For this week’s Dairy Focus, Agriland made the trip down to Co. Sligo to meet with Christopher Tuffy on his farm near Sligo town.
Christopher is leasing a 150ac farm and is milking 155 cows currently. The focus on this dairy farm is very much on grass, and producing milk solids from grass.
Christopher comes from a dairy farm near Enniscrone, where his father milked 60 cows. After completing the dairy herd management course at Kildalton Agricultural college, Christopher decided to head to New Zealand.
Then, on his return, he set out to farm on his own.
“I was mad to go milking,” he said.
“But, I had envisaged myself managing a herd of cows for someone else. The home farm wasn’t big enough and is fairly fragmented, so when the opportunity came up for here we said we’d go for it.”
Christopher credits his father’s support for being able to venture out on his own.
“People tell me now it was fairly brave, but looking back at it was more brave on my father’s behalf,” he said.
“My father took all the risk; I had nothing to lose, I was only 20 at the time.
“He backed me all the way and still plays a major role in the operation. I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am today without his backing.
“Dad now rears the calves and does a bit of relief milking for me. We also use the home farm for some silage.
“Dad makes a lot of high-quality silage, which is important for us here in the shoulders of the year.”
Located just outside of Sligo town, the farm consist of 150ac, of which Christopher says 140 is good, farmable land.
Christopher started on the farm in 2012 with 90 cows, consisting mainly of Christopher’s dad’s home herd and heifers.
Over the next few years herd size increased due to a combination of extra heifers and bought-in stock.
“We are at maximum numbers for the farm now at 155 cows. We hit that number in 2015 and actually came back in numbers for a few years. The farm just wasn’t growing enough grass at the time,” said Christopher.
“It also allowed us to remove some of the poorer-performing cows and breed off our best cows.
“Every acre of the farm had to be reseed and soil fertility was also quite poor.”
The farm was a beef farm, so a parlour needed to be constructed, along with a cubicle shed.
“We were able convert an existing shed into a 160-cubicle and constructed a 20-unit Dairymaster milking parlour,” Christopher added.
“The real attraction to the farm was that it has loads of slurry storage and none need to be constructed.”
The road to get the herd to where it is today has been a struggle for Christopher, with a lot of challenges in the way.
“The first few years were tough,” he said.
“We weren’t growing enough grass and the farm was slow enough to get going.
“What those years did do was build the foundation of a good herd of cows and set the farm up.
“In 2018 the farm really took, we had been struggling around 400kg of milk solids at the time – which doesn’t sound too bad.
“But when you have a high-cost system you need more, you have very high fixed-costs, so more is needed to pay for those costs.
“The herd improved and hit 3.7% protein and 440kg of milk solids.”
Continuing, Christopher said: “You’d think expansion is going to be rosey, but in reality it was tough. It was a hard road, but looking back now it was worth it.
“There were times when cows were housed in the middle of summer and you were feeding 5/6kg of meal and only getting 1.5kg of milk solids and you think; is this ever going to change?
“Coming from a system at home that was stable and then you move into a system where everything just wasn’t working as well, I suppose you have to have confidence in the plan and we stuck to our guns and it has worked out for us now.”
A simple system is operated on this dairy farm, with grass, as previously stated, very much the focus.
A quad and handler are the only machinery used on the farm, with the contractor doing the majority of machinery work.
“We are not going to push anything that we don’t think is profitable, that’s our system,” Christopher said.
“I am not going to feed 1.5t of meal to get to 600kg of milk solids. If, down the line, genetics allows me to get there within the current system, I will do it.
“We have a set system, I am not going to feed anymore or less meal this year because of milk price and input cost.
“Whatever the system needs it gets, the target here is 800kg of meal and nothing has changed to alter that,” he continued.
“A few years ago 500kg of milk solids looked a million miles away, now I would be confident that the herd could do 550kg of milk solids in the next few years.
“I have cows doing 600kg of milk solids, but getting every cow up to that level is very difficult to achieve.”
Last year the herd produced 490kg of milk solids, with achieving over 500kg being the aim for this year.
“We were disappointed we didn’t achieve it last year, but like what happened on a lot of farms last year, grass quality dropped,” Christopher said.
“We probably didn’t manage it as well as we could have, but it was a learning experience.
“The herd is also more mature this year [and] we have an average herd lactation of 3.9.”
Commenting on the focus during the breeding season on this dairy farm and how technology has changed it, Christopher said: “We wanted a well-balanced robust cow that has a maintenance figure of €20, has a protein figure of 3.9% and produces 530-540kg of milk solids.
“We want a cow that will go back in-calf easily and calves in the first three weeks – that’s the type of cow I want.
“I don’t pick bulls on overall economic breeding index (EBI) figure, I focus on the sub-indexes and ensure I have a good, balanced team selected,” he continued.
“The breeding plan for this year is that bottom 40% are being bred to beef and nearly all the rest of semen going in is sexed. There is very little conventional semen being used this year.
“We installed the Allflex collars last year and it is probably the best investment I made. I can’t understand farmers that won’t buy collars for their cows and [then] spend €100,000 on a tractor.
“They have completely simplified our breeding season. We have it linked to the drafting gate and cows that are bulling are just waiting for the AI [artificial insemination] man when he arrives.
“It has completely changed the breeding and management of the breeding season. Once you had finished calving, you are straight into pre-breeding.
“The collars have done away with all of that and you know every cows is suitable for breeding at the beginning of the season.
“It is a massive labour saver, I can actually take a day off and get the relief milker in for the day.”
When asked if he would do anything differently, Christopher said: “If I was to go back and do it again, I feel you really need to hit the ground running and start with maximum cow numbers.
“It has taken us nearly half-way through the lease before we really got motoring; we didn’t really get humming until year six or seven of the lease,” he said.
“The way things are going it is a shame that a lot of young farmers won’t get the opportunity to do what we did.
“I was very lucky to get opportunity I got, I know we had a few very tough years to get to where we are now.
“But there are so many young farmers that aren’t going to get that chance. I think young farmers should be given opportunity to have a go.
“We have three great young lads working here as relief milkers and helping during the calving season, they should have opportunity to do what I did if they want.”
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