Dairy focus: Starting from scratch and growing to 257 cows in Co. Westmeath

Robert English and his father Mervyn recently converted to dairy after previously operating a beef and sheep enterprise comprising of 50 sucklers and 250 ewes.

This week, the pair hosted the Irish Grassland Association’s (IGA’s) Dairy Summer Tour, where 450 people were in attendance.

It was in 2013 when Robert decided he was going to leave his job as a civil engineer and return home to farm in partnership with his father.

However, Robert knew that the enterprise that they were running at that time wasn’t going to support two families; with that, they began to look at entering into a dairy conversion.

“I went to two dairy farms and one beef farm in the area and asked them straight out what they thought. All three of them said dairy farming was the only way to go,” explained Robert.

Since converting, they have grown cow numbers to almost 260 and the land area to 146ha, after taking on a block of 27ha of leased land last year.

Of that 146ha, 53ha is “dry-land” with the remaining 60ha – which runs alongside Lough Ree – is made up of low-lying wet land, which is liable to flood in a wet year.

Getting started

Before doing anything, Robert wanted to make sure he knew what he was getting himself into.

“I was working in Mullingar and basically I gave up my job and worked with a local dairy farmer for the spring of 2013. This was hugely beneficial and really reinforced the idea that we could go on and do it ourselves.”

In 2013, on their second attempt, they were able to secure milk quota and the building process began. In the back end of 2013, the first batch of 37 in-calf heifers were purchased with a further 14 calved heifers bought that spring.

“My uncle was milking, so I knew I would be going to him for a start and the rest were purchased down south.

“I was lucky at the time, but it was risky going to farmers that I didn’t know. But, most of the farmers around were expanding and I was on a tight budget.

“Literally, the sale of the suckler cows bought the heifers,” he added.

Starting off, the only infrastructure on the farm was a four-bay slated shed, with an old sheep shed located in a different yard.

“We borrowed money to build the 14-unit parlour and we sold the sheep to do our bit of reseeding, install some water and a roadway; we just had what we needed to get up and running.”

In 2015, 120-topless cubicles were installed adjacent to the existing slatted shed. Up until then, a lot of the cows were out-wintered on kale.

This got them by until 2018, when they installed a further 180-indoor cubicles – with feeding on both sides – along with a 400,000 gallon slatted concrete tank. This year, the parlour was extended to a 25-unit.

Grassland management

Robert tries to use the following rule: ‘An acre reseeded for every cow that they bring on to milk.’

Explaining his preferred method of reseeding, he said: “We spray it off, take a light cut of silage and go straight in with a power harrow. We sow the grass, roll it, lime it, fertilise it and leave it alone.

“We picked the easiest fields to reseed first – the ones we knew we could get into in the spring and the autumn, and worked our way away from the parlour.”

At the start, they were just picking mixes which had been recommended to them, but recently they have started experimenting with monocultures. The tetraploid Aspect was sown in a new reseed last year.

Stating the reason for this, he said: “I am just more inclined to go towards the varieties that graze out easier and we find with Aspect, they just peel it.

“However, it is debatable whether it will last long; as we seem to get an extra grazing out of the paddock sown with Abergain and Aberchoice.”

In terms of soil fertility, when they first started, the entire farm was nearly all at index 1 and it all needed 3t of lime.

I remember early on in 2014 and 2015, I was going to discussion group meetings and the farms had lovely lush green fields. I was coming home to our grass, full with dung pads and all yellow. It was hungry and – at the time – I didn’t know what it was.

“It is only in the past while that we have begun to realise the importance of soil fertility.

“About 95% of the higher drier ground is up to index 3 for P [phosphorus] and K [potassium] with a couple of paddocks at index 2 for P. We still have to tackle the rented ground which is all index 1 and 2,” explained Robert.

The grass grown on the farm has been steadily increasing year-on-year – 10t DM/ha was grown last year.

Cow type and breeding

When they began picking the foundation herd, Robert admits that they picked the farmers that were doing a good job more than on EBI.

“We kind of put more emphasis on who the farmer was; we like the stock we bought and we can work on the genetics now.”

The output of the cows is impressive. In 2018, the herd of 166 cows produced 537kg of MS/cow from 1,600kg of meal, but in a normal year, the herd is fed between 700kg and 800kg of meal. The average EBI of the herd €152.

Robert went on to discuss his breeding strategy for the herd and how he goes about picking bulls.

“It is 1.9km to the furthest paddock, so we are conscious of the size of the cows, the hardiness of the cows and their ability to keep going.

“When we were picking our bulls, we look at them as a team; so, we set out what we want in figures for the whole team of bulls.

“The criteria we wanted this year was €120 for fertility, plus 0.2% for protein and between €20 and €25 for maintenance – to target a 550kg cow.

“We are picking high-EBI black and white bulls and Jersey. Some of them would have a maintenance of €2, so we put them on the crossbreds.

“The Jersey bulls will have a maintenance of €50 or €60, so we put them on the bigger Holstein-Friesian cows and the middle of the road cow will get a bull somewhere in between,” Robert explained.

Costings

Finally, Robert ran through the cost of the conversion. The costings were put against 300 cows because the farm is now set up for this number.

“The grazing infrastructure included the roadways, fencing, water and a little bit of drainage. We are very lucky because we have our own quarry; so we bought in very little gravel.

“In terms of reseeding, 325ac were reseeded which works out roughly at €295/ac; which doesn’t include building up soil fertility.

“The infrastructure is comprised of the topless cubicles, the concrete slurry tank and the new 180-cubicle shed.

“The milking facilities are what we have spent to date; so, the 25-units plus the 21,000L bulk tank. The ancillary works is a silage slab, a rainwater harvesting tank and a three-phase ESB connection along with a few other unexpected costs.

“The total is excluding VAT and not including grants. In total, we got about €106,000 from grants. It is also not including the cost of buying the stock.

“We borrowed €115,000 at the start, another €40,000 for the topless cubicles and we borrowed more money for the new shed. I was a bit nervous about borrowing money and putting risk on the farm.

“The rule I went with was not to borrow more money than the stock was valued at; so, at least if things went wrong, we were never going to have to sell land. I worked it out and I think we are borrowed at about €1,600/cow at the minute,” concluded Robert.

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