Dairy focus: ‘Eating the grass and producing the goods’ in Co. Monaghan

Farming in the drumlins of Co. Monaghan, Darran McKenna – the 2018 Quality Milk Award winner – focuses on sustainably producing high-quality milk from grass and that is just what he does.

The Quality Milk Awards is a national award programme – run by the National Dairy Council (NDC) and Kerrygold – which recognises standards of excellence in dairy farming and the McKenna’s family farm certainly is an example of an excellent dairy farm.

The farm is located just a stones throw away from Emyvale, Co. Monaghan, and yesterday, Wednesday, June 12, the McKenna’s opened their gates for the NDC’s annual seminar and farm walk to show what a exceptional high standard of dairy farming looks like.

It was clear from the visit what is important when trying to produce a high-quality product – milk.

Grass plays an important role on the McKenna’s farm and Darran believes that it is the “key ingredient” in producing a high standard of milk from his cows.

Hygiene is another important factor. Upon entering the farm, immediately you can see how the farm is kept to the highest standard of cleanliness in many ways.

Farm performance

The McKenna family are currently milking 109 cows on a 31ha milking platform, with a total farm area of 63ha.

Last year, the cows averaged out at 6,654L/cow and 521kg of milk solids/cow. The constituents stood at 3.42% protein and 4.19% butterfat and the average milk price was 34.8c/L.

The average somatic cell count (SCC) for the year was 70,000 cells/ml and the average total bacterial count (TBC) was 6,000/ml.

“For me, high-quality milk is all about the milk price. I produce high-quality milk to get the best price that I possibly can, because at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.

“Whether it’s producing the milk, growing the grass, making investments or even washing the parlour, if you focus on quality all the time it will come through the whole way,” highlighted Darran.

All facilities on the farm are kept impeccably clean; you could almost eat your dinner off the floor of the parlour.

Touching on how he manages his TBC, he said: “I have a modern plant with good washing facilities; the TBC is easy to keep right when you have your facilities right.”

Darran also manages his TBC through a consistent machine washing routine. This includes: seven hot washes per week; an acid de-scale once per week; and consistent use of the correct product rate. He rinses the machine with 12L of water/unit.

In terms of his SCC, Darran only had one case of mastitis in 2017 and 2018, and four cases in 2019.

In the past, he used a selective dry cow therapy (SDCT), but for this year he decided against it. On this, he said: “With me being the centre of attention upon receiving the Quality Milk Award, I was advised against it.”

But his plan is to return to using a selective dry cow therapy and expects only 50% of his herd to receive an antibiotic this year, with the rest just getting teat sealer.

Grassland management

Including a large proportion of good-quality grass in his herd’s diet is hugely important to Darran.

Touching on why grass is so important to him in the cow’s diet, he said: “The grass is it all. If you can produce good-quality green grass that is what pulls your fat and protein up, keeps the cow well fed and she maintains herself after that.”

To maximise the number of days at grass, Darran focuses on three key areas. These include: grass measuring; grazing infrastructure; and reseeding.

Achieving the maximum number of days at grass that he can is difficult at times for Darran. The farm’s landscape is a mixture of steep, hilly and low-lying fields; some of his land is also prone to flooding.

Despite all the challenges, Darren doesn’t let any of it get in his way of achieving his goal of over “270 days at grass”.

A high-standard of grazing infrastructure – across the farm – has a significant part to play in achieving these maximum number of days at grass.

The majority of Darren’s paddocks have multiple access points, with some even including temporary fencing. He also has an exceptional network of roadways with good road surfaces throughout.

In the past, Darran’s unfavorable farm landscape wasn’t his only issue. He had to cross two public roads to gain access to some of his land.

After living with this nightmare for long enough, Darran decided to install two underpasses on his farm in 2016.

“The underpasses took seven days to complete and it took me two years to get planning permission. I had to do them myself; I couldn’t get a price from anyone for this one because of the steep hill,” explained Darran.

One of the underpasses is at the bottom of a steep hill and includes a sharp right angle turn leading up to, and across a bridge.

“No one would take it on. I hired the equipment and I got a few lads to help me and we done them ourselves. We had the first one finished and the digger man said: ‘Sure give me a shout when you want the second one done’ and I said I’d see him Monday.

“I wanted to just get them done and I wasn’t going to let him leave until they were. Now, I can access all the land 24 hours per day, seven days per week without needing someone to help me,” he added.

Cow Type

Just like the management of his farm, what Darran looks for in a cow is simple.

“I like a cow that will eat the grass and produce the goods. A cow that is profitable, hardy and which I hardly know I have. A cow that I only know I have when she comes into be milked each day.

“If you have a cow that will look after herself, she is a healthy animal. I like a cow that will go out to the field, eat the grass and produce a high-quality milk.

“I find through mixing my breeds, rather than just sticking with one type of breed, I can achieve that sort of an animal.

“I would mostly have a British-Friesian and Holstein type cow with a small bit of Jersey and some Norwegian Red introduced this year. I find if you mix the breeds you work with an animal that suits all,” explained Darran.

Sustainability

Sustainability to Darran means: “Growing as much grass as I possibly can and producing as much of my milk from that grass that I can.”

While producing this grass, Darran tries to be conscious of the environment. He soil samples every three years to ensure that he is targeting the nutrients to where they are needed most.

He also spreads all his slurry using a dribble bar.

I find using the dribble bar a great job and I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it. It is far better than using a splash plate.

“I also use protected urea and keep a watch on the buffer zones; I work to suit the weather,” he said.

All his water courses are fenced off and he has a variable-speed pump in the parlour to conserve energy.

Furthermore, Darran’s land does not contain a high amount of clover, but his plan is to try and incorporate more into his land in the future.

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