Infrastructure focus: Going the extra step to improve cow flow and comfort in Co. Wexford

Springtime is the busiest period of the year for dairy farmers. With the calving season in full swing, it can be hard to get time to do other jobs on the farm.

However, last spring, in 2019, Mark McCaughley was in the middle of installing a robotic-milking machine, building a new cubicle shed and laying new roadways around his farm.

On Thursday, February 13, AgriLand paid a visit to Mark to check out his new facilities, in particular his new roadways and grazing block.

The McCaughley family have been farming in Dunbrody, Co. Wexford