Growing a 400-cow unit with work/life balance in mind

Padraig and Ena Collins, along with their three children, are in the midst of growing their dairy business to 400 cows. Farming 181ha on the Tipperary/Kilkenny border, the family shared their growth story at the recent Positive Farmers Conference.

The family’s goal is simple; they want to develop a vibrant and exciting place to work – a place to be surrounded by loving family with integrity, self respect, confidence and self worth.

‘It’s a long road to Tipperary’

Milking on the Co. Tipperary side of the border, Padraig explained how the family ended up farming in Harley Park.

“I was born and raised in Upton, west Cork, on a 31ha mixed farm. It was mainly dairying, but there was also a tillage enterprise. My mother was an enterprising lady and had a turkey hatchery.

“There were lots of small enterprises and everybody seemed to be busy. It was very encouraging and an entrepreneurial kind of environment, where anything was possible.”

At 16, Padraig returned home to work on the family’s farm. At the time, they were milking a herd of 45 Friesian cows.

“In 1979, I left school to stay at home farming. Obviously, we needed a bigger farm and we were looking around Co. Cork. However, the rate of increase that we would have got was small.

“I discovered that you would get twice as much land up the country for the same price that you would sell the farm for in Co. Cork.

I suggested this to my parents and we purchased Harley Park in April 1979. We decided to sell our own farm in September 1979. But, in the mean time, the ‘credit squeeze’ happened and it reduced the number of buyers we had.

“We got a good price for it, but we were short £100,000 at the time. This was back in the days when £100,000 was considered a lot of money.”

On taking on the new farm at the end of April, the Collins family immediately planted 12ha of spring barley, which was under-sown with grass. During the dry period, the herd of 45 cows and 25 in-calf heifers were moved to the new farm.

The challenges

In the spring of 1980, the first of the cows started to calve. Problems with disease and poor-quality grass were quickly identified on the farm.

Padraig explained: “Big problems became apparent in our first spring. The farm was infected with salmonella and we lost 30% of the calves. We hadn’t to deal with this in Co. Cork, as we had no issues with disease.”

Having come from a farm where reseeding was a regular practice, they soon realised that the grass simply wasn’t up to scratch on the Tipperary-based holding.

We didn’t actually realise the consequences of old grass. While the grass looked OK and the cows ate it, milk output was poor. Fat was high enough, but volume was low and, thankfully, protein was not a measure at that time.

Despite these challenges, the Collins family were faced with the greatest challenge of all in 1983. After suffering from an illness, his mother – “the kingpin of the family” – passed away.

“It was a major blow to the family. But, we managed to channel that grief into a stronger resolve to succeed,” he explained.

Around the same time, milk quotas were introduced and these were based on milk production in 1981. This was pretty challenging for the family, as they were growing numbers in the reference year and ended up with a 380,000L quota.

Despite the challenges faced by the family during the 1980s, Padraig married Ena in 1983.

After a lengthy interview process, I married Ena in 1983 and she is the key to the success of our business. We work together and support each other. We have different strengths and that’s absolutely key to our business.

Getting to grips with finances

In the early 1990s, Padraig focused on getting to grips with income and expenditure.

“I started listing out who I was paying cheques to and I discovered that I was paying out money to 68 different people.”

After questioning whether these outlays were really necessary, Padraig realised it was time to eliminate half of these creditors.

“Having a complete understanding of the farm finances has been a corner-stone to the development of our business. This gives us the confidence to take on large financial commitments in the knowledge that the budgets have been completed and are understood.”

Changing the system

During the 1990s, the family had expanded by keeping more drystock and suckler cows. This peaked towards the end of the decade when they had 12 groups of stock.

In 2001, they volunteered to be a focus farm for their local Slieveardagh Discussion Group, which was co-ordinated by Bryony Fitzgerald. This involved transitioning from a multiple-herd farm to a dairy farm, with just cows and replacements.

After comparing the systems, Padraig discovered that the beef enterprises were generating a loss of £40,000/year. Along with reducing the number of groups present on the farm, significant cost savings were also made.

We cut down on labour; feed; fertiliser; and we dropped some of the rented land.

On the back of this, the family found that they had more time available and were able to attribute more time to budgeting.

