Earlier this week, John Keane hosted a Macra na Feirme Young Farmer Development Group (YFDG) ‘Walk and Talk’ on his farm in Brockry, Co. Laois.
John has been farming in partnership with his father Martin over the past number of years, and is also the current Macra na Feirme president.
Martin and his father bought the farm in 1971, with the family originally hailing from Co. Kilkenny. When the farm was purchased, there was very little infrastructure on-farm.
Soon after the farm was purchased, Martin went to agricultural college and returned home in 1979 to farm full-time, alongside his father – John’s grandfather.
The current milking parlour was built in 1979, with a few extra units added about six or seven years ago.
John graduated from University College Dublin (UCD) in 2014 and went to New Zealand for 18 months, before returning home to farm full-time in the spring of 2015.
A spring-calving system is operated on the farm with the majority of the herd made up of British Friesian-type cows, with a few crossbreeds.
Like a lot of herds, cow numbers have increased post-quota, with 42 cows being milked in 2001 and this increasing to 60 cows in 2015. John and Martin are currently milking 110 cows.
The milking platform is heavily stocked, with a stocking rate of over four livestock units (LU)/ha up until this year, when extra land was introduced to the milking platform.
This has decreased the stocking rate to 3.3LU/ha. Since returning home in 2015, John has taken more responsibility in terms of managing the herd and finances on the farm.
When the family purchased the farm, there was little to no infrastructure, with the sheds, silage pits and a milking parlour constructed over time.
A new calf shed was constructed in 2015. John said the focus on the farm since he returned home has been on roadways and grazing infrastructure.
With the soil type being heavy on the farm, continued investment is needed. Grazing in the spring is challenging with only certain areas of the farm suitable for grazing during wet weather.
John credits his father for the all the money he has invested in drainage on the farm, which has made the farm easier to manage.
The herd was traditionally a British Friesian herd, with Holstein genetics introduced in the mid-2000s.
John and Martin in recent years have started crossbreeding some of the cows and have been happy enough with their performance – but they are not fully convinced.
John is a big believer in the economic breeding index (EBI) and increasing the herd’s EBI will be the focus moving forward.
The aim is to increase the percentages of the herd; last year the herd averaged 4.57% fat and 3.64% protein.
John stated: “There is plenty of room for improvement within the herd’s production, but fertility within the herd is excellent.
“The current EBI is €157 and €96 of that is coming from fertility, so if the bull passes the road in the trailer they are nearly going to go in-calf.
“Six-week calving rate for the last five years has been over 88%; fertility is not an issue on the farm.
“The performance of the herd has improved; in 2014 the cows produced 380kg of milk solids (ms), this increased to 500kg of ms in 2018.”
Most of this improved performance can be attributed to better grassland management on the farm.
“Last year the herd produced 520kg of ms from 832kg of concentrates fed/cow.”
With the farm being fragmented, John and his father operate a dairy calf-to-beef system on the farm.
A combination of beef sires are used on the cows including Limousin, Angus, Charolais and Simmental.
With high terminal index, easy-calving sires selected to use on the cows, 4% calving difficultly or less is the aim when selecting bulls.
John said: “We used to take the calves to weanling [stage] before selling them at the mart; we took them to yearling [stage] a few years ago and found that quite good.
“This year we were locked up with TB, so we have a group of 40 Limousin cattle, that will be sell as forward stores.
“We recently weighed a group of beef calves out of the cows and at six months-of-age the average weight was between 215kg to 220kg.
“Although the beef operation is not the main focus of the farm, dad and I both enjoy operating the beef system and do not see it stopping in the near future,” he added.
In April, John was elected Macra president; around that time Martin also retired from his role in Glanbia.
John explained that this is one of the main reasons why he was able to put his name forward for the role; it meant that at least one of them would always be around the farm.
John’s role in Macra means that he is not able to spend as much time as he would like on the farm. So ensuring they had help on the farm was important.
Farm worker, Liam, has been working on the farm for the last five years – up until this year it was mainly on a part-time basis.
When John put his name forward for president of Macra, he offered Liam a full-time role on the farm.
John said that he has very little time for farming during the day. He usually milks in the morning, then carries out work required by his Macra role. He tries to help in the evening, finishing the milking or other work that is needed.
John stated: “My father does a lot of the work with the beef cattle and any of the tractor work that is required.
“Liam does a lot of the milking, grass walks, allocating grass and feeding calves in the springtime.
“I would not have been able to take up the role in Macra without Liam.
“Getting help on farms is hard and he is not staying with us due to lack of offers, I want to keep him happy in his role.
“Me helping with the last three rows of cows means nothing to me, but it might mean a lot to the person working with you. They can get home that 30 to 40 minutes earlier in the evening.”
‘Walk and Talk’
The Macra ‘Walk and Talk’ series was held on several farms, along with seeing other people’s farm systems.
The main aim of the ‘Walk and Talk’ is to get young farmers to voice their concerns over the new proposed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Under the new CAP deal, 3% of the budget is outlined for young farmers, however many current young farmers will not be ‘young farmers’ when the next CAP is over.
Many of the farmers present at the ‘Walk and Talk’ expressed concerns over the new proposed nitrates and slurry storage requirements, and what that will mean for the sector.
The proposed maximum stocking rate on the milking platform was also highlighted as a point of concern for many young farmers present.
Many of those who were present were highly stocked on the milking platform due to farm fragmentation.
The removal of dairy equipment from the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS) was also noted as an issue for farmers.
All of these changes will have an impact on farms in the future and are mostly likely to impact young farmers significantly.