In September 2021, Agriland made the trip to the Déise county to meet Maighréad Barron, on her leased farm located just outside Clonea Power.
Maighréad took over the 100ac Waterford farm on a long-term lease in 2018 and is currently milking 96 cows.
Dreams of being a lawyer
Maighréad grew up on a dairy farm about 40 minutes away from Clonea Power, but never really had much of an interest in dairy farming until she took up agricultural science in secondary school. After that, she fell in love with it.
Commenting, Maighréad said: “I never thought that I would go farming myself, I had big dreams of becoming a lawyer, or something like that.”
After completing the Leaving Certificate, Maighréad attended University College Dublin and completed a course in dairy business.
“In third year, I went to New Zealand for a six-month work placement on a dairy farm. Before going there, I had kind of decided that I would get a job in Teagasc or the Department – something handy,” she said.
“Dad had always said to me, ‘get the handy 9-5 office job’.
“I got on really well in New Zealand and was offered a job as a second in command on a dairy farm. I thought about it, but they would not hear of it at home, so I came back to do my final year.
“In the final year of college everyone was applying for masters and PhDs, while I was just applying for farm jobs, with the end goal of being a manager or a share milker.
“I got a job on a farm in Cork working with a 1,000-cow herd. I spent a year there and built up my skills further.
“After that, I was still looking for a manager job, but ended up working on a 500-cow farm close to home.”
Going out on her own
As she worked, Maighréad continued to look for farm-manager or share-milking roles.
“We even looked into going into a partnership at home but my dad, mother and older brother are at home, so me going home was not going to work,” she said.
“The four of us would all have very strong opinions and I just knew myself it was not going to work.
“I wanted to go out on my own, I wanted to do it myself – Mam and Dad knew that and were backing me 100%.”
And so, in late 2017, she took the plunge on a 15-year lease on a farm in Clonea Power.
“It was Dad that saw this farm up for lease in the paper. We had seen a farm down in Skibbereen, it was too far away and I did not like the place.
“This farm is only 40 minutes away from home, so if I need help they just have to come over the mountain.”
Maighréad continued: “We rang up the auctioneer and viewed the farm a few days later and, instantly, when I got here, I had the feeling that I wanted it.
“We met Sean, the farm’s owner, and explained that Mam and Dad would be backing me, but I will be here on my own, that it would be my farm. Sean had no problem with that.
“We put in an offer for the farm and within two days, Sean had rang back saying the place was mine if I wanted it.
“It was very overwhelming, dad rang me when I was at work and I started crying – that was October of 2017. I told them in work and they could not have been happier for me.
“In January of 2018, I took over the farm on a 15-year lease. I started with 77 cows in the first year, the following year there were 88 cows and this year, there are 96 cows milking.
“Ninety six is as far as I will go on this farm; I could go to 108 cows but I’d have to take the silage off the milking platform.”
The Waterford dairy farm
Commenting on the farm, and what has changed since she took it over, Maighréad said: “It is a very dry dairy farm. Compared to home, this is like a desert.
“We burn up in the summer, we were very bad in 2018 and this year we were in trouble again. I was feeding silage and extra meal before we got the rain.
“Last year we grew 13t of grass, but a lot of fertiliser and lime was needed in the first year.
“At the start, I had planned on using a contractor to do the slurry and fertiliser, but I actually do a lot of it myself.
“I only have the one tractor for the farm so it does everything. I get the contractor in to empty the tanks in the spring with the pipe system and make the bales.”
Speaking about the farm’s infrastructure, Maighréad said: “Everything on the farm itself was quite good. There were roadways in place, paddocks and housing for 100 cows.
“The water system needed a small bit of tweaking. We changed the pipes from half inch to three-quarter inch and replaced some of the drinkers with bigger ones.
“The only major thing that was bad was the parlour. It was really narrow and there was a loft, so the roof was really low.
“The parlour was really dark; where the cows stood was narrow and the pit was only as wide as a quad bike.
