Dairy focus: Buying a farm and growing to 280 cows in Co. Offaly

Farming just outside, Birr, Co. Offaly, John and Sylvia Powell run a dairy enterprise consisting of 280 crossbred cows.

The husband-and-wife team’s background is embedded in agriculture; John hails from a beef and sheep farm in Templederry, Co. Tipperary, and Sylvia grew up on a dairy farm in Newtowncunningham, Co. Donegal.

After amassing experience in Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and the UK, the Powells moved into farm ownership; they purchased a 100ac farm off John’s uncle in 2002.

At the time of the purchase, the farm was home to a beef enterprise and the facilities extended to just one solitary shed.

Since then, however, the business has grown considerably through long-term leases, further land purchases (approximately 80ac) and infrastructure developments.

The area farmed now extends to 450ac and the facilities include: a 30-unit Boumatic Gascoigne Melotte milking parlour, fitted with a cluster flush system and automatic cluster removers; a cubicle shed; calving facilities; and calf housing. The cubicle housing was constructed four years ago. Up to this point, the Powells had wintered their cows on a woodchip pad.

Cow type

The Powells opted to milk a crossbred cow and it was through previous experience – both in New Zealand and the UK – that this decision was formed.

John explained: “We worked on a farm in England for a year and half of the cows were crossbred and the other half were Holstein Friesians.

It was a 600-cow unit and we could directly compare the two different types of cows on the one farm. Seeing really is believing.

“If cows have to walk distances, you need a durable cow with less hoof problems. The fertility was also super with the crossbred cows.

“Crossbred cows are able to take a little bit more pressure. A Holstein has to be looked after and they’re suited for farming in the fast lane or high-input systems.

“We are down to 2kg/day of concentrates and our cows are able to walk distances with less problems. They’re a simple cow to manage; they work in our system and they suit us.”

Sylvia continued: “When we started here, because we had to purchase everything, the milking parlour was the first thing we built and we had no housing facilities.

“We had a woodchip pad for the early years and the crossbred cows were able to withstand the pressure. They’re the cows we went with from the beginning and we’ve stuck with them.

“The genetics that LIC brings in now are way better than the genetics they did 15 years ago. We started off producing 320-330kg of milk solids. That’s now up to 460kg/cow.”

Production and grass

As it stands, the cows are currently producing 26L/day at 3.50% protein and 4.25% butterfat. Grass forms the principal ingredient in the lactating cows’ diet and just 700kg/cow of concentrate was fed last year.

“Overall, for the whole year, the milking platform is stocked at 3.8 cows per hectare. At the minute, we’re up at 4.78 cows per hectare, as we’ve a few paddocks closed for silage.

“We use the Kingswood system to budget grass and I measure grass with a plate meter. We take out surpluses if we have them and we follow the budget all of the time. We aim to match grazing to the wedge as best as possible,” Sylvia explained.

Last year, the milking platform grew 16t/ha of grass over a grazing season that stretched from February through to mid-November.

Although the cows are happily grazing now, the spring of 2018 proved difficult and the cows were turned out to grass on numerous occasions before finally settling into the grazing year.

“It’s not an overly early farm and we’ve wetter and drier fields. No where was early this year and we were in and out a lot,” Sylvia noted.

Breeding

Breeding commenced on the farm three weeks ago and synchronisation was used to mate the heifers; 75% of the heifers were mated during the first four days of the breeding season.

“Five or six crossbred bulls – all sired by SEW – will be let out with the heifers for 10 weeks.

“We operate a 12-week breeding season for the cows. Tail paint – which is topped up every four days – and observation is used to catch cows bulling during the first three weeks of the season. After that, we turn out vasectimised bulls with chin-ball harnesses to help with heat detection.

“For the final three weeks of the season, Angus stock bulls are run with the cows to pick up any repeats or late-calving cows. It’s a very fertile herd and the empty rate is usually around 10% – in a good year or bad year,” Sylvia commented.

Stock sales

Along with producing milk, a large part of the Powells’ business revolves around stock sales.

On this, Sylvia said: “We calved down the 280 cows and we tend to keep all of the calves. We normally rear about 100 heifer calves each year and we AI the entire batch.

“We keep about 50% of these heifers and the remainder are sold around August/September time as in-calf heifers.

“The bull calves are kept until the autumn and, if there’s a good market, we sell them at nine months. If prices aren’t good, we carry them on to yearlings and sell them then,” Sylvia said.

John added: “It’s a crossbred herd, so it’s not that easy to get rid of the bulls as calves. It’s getting harder to get farmers to take them now because there’s more crossbreds coming out.

“We’ve been operating this system for the past 15 years; but we might change the system over time and we’ve often thought about sexed semen. If sexed semen was better, we’d probably produce more Hereford and Angus calves.”

The team

Commenting on the staffing arrangements for such a large number of cows, John said: “When you look at the top dairy businesses in New Zealand, quite often it’s a husband and wife working equally together.

“Sylvia comes from a dairy farming background and she has strengths that I simply don’t have. We work well as a team and we’re equal partners. If I’m weak in one area, you can be guaranteed that Sylvia is strong.

However, if there’s anything we are lacking, we look for help. We are not experts in everything we do and it’s important to seek advice in areas where you may be lacking.

When it comes to the day-to-day running of the business, Sylvia and John take a central position on the farm, while Jason Armstrong is the next in charge. Michael Gilligan, a student from Gurteen College, also completed his placement with the Powells.