‘George goes dairy farming’: 1 couple; 2 farms; 3 kids; and 750 cows

‘George Goes Dairy Farming’ series 2 is now back to your screens. In this episode, George Beattie meets up with Pat and Elaine Hickey.

The husband and wife team milk 750 spring-calving cows at two locations: their home farm on the Longford/Westmeath border; and a second unit in Co. Roscommon.

George Beattie

The ongoing series of videos, produced by AgriLand with the support of AgriNet, has provided unique insights into the management practices adopted by milk producers across the entire gamut of dairy farming business models implemented in Ireland.

All have been widely recognised for their focus on the clear communication of new thinking within the dairy sector and their role in providing ‘peer learning’ opportunities for all Irish dairy farmers. The latest production is a further, invaluable reference point for anyone with an interest in modern milk production systems.

Hickey dairy farm on Longford/Westmeath border

Pat and Elaine set up what was their then new business in 2005. Both hail from Co. Kilkenny with each having a strong family background in dairy farming.

“At home, the emphasis had been very much on calving cows over a three-month period in the early part of the year, producing as much milk as possible from grass and finishing all the calves not required for breeding as beef,” Pat explained.

“Where Elaine was concerned, the family farm was very much focused on the production of winter milk and show Holsteins. It’s an approach to milk production that entails a lot of work the year round.”

Elaine added: “We are now committed to calving the cows in the spring and maximising milk output from grazed grass. We try to be as flexible as possible. But, fundamentally, it is a very simple system to operate.

But it still comes as a surprise to me that it is possible to make a living by producing milk in such a straightforward manner.

Pat explained that he had been milking in partnership with his brother in Kilkenny during 2003 and 2004.

The Hickeys milk 750 cows at two locations

“Elaine and I wanted to start up a dairy farming business of our own, but we knew that quota availability would be a problem in Kilkenny,” he said.

“The farm we are now on came on to the market in 2005. There was also a fairly decent quota allocation with it.

“It was then a case of approaching the bank to get the additional finance we needed and making an offer. The farm was purchased at auction.”

Herd Profile

The Hickey herd comprises 750 cows, located on two farms. The average production per cow in 2019 was 476kg of milk solids. The current calving interval is 376 while the six-week calving rate for 2020 was 83%. The current Economic Breeding Index (EBI) value across the herd is €146.

“We are working with crossbred cows,” Pat confirmed.

“In the past we had used a lot of New Zealand Jersey bulls in the herd. These were selected using that country’s BW [Breeding Worth] breeding index.

We have used a lot of genomic bulls on the cows. One particular bull YAD was very successful. At the present time we are using a 50:50 mix of genomic and daughter proven bulls.

“We are breeding the cows that best meet the systems we want to follow. But it takes time to do this and to get it right.”

It’s all about the data

Pat and Elaine were asked the question: How challenging is it to manage such a large herd across two farms? They pointed to two fundamental requirements: good communications systems; and reliable staff.

“We use the AgriNet HerdApp system to deliver real time information on what’s happening across the two farms,” Pat explained.

“This includes all calf registrations, the detailing of all animal movements and recording of all drug usage. It is also invaluable when it comes to recording all heat detections and managing all aspects of herd fertility.

Having good staff is also critically important. We have a tremendous group working in Roscommon at the present time. I receive information relating to all milk lifts directly.

Pat confirmed that AgriNet HerdApp is of particular value when it comes to managing the stock in Roscommon.

“A case in point is calf registrations. All newborn calves are tagged and the details added to the ICBF [Irish Cattle Breeding Federation] notebook by the team in Roscommon. The mothers are tagged and a photo of each taken. The information on new calves born into both herds can then be uploaded onto the [AgriNet] HerdApp system,” Pat said.

This is the first year that we have used [AgriNet] HerdApp to register calves and it has worked very well for us. We move a lot of stock from one herd to the other on a pretty regular basis. But, again, [AgriNet] HerdApp allows us to confirm these movements very quickly.

Simplicity

Pat and Elaine believe that the principles of flexibility and simplicity are interchangeable, when it comes to the management for their business.

“Yes we want to get as much milk from grazed grass,” Pat explained.

“But we don’t follow the Teagasc blueprint to the last letter. If we believe that it makes more sense to keep cows in for a few hours during the grazing season, then we will do it.

“We have gone down the high EBI road. We are very conscious of our six-week calving rate, so a lot of effort goes into heat detection.”

Elaine particularly values the months of December and January when the cows – for the most part – are not being milked.

“Again, this comes back to the simplicity of the system we operate,” she said.

Family is so important

Elaine also values the opportunity presented by the farm to allow all the members of the family, particularly the children, to make an active contribution.

We enjoy what we are doing. And it’s great that we can involve the children.

Pat added: “There is a lot of positivity concerning dairy at the present time. It’s a very exciting industry to be involved with. Every day is different, but, we are enjoying it.”

Farming is a family affair for the Hickeys

Learn more

For more information AgriNet HerdApp, just click here

Additionally, for more information on Progressive Genetics, just click here

Catch up on all the episodes of series 1 here:

Part 1: ‘George goes dairy farming’: ‘We’ll go another row and see how we go; the land is there’
Part 2: ‘George goes dairy farming’: Using 50% Belgian Blue genetics in Co. Meath
Part 3: ‘George goes dairy farming’: Attention turns to breeding in Co. Meath and Co. Wexford
Part 4: ‘George goes dairy farming’: The right number of cows for the system in Co. Wexford
Part 5: ‘George goes dairy farming’: Calving down 200 cows in just 4 weeks in Co. Wexford
Part 6: ‘George goes dairy farming’: Tagging calves and a date with a spring-calving Meath farmer
Part 7: ‘George goes dairy farming’: Which system works best and why?