“The cows were not comfortable in the parlour, but we decided to milk away in it for the first year and build up a bit of cash to update it in the second year.
“We stuck with the 12 units, we just made the parlour wider, removed the loft and now the cows come in and out no bother. It milks way faster and cell counts have improved.
“We installed automatic cluster removers last year. Initially, I didn’t want them, but I could not keep on top of cell counts.”
Discussing the current cow type on the dairy farm and what her ideal cow is, Maighréad said: “In 2017, we looked at buying cows, but they could not be got anyway, so we decided to buy the cows that were here.
“The cows here were a British Friesian type, there were some good and some really bad ones.
“We milked away for the first year with those cows. Dad and John gifted me 10 cows too from home, to help build the numbers.
“There were some cows with really bad feet, digital dermatitis was a big issue on the farm and so was cell count.
“The herd now is about 60% Jersey crosses and 40% British Friesian. I am not really worried about litres, I just want a cow producing 500kg of milk solids minimum.”
Maighréad continued: “The Jersey cross cow is what I like, I get my replacements from home, but they are beginning to move away from the Jersey and use more Friesian, with the bull calves being the main issue.
“I breed all the cows to beef, I used Limousin and Hereford for the first two years. I have now switched to Angus and Hereford. I have a man that buys all the Angus calves off me, so it is a good cash injection after Christmas.
“I buy in replacements, because I don’t have the land to rear calves, I am already renting here, so renting another block of land for calves would not make sense.
“It also keeps it nice and simple, utilising all the grass for the cows. I did the costing for buying in replacements versus rearing my own and it was only €200 cheaper to rear my own replacements.”
Battle with SCC
Cell counts on the dairy farm were an issue, with a number of factors contributing to this, Maighréad said: “Cell counts were an issue for the first two years, they were averaging between 200,000-300,000cells/ml.
“I had to cull some cows because they just could not be cured, updating the milking parlour has also helped.
“The somatic cell count last year was down to 112,000cells/ml. I also changed the dry cow tube I was using ahead of 2020 so that seems to have helped also.
“The cell counts for this year are averaging 68,000cells/ml. I have gotten the cell counts under control and I am not going to use selective dry cow therapy until they make me.”
Earlier this year, Glanbia announced that it would be introducing peak milk supply management.
“I was worried at the start when it was first announced,” Maighréad said.
“Glanbia were working it off 2018, 2019 and 2020. I had to cull a lot of the older cows and I had bought in a lot of heifers, so they had not reached their peak production.
“But then when they sent out the allocation, I should be fine based on this year. I have applied for the reserve pool just in case.
“I am not expecting to get it, but better to apply for it than not. It does put a stop on the plans. The dream would have been 120 cows – I wont be able to do that.”
The farm is leased, so profitability is important. Maighréad has set a target for the herd of getting into the top 10% for profitability.
“Because it is a leased farm, the cows need to be making €1,000 profit. We are on the way to it but we are not there yet.
“For the farm to be profitable we need to be in top 10% of herds in the country and I thought that was never going to happen.
“But slowly we are getting closer to that figure. The €1,000 profit/cow before rent is a goal of mine. That would leave between €400-€500/cow after the rent is paid.
“In 2018, the cows only produced 250kg of milk solids, it was shocking. Last year the cows produced 466kg of milk solids, I am aiming for the 500kg of milk solids this year.
“I want to keep improving the herd and to have a herd in the top 10%, so that if I do decide to leave here and go somewhere else that I have a good herd of cows to bring with me.”
Expansion plans on hold
What, then, are her plans for the future?
“I have put a lot of work into the farm so if Sean was planning to extend the lease or sell the farm, I would definitely be open to doing that.
“The original plan had been to get this farm set up and then maybe look at a second unit in partnership with my brother.
“But looking at the way things are going that is not going to happen, the days of big expansion are now gone.
“There is something I am working on, but looking at it with my accountant it does not look like it will be profitable.
“I am keeping the cash coming in and saving it and if this place or somewhere else came up for sale I would like to be in a position to go for it.”