Entering the labour ‘red zone’ on a Co. Cork beef-to-dairy conversion

Established in 2011 by the four west Cork co-ops – Bandon, Barryroe, Drinagh and Lisavaird – Shinagh Dairy Farm is a beef-to-dairy conversion.

Located in Bandon, Co. Cork, the farm was developed to evaluate if it is possible to generate a sufficient income to pay rent, cover labour costs and leave a profit from a start-up, grass-based dairy enterprise.

Initially, 200 in-calf heifers were bought in to establish the herd. These heifers were a mixture of ‘black and white’ (50%), Jersey cross (25%) and Norwegian Red cross (25%).

A further 40 crossbred heifers were purchased in 2011, as replacements for the following spring. Every heifer born on the farm since its establishment is crossbred. The only straight-bred animals are some of the original cows that calved for the first time in 2011.

Under the stewardship of Kevin Ahern, the farm has proven to be hugely successful. Last year, 92,000kg of milk solids (400kg/cow) were sold from the 78ha (adjusted) milking platform.

In addition, 17t/ha of grass was grown on the farm during the 2017 season and supplementation stood at approximately 300kg/cow.

The conversion process

Kevin, the farm manager, touched on the conversion process at the recent Irish Grassland Association Dairy Conference. He said: “An old masstock slatted shed was converted to a cubicle house.

“The parlour was built from scratch. It’s a 20-unit Fullwood Packo, that was very basic when it was installed. We fitted cluster removers in 2015, but that wasn’t down to milk quality.

“One of our achievements was that we won the Bandon Milk Quality Award in 2013. So, it is possible to produce good-quality milk without all the extras.”

The parlour also lacks feeders and a drafting system, but Kevin hopes that the latter will be installed in the future.

“If I had to prioritise one over the other, I would definitely choose the drafting system,” he told the 650 delegates in attendance.

Along with infrastructure developments, 800t of lime has been spread on the farm over the past seven years. A major focus has also been placed on bringing phosphorous and potassium indices up to speed.

With this focus on soil fertility, there has been a marked improvement in the quantity of grass grown on the farm. Last year, grass growth rates were 4.5t/ha higher than when the herd was established in 2011.


Kevin is the only full-time employee on the farm. To alleviate some of the pressure, students are hired from either Clonakility Agricultural College or Cork Institue of Technology for a 12 or 15-week placement.

In addition, casual labour is also employed and this usually takes the form of a student who completed a placement on the farm during the previous year.

The contractor and contract rearer are a big part of the team on the farm. They are as important to the business as anybody else.

“Contractors do all our machinery work and the contract rearer is looking after the next generation of cows. So, they must be a part of the team and understand how the business is going,” Kevin added.

Contracted jobs:
  • Fertiliser spreading;
  • Spraying;
  • Reseeding;
  • Silage (bales and pit);
  • Slurry and dung spreading.

By using the services of contractors, Kevin is able to concentrate on the animals to achieve all the important targets which make Shinagh Dairy Farm a profitable business.

Entering the labour red zone

For the average herd of 230 cows, the total hours worked on the farm stand at 4,322 per year or 19 hours per cow per year, Kevin explained. This excludes the contributions being made by contractors and the contractor rearer. With this in mind, Kevin explained that – on average – he works 250 hours per month.

“The busy period is between February and March. We have a very fertile herd and have achieved a high six-week calving rate over the last number of years and need extra help to get through it. In addition to myself and the student, relief workers are employed at this time.”

Kevin broke the farm’s labour requirements into three zones. These are the green, yellow and red zones. Additional relief and student labour is required during the red zone as this coincides with calving and breeding on-farm.

Managing calving

Over 90% of the cows in the herd are expected to calve within the first six weeks. Therefore, Kevin can target labour at this period.

He said: “For the first three weeks of the calving season, we have someone on the farm 24 hours a day and operate an every third or fourth night calving shift. Night duties consist of feeding, tagging and moving newborn calves to calf houses.”

