Dairy focus: Catching the ‘grazing bug’ in Co. Roscommon

When we think of grass-based dairy farming, Co. Roscommon does not immediately spring to mind. However, James and Ed Payne – a father-and-son team – have well and truly caught the grass bug.

Farming in Tulsk, Co. Roscommon, the Payne family decided to convert from beef and sheep farming to dairying in 2010. AgriLand recently visited the farm to find out why they made the switch.

Reasons for converting

James explained: “In 2011, the farm was essentially a greenfield site and it was home to a suckler enterprise of 150 cows and a sheep enterprise of 300 ewes.

“We needed to be able to generate enough income for two households and, with the monies from the Basic Payment Scheme only going to decline, we decided to make the switch to dairy farming.”

As a result of this decision, the Paynes decided to convert a 63ha out farm to a dairy holding. To make this venture viable, they needed to invest in paddocks, a water system, soil fertility and a new cubicle house. The latter houses the milking parlour on the farm.

Originally, this parlour consisted of 20 units, but it was extended up to a 33-unit parlour in April 2016. Despite the capacity of the parlour, one man – on his own – is able to complete the morning and evening milking.

In 2014, the Paynes were also presented with the opportunity to rent an adjoining 24ha parcel on a five-year lease. The addition of this land brought their total milking platform to over 80ha.

Ed and James Payne pictured on their farm prior to closing

Putting cows on the ground and performance

With the land at hand, the Paynes opted to go down the heifer rearing route to develop their herd. The first batch of heifers were bought as calves in 2009. In every year, with the exception of one, this tactic was used to grow the herd.

Ed said: “We moved to dairy into 2011 and with that we got into grassland management; we’ve been on the expansion train since.”

140 cows were milked in 2011 and, through the addition of more heifers, the herd has now grown to 300 cows. Next year, the Paynes plan to increase the stocking rate on their milking platform to four cows per hectare – up from 3.9 cows per hectare this year.

Along with rising the stocking rate of their milking platform this year, the Paynes also witnessed a considerable increase in milk solids production (outlined in the above table).

An additional 20kg of milk solids were produced per cow this year. The quantity of milk solids produced per hectare also increased by 18% on 2016 levels.

On the production achieved by the herd, Ed said: “We’re chasing kilograms of milk solids per hectare and it’s through the cows we’re doing it.

We’ve still a relatively young herd and, since we began milking, we’ve never had fewer than 30% first-lactation animals in the herd.

“We hope that when we get to a more mature herd, we can push milk solids production from 440kg/cow up to 500kg/cow. In turn, we’re aiming to increase the kilograms of milk solids produced per hectare to 2,000kg and that’s our short-term goal.”

Cow type

Ideally, the Paynes want a cow which can produce 500kg of milk solids from a grass-based diet and a concentrate input of about 500kg.

Over recent years, they’ve focused on using high-EBI, Holstein Friesian genetics to breed the next generation of cows on their farm.

“We’ve been breeding high-EBI, Holstein Friesians since we began milking and the herd now has an average EBI of €111. We’ve benefited quite well from genomics over the last number of years.

Six week calving rate is hugely important for our spring-calving system. It’s a key driver on our farm and hopefully, through genomics, we can drive this key performance indicator (KPI) going forward.

Catching the ‘grazing bug’

The Paynes’ holding is heavily stocked at 3.9 cows per hectare, but that’s solely the grazing platform. Two additional blocks – used for silage production – are located within a mile of the holding.

Ed added: “Location is not an excuse to think that the farm can’t grow grass. It’s not the earliest farm in the world, but it has super potential to grow grass.

We can grow as much grass as Moorepark here, we just grow it at different times of the year. Grass growth doesn’t really get going here until April 10. But by May 1, we’re making surplus bales.

This year, it’s estimated that the milking platform grew 15t/ha and Ed feels there’s still huge potential for it to grow more grass.

“It was a very good grazing year and we closed at 700kg/ha in mid-November. We’ll have a lot of stock grazing next spring, so we wanted to have the grass there.”

Ed was adamant that they were more than just dairy farmers; they’re also grass farmers.

“We caught the grass bug and we started chasing grass. We’re four years into quite intensive, rotational grazing and really calling ourselves grass farmers.

“It’s very much a mental battle. We don’t ever regret grazing, but we do regret not grazing grass in hindsight. It’s always a mental challenge within the team to try and push ourselves continuously to get out and start grazing.

“We have the infrastructure in place, the soil fertility is improving and we measure, but it’s just that mental challenge to continue to drive out to grass and to allow it to work for the farm.

It’s a team effort and everybody that comes to work for us knows that grass is a priority and we make it quite obvious that the key driver of the farm is grass.

With a large number of cows calving compactly during the spring, it can be quite a difficult time on the farm. Despite this, the focus on getting cows out to grass never wanes.

“Some days it would be easier to leave the cows in the shed and start calving cows again. But, it’s just a matter of getting it into your head that grass is the way.

“Communication is key on the farm, so that everyone knows what’s happening in the area of grass all of the time.

“At all times, we have a greater idea of how much grass is on the farm rather than how much meal we have in the meal bin. We run out of meal a lot more often than we run out of grass.”

The best investments?

Given the focus on grass, Ed explained that investments in soil fertility and grazing infrastructure have probably returned the greatest dividends.

“Over the last number of years, we’ve been investing in soil fertility. Had I know it was such an issue, I would have invested heavier when we were carrying a lower stocking rate.

One of our biggest costs is trying to build up and maintain indexes. We’re spending over €400/ha/year on fertiliser alone to try and maintain and build indexes.

“From an infrastructure point of view, we put in spur roads quite cheaply and main roads at €12-14/m.

“Spending on infrastructure and fertiliser are probably two of the best investments we’ve made in terms of the returns generated.

“We are growing the grass supply we need for the cows at the moment and we are seeing huge returns on the investments we’ve made in terms of grazing.”

Despite this, the Roscommon-based farmer still feels there’s room for improvement when it comes to utilising grass.

“We have the infrastructure in place to get cows out during the shoulders of the year, but it’s the mid-season we need to work on. We need to work on shortening the rotations to get an extra half or full rotation during the mid-season.”

The team and future plans

Along with James and Ed, the Paynes’ farm is driven by a large team, including: Ed’s wife Jennifer; his mum Dawn; and other staff members including Aidan and Enda.

“The venture wouldn’t be possible without all of us. It simply wouldn’t work if we were going to be under pressure for labour,” Ed explained.

We’ve a great team around us and if it wasn’t for the team, this venture wouldn’t be possible.

James added: “We’re very grateful for what we have. But, both of us like a bit of a challenge and if the opportunity comes up, we will have to give it consideration.”

The Paynes are currently in advanced plans of setting up a second unit, which will be run at a much lower stocking rate from a management and grass availability point of view.

Away from the farm

Married to Jennifer, Ed is a member of the West Awake discussion group; he was awarded the Teagasc and FBD Student of the Year award in 2014. Jennifer and Ed also have two young boys, Aaron and Benjamin.

He’s currently completing a Nuffield Scholarship titled: ‘Farmers’ responsibility to create a competitive and sustainable workplace’.

He chose this topic as he’s aware of the rising demand for labour in the Irish agricultural sector and the lack of available knowledge, tools and information available to employers and employees.