In November, Agriland made the trip to the Lake county to meet Timmy Hegarty from Ballydoogan Dairies on his dairy farm near Ballydoogan, Moate.
Timmy, alongside his wife Eilis and their daughters Aoife (three) and Ciara (two), is milking 350 pedigree Holstein cows in a spilt-calving system.
60% of his cows are calving in the spring and the remaining 40% are calving in the autumn.
Timmy grew up on his parent’s dairy, beef and sheep farm in Co. Longford. He stated that his parents shared their knowledge on how to manage stock with him and gave him a great start in life.
Timmy moved to Westmeath in search of land more suitable to focus on dairy farming.
After looking at several farms, Timmy purchased the farm near Moate in 2005, with the plan to focus largely on dairy farming.
The farm outside Moate was chosen due to it having very high quality land and a ”good square block suitable for dairying”.
When Timmy purchased the farm there were only three sheds on the farm – a tool shed, a hay shed and a four-bay slatted shed – and two silage pits.
So after purchasing the farm, Timmy built a 20-unit milking parlour and 145 cubicles all under the one roof, with 30 more cubicles added in 2012 and the parlour extended to 30-units in 2020.
Timmy stated: “Although quotas were an issue, I was able to increase slowly. They only became an issue in the final year when the warning letters started to arrive, and I had to stop milking in November 2014.
“It was the only time that I didn’t milk over the winter. When it was announced that the quotas were going I increased the number of heifers I had coming on and bought in some good-quality stock as well.”
Commenting on pedigree breeding and how Timmy became interested in pedigree stock, he stated: “We had also used artificial insemination (AI) at home and had pedigree cows, but never registered the calves.
“When I moved up here I changed that and started registering them, upgrading the whole herd to pedigree status in 2010.
“Why I did that: the main reason was when it came to selling stock you were adding value to them.
“Another reason would of been if we had an issue with disease, I was going to be compensated a bit better – thankfully that has not happened.
“I did for a time, breed a more lower-yielding cow / higher economic breeding index (EBI) cow – but I just preferred the Holstein cows.
“They just suit the system I wanted to operate better.”
Skill before scale
Although since quotas have been removed, cow numbers have increased, Timmy believes that in one sense the quotas have actually helped him.
He said: “I would have always believed in being good at what you are doing before you get bigger. If you’re not doing 100 cows properly, there is no point in going to 150 cows.
“From 2008 to 2015 the quotas would have held me back, but I found that it was nearly a benefit; it made me clean up the herd and focus on breeding better dairy cows.
“I got better before I got bigger. If the quota had not been there I might have gotten bigger faster.”
“In one year, I culled 70 cows from the herd – cows with poor fertility and feet issues.
“I was finding that if a cow had issues with her feet her daughter was the same. So removing those genetics from the herd has helped me to improve the herd and given me a really good base cow to start from.”
A big focus is placed on the breeding, with Timmy seeing the benefits of some cow families.
Commenting on this, he stated: “The interest in Pedigree stock has grown over the last ten years, I always had a passing interest.
“But as the years went on I grew more of an interest and saw the benefits of some cow families.
“With some cow families it does not matter what bull you use on them, they are going to be high protein. I have bought in a number of cow families in recent years and have seen the benefit of them, such as: Torch, Evon, Fifi, Mary, Elm, Sasha and Leslie.
“I would use a mix of bulls, I used a lot of high EBI Irish bulls for a few years. There are a lot of good bulls there and I would still use an odd one,” he continued.
“The last few years I have felt there is not enough milk in them for the system I have, so I would be using a lot of North American and English bulls.
“I wouldn’t be picking the more show-type bulls, I prefer the more commercial-type animal.
“I’m looking for a medium-sized cow with a bit of power, but still lots of milk. Ten years ago people would have said that kind of cow did not exist, but we are all seeing now that it does.
“You just have to go to any of the sales and you see that the medium-sized cow or heifer with a bit of power is in demand.
“Ten years ago it was hard to find bulls with all of that, but now you can pick up a catalogue and find a bull that will give you these traits.”
Timmy has begun flushing some of the top cows in the herd to increase the genetic gains within the herd.
He stated: “The top cow in the herd had not produced a heifer, so someone mentioned to me that I should flush her for embryos.
“So I did, and I got three heifers and two bulls. I’m not doing much of it, but it’s a bit like gambling – once you have a win you want to keep going.”
Commenting on the breeding further and the selling of excess stock, Timmy said: “I was using beef bulls but I have moved away from that now.
“I now breed all the cows to dairy sires and sell the excess heifers. I am also selling between ten and 15 stockbulls a year from some of the best cows in the herd.
“Some of those bulls would have been tested by the AI companies, so they would be very close to AI bulls.
“I’m selling some stock and getting some very good prices at the moment. I have a lot of people interested in purchasing stock from me, but I sell most of them through Taaffe auctions’ monthly sale.”
As mentioned, 60% of the cows calf in the spring and the remaining 40% calf in the autumn. Timmy says that the focus is very much on keeping as much grass as possible in the diet.
“Currently, the herd is averaging 8,500kg of milk and producing about 630kg of milk solids.
“We try and keep grass in the diet as much as possible, but grass is not enough for cows producing 40kg plus of milk.
“The autumn-calvers are in full-time and are being fed on a diet of silage, fodder beat, brewers grain and meal in the parlour.
“We have the maize harvested but we have not opened the pit yet; that will be opened in about a month’s time.
“The spring-calvers are still at grass, they have about another two week’s worth of grazing left.
“We generally get cows out to grass in late-February or early-March. There have been years that we got out in early-February and even late-January.
“But I just felt when we went out that early in late-March / early-April, if weather gets bad, grass get scarce and you’ve to rehouse cows. So, we leave it a little later, so when they go out they stay out.”
To conclude this Dairy Focus, Timmy commented on the near and distant future of the Ballydoogan Dairies, stating that: “I have two little girls that are three and two, so they’re a little young to know what they are going to do yet.
“I would love to see them taking an interest in the farm and taking it over some day.
“I am currently building a new cubicle shed with 100 cubicles to house the dry cows, with a bedded area at the top of the shed for calving.
“The plan for the farm is to stay around the numbers we are currently at and produce high-quality stock for the herd for here and to sell.
“I want to make the farm more efficient and improve production that way, focus on breeding more efficient dairy cows rather than increasing cow numbers further.”