Grass played a big role in the family’s drive to cut down costs. On this, he said: “We are so grateful to Bryony Fitzgerald for being so patient with us when she tried to teach us about grazing and grass management.”

Continuing, he said: “In 2002, I went on a study-tour to New Zealand and the penny finally dropped. I subsequently joined the Grazing Musketeers.

“This was an opportunity to further develop the grass-budgeting skills that we had learned from Bryony and from my study-tour.”

Further growth

Jumping to 2006, the farm next door (62ha) came up for sale and the family wanted to buy it. However, this was during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era and prices were high and they decided against purchasing.

This parcel was later sold to a local syndicate, who intended to develop the holding as an equestrian enterprise and to make the property available on the market once more.

Padraig explained: “The new owners immediately started making improvements to the farm in the form of new roadways, fencing and general maintenance and turned it into a stud farm.”

The property subsequently came available on the market in 2008 and went unsold at auction. Shortly afterwards, Padraig explained, the crash happened.

We knew the farm was going to be re-sold, so we put a plan in place to prepare for this. We started building stock numbers. To do this, we took on 120ac, without maps, 30km away.

“Three auctioneers and 4.5 years later, we finally made a private deal with the vendors to purchase the entire 62ha farm.

“Since taking over the farm in 2013, we now have 90% of the water, roadways and reseeding complete. In 2014, we took on two leased blocks of 40ha.”

Over the intervening years, the herd has grown organically and 308 cows were milked last year.

2017 key facts:
  • Milked 308 cows in 2017;
  • 50% Friesian and 50% crossbred cows;
  • Six-week calving rate of 86%;
  • Herd EBI of €120;
  • Sold 423kg of milk solids per cow.

“For 2018, we have 375 in-calf cows and we are targeting a 90% six-week calving rate,” Padraig explained.

Cows and infrastructure

In the coming years, the Collins family hope to increase cow numbers up to 400. However, they are now also paying closer attention to genetics.

Mark – Padraig and Ena’s son – explained: “In 2016, we decided, based on milk recording results, to establish a yellow card system for low-output cows relative to their cohorts of the same age and to breed these and their unrecorded daughters to beef bulls.

“However, by the time breeding started, we decided not to serve these cows at all and their daughters were bred to beef bulls.”

On infrastructure, he said: “We were pushing all our infrastructure to the limit and, up until this year, we only had 108 cubicles. The milking parlour is still a 20-unit herringbone parlour, which takes a while to milk 300 cows.

We are currently in the middle of a major capital investment and we are developing the yard to cater for increasing cow numbers.

“We have spent the last number of years out-wintering some of the herd. But, the option for this has reduced with the amount of reseeding that is taking place.

“This year, we started building 414 roofless cubicles. And, in the coming year, we will build a calf house, a silage slab, more slurry storage and a 60-unit rotary parlour.

These infrastructure developments will allow the family to reduce the quantity of time they spend working which each cow per year. It will also serve to significantly reduce the amount of time each cow will spend standing in the collecting yard prior to milking.

A focus on work/life balance

Also speaking at the conference, Ena explained what exactly work/life balance is. She said: “It’s the proper prioritisation between work and lifestyle.

“For us, it’s about being happy about what we are doing. Anthropologists define happiness as having as little separation as possible between your work and your lifestyle.

We do enjoy our work. We find it very rewarding, but also very challenging.

She continued: “Farming is not just our bread and butter; it’s also our lifestyle. It allows us to do what we like – whether that’s on the farm or a leisure activity.

“We are very fortunate to have our three children reared in their own home from when they were born. This meant that they were able to be out on the farm after school and be part of the everyday activities with us. We are always together dosing animals or moving stock.”

Highlighting the benefits, she said: “A friend of mine often tells the story of when she called over to our farm one day and met the five of us walking up the yard in our farm gear laughing and chatting and she wondered what we were all at.

“We had just finished covering the silage pit. I don’t think she could quite understand why – after that job – we were all so cheerful. But, it’s times like this you can have great banter together as a family. This was valuable bonding time for us.

“It’s not just about going with your children to pony clubs, rugby matches or being involved in their extra-curricular activities, which are all very important and we did get to do over the years. If two of us couldn’t go, one of us did.

“To this day, we still go abroad on a family holiday. Our two daughters – Kate and Avril – are planning their work schedules so they can come with us again this year,” she concluded.