‘Halved the milking time’: New parlour lives up to billing in Gurteen

Gurteen College’s brand-new milking parlour has more than lived up to expectations so far, college principal Mike Pearson has said.

Speaking to host Claire McCormack on the latest episode of FarmLand, the principal noted that, after a tricky start for cows to adjust, it’s been relatively smooth sailing so far.

Also Read: Pics: New dairy facility unveiled in Gurteen

“The parlour has been open now for a week. The first day was tricky enough trying to get cows to move through a new parlour – but they are creatures of habit, it’s now going smoothly.

“First cluster on, last cluster off took less than an hour the other day so the cows have learned the system, it’s working well.

The new parlour has more that halved milking time and, importantly as well, Arrabawn Co-op came and picked up 12,000L of milk the other day.

Pearson explained that the agricultural college’s old bulk tank had only held 6,000L – meaning Arrabawn is relieved not to have to come every day to collect milk.

Teaching and technology

On the balance between production and education, the principal explained the importance of bringing it back to basic before turning to technology.

He explained: “What we have tried to do with the parlour is put in a parlour that has all sorts of technology there – but initially with students we’ll turn it all off and we’ll teach them to milk a cow.

Because the first step is they have to milk a cow; once they can milk a cow then we will turn the technology on so they can look at yield in class, they can look at levels of butterfat and samples as well.

“We can look at feeding to yield from the parlour, we can look at efficiencies of production within the whole system,” Pearson added, noting that students of the future going out of Gurteen will be able to milk large herds of cows efficiently.

The dairy expansion at the college has not impacted the school’s other enterprises apart from a small reduction on the tillage side, with Gurteen instead focusing on becoming more efficient in dairy, grassland – and labour units.

“In history, Gurteen has 100 or 120 cows but the future of dairy farming is probably two-man units which means 200 cows plus and so we have put in a parlour that initially will cope with 200 or 250 or 300 cows with room for expansion.”

Environment and sustainability

On the topic of sustainability at farm level, Pearson said: “We generate significant amounts of electricity on site from solar PV panels and a wind turbine which produce about 30% or 40% of the electricity needs of the college.

We had horrendous oil bills 10 years ago for heating the college – with all about €100,000 a year – so we invested in biomass boilers; we grow willow and so we have reduced the bill to below €20,000 a year.

For the future, Gurteen is looking into whether anaerobic digestion on local communities and farms can work together to produce electricity and heat within the system.

Every aspect of energy efficiency is being weighed up in terms of saving, the principal added, changing the college lighting to LEDs and ensuring buildings are well insulated to minimise heat loss.

The college also harvests willow, Peason noted: “We have an 80ac field of willow – we planted it nine years ago now – we harvest a third of the field every year so it’s three-year growth for harvesting.

“We dry it and we burn it in woodchip boilers,” he added.

Funding and expansion

Apart from a small TAMs grant from the Government, the college funded the majority of the project itself, with finance secured from AIB bank.

Turning to the question of sustainability in dairy expansion, Pearson was of the view that it is indeed sustainable – so long as it’s marketed well and that farmers are not producing more or less than can be sold

I think it’s up to the marketing people to ensure that they can market Irish milk to the world because we can’t use it all on site on Ireland – and, if they can do that, then dairy expansion is sustainable, yes.

Asked whether more students are interested in dairy, Pearson noted that there has been an increase – but there has also been an increase across all sectors in the college in first year agriculture students.

“Although dairying is very important to the college, we have a big mixed farm and we will continue to teach suckler farmers, sheep farmers, tillage farmers in education as well – because there is place for all of those within Irish agriculture.”

On further developments, the college has plans down the line to build a new classroom attached to the dairy unit, so that dairy students can be taught within the diary complex. However, funding has yet to be secured for any further projects at present.