Two separate calf houses are operated on the farm – the H shed (heifers) and B shed (bulls and surplus heifer calves). A calf buyer comes to the farm every week to collect the bull calves, while access to both sheds is limited to a select few in order to minimise the risk of an outbreak of calf scour.

“Nobody is allowed enter the calf houses during the spring except our farm staff and the calf buyer, who is well disinfected beforehand.

Even the vet isn’t allowed in the calf houses; calves in need of veterinary attention are taken out of the shed to the vet,” he added.

Kevin takes responsibility for moving cows on the point of calving to a straw-bedded calving shed approximately five days before calving. This activity is carried out in the morning time to eliminate the need to move cows during the night.

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When it comes to managing freshly-calved cows, he added: “Every morning, freshly-calved cows are moved into the colostrum group and remain in that group until their milk is suitable for the bulk tank.

“We run cows in two separate groups during the spring. Once cows’ milk is suitable for the bulk tank, they join the main group and go to grass. The colostrum group remain inside until their milk is suitable for sale.

“Cows in the colostrum group are milked once a day and are brought to the parlour every morning and milked after the main group. Our rule is that these cows cannot enter the parlour until the pipe is out of the tank. This reduces the chance of antibiotic milk entering the tank.”

Calf rearing and the milking routing

Although Kevin utilises the services of a contract rearer, he found it extremely difficult to find somebody to take the calves at 14 days old. Given this, calves are moved off the farm once they are weaned off milk and do not return until they are two months out from calving.

This system adds to the time Kevin, the students or the relief labour spend in the calf shed. However, as calves depart when weaned, it means that the milking platform is solely used to support the milking herd.

He continued: “Calves are fed the first feed of colostrum by nipple, if possible. If they fail to finish colostrum by nipple or refuse to suck, they will be tubed.

“Once calves have received colostrum, they are moved to the calf houses and put into pens of six and fed on a milk bar feeder.

“Heifer calves are fed milk powder from the fourth fed; they are fed in the morning, while cows are being taken to the parlour. Bull calves are fed whole milk from the colostrum group after milking; milk for the evening feed is also collected at morning milking.

“All calves are fed again before evening milking. Heifer calves are put on once-a-day feeding at four weeks of age and they are fed after morning milking,” he said.

Touching on the milking routine, Kevin said that this various throughout the year.

Milking routine throughout the year:
  • February to March: Two people milk;
  • April to early May: One person will milk;
  • First three weeks of breeding: Two people in the parlour for morning milking. This is to allow for tail painting and drafting cows;
  • Remainder of the year: One person milking.

A busy breeding period

After calving, the next busy period on the farm is breeding. On this, he said: “As we have grown in confidence with the fertility of the herd over the years, we don’t carry out any pre-breeding heat detection.

“We condition score all of the cows in late March. Any cow that’s in low body condition score is put on once-a-day (OAD) milking and will remain on it until they are bred. We continue to monitor condition score between the end of March and breeding and put cows on OAD if necessary.

“As a rule, any cow that calves from April 1 on – regardless of body condition – is put on OAD. I feel it gives them another chance to come cycling, as they lose less body condition.”

Heat detection, Kevin added, is the most important job during the month of May. Monitoring the cows is carried out at least five times a day during the first three weeks of the season.

Breeding season checks:
  • 20 minutes before cows leave the paddock in the morning;
  • 20 minutes after breakfast;
  • 20 minutes at lunch time;
  • 20 minutes before cows leave the paddock before evening milking;
  • 20 minutes while locking in the cows after evening milking.

During the first three weeks of the breeding season, two people work in the parlour. Their duties are split between milking, topping up tail paint and drafting cows.

For the second three weeks of the breeding season, vasectomised bulls are introduced to the herd to assist with heat detection. For the final six weeks, five stock bulls are rotated across the herd.

Covering time off

Kevin also discussed how he manages time off, adding: “To cover time off, we guarantee every second weekend milking, so our relief workers know exactly when they are needed.

“By knowing this, if anyone needs to swap weekends, we have plenty of time to give notice. The relief workers give time for holidays and days when we are busy, such as herd testing or vaccinating.”