organic maize next year.
Commenting on the switch to robotic milking, Brendan stated: “There were good and bad stories about robots, but the bad ones were always better spread, so I went to several farms to look at them [robots].
“When I came home I though it was something I could manage, I wasn’t afraid of the computer side of things.
“About two or three months later we did the deal with Lely UK and brought the first Lely Astronaut A2 in July 2001.
“The robot was installed in November 2001 and we started milking in it in mid-December.”
“In 2008 we got the second A2 and since 2016, we since moved into the A4’s, with three of them now on the farm,” Brendan added.
“The cows graze using the A, B and C system. A and B is grass with C being buffer feeding in the shed.”
Commenting on the reason behind the switch to become an organic dairy farm, Brendan said: “I was always interested in growing crops and trying new things.
“When I went to the robot, I was very intensive. But we couldn’t expand in dairying due to quotas and the milk price was at 20c/L.
“We also had a 30,000-bird chicken house, but no matter what we did we weren’t making any money.
“I went on an organic farm walk to see was there a way we could cut cost.
“No one had ever told me about red clover. I came home with a plant and started looking to see where I could purchase some seed. The only place I could find was in Northern Ireland.”
Brendan continued: “After the Dalevalley sale in Northern Ireland I bought 14ac of seed and brought it home in the boot of the car – that was 2006.
“Within a year I could see I had reduced my nitrogen. I only put a bag of CAN [Calcium Ammonium Nitrate] for the first cut and the second cut only got phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), along with slurry.
“We had as much grass in our second cut compared to when we were spreading nitrogen.
“In the spring of 2007, I went into the organic scheme with no payment. But, there was a quota available for fully organic milk once I had fully converted.
“The sheds in the yard needed to be converted to organic standards. Once we knew about the potential to expand we looked at adding to the existing shed, but planning was refused.
“So the next option was a greenfield site in the middle of the farm – with 120 cubicles and a second A2 robot. The shed was built in 2008 to organic standards.
“By 2009 we were milking 90 cows. My milk price went from 19c/L in July of 2009 to 45c/L in August of 2009.
“We are now getting 50c/L, the price for organic milk sounds great. But, we haven’t gotten a price lift in five years and conventional milk has nearly caught up to us.”
“Over time the yard has been developed with silage pits, slurry storage, a calf shed and a dry cow shed. We now have 250 cubicles.
“When the quotas were removed we applied for a third robot under TAMS. With the A4 robots coming online, we decided to trade in the two A2’s and get three A4’s.”
Commenting on how the robots have worked on this organic dairy farm for the last 20 years, Brendan said: “The first months were difficult; you had to train the cows to the robot. They were used to human contact, but they came around to it.
“There were some of the cows that were so used to human contact, they would wait for you before they would go to the robot. Especially cows that we would have shown, they had to get used to doing it on their own.
“It took me six months to get used to it, because you’ve milked for 20 years and the morning and evening milking was hard to get out of your head.
“Cows being milked 24-hours/day was hard to get used to as well. Even though we knew the concept, it was a hard adjustment.”
Brendan continued: “Thomas Nugent was the Lely technician that installed the robot, along with Robert Glendinning. Simon Moore was another technician that was a big help in the early years.
“Thomas stayed with me for the first week. I was the fourth farm to install robots, so they were still learning as well.
“In 2008, when we built the new shed we did look at going back to a parlour. Did the costing, sat down and discussed it.”
“By the time we started thinking about the early morning, weekends, Christmas and summer holidays, with all that incorporated, the robots won out again,” Brendan continued
“You can spend more time planning and organising other things on the farm. I can go away and still manage the cows from my phone, if someone is in feeding I can ask them to check a cow.
“You still need someone in the yard, but you are not worried about coming back to a sick cow.
“We were away last year and I started getting alerts of sick cows. I could see an increase in milk temperatures of cows and knew they needed to be looked at by the vet.
“I was putting cows up the crush that were still chewing their cud and it was only when the vet took their temperature he could see they were sick.
“The robots give you more information than you ever could get yourself, no matter how well you know your cows.
“A cow could be in heat during the night and you wouldn’t know because she could be as calm as daisy in the morning when you check them.
“But you know when the robots says she was bulling she was. You could have the best man working for you but he could be having a bad day.
“The robot never has a bad day and doesn’t have a favourite cow.”
Concluding Brendan said: “If the robots left the yard, I wouldn’t be milking cows anymore.”
Recently, some of the team from Lely Mullingar – including Thomas Nugent – paid a visit to Brendan to celebrate his 20 years in robotic milking.
Riverview farm is the longest robotic-milking herd in the Republic of Ireland. When Brendan started milking, there was one engineer for the country, there are now 25.
There are also 1,300 Lely robots now milking cows on Irish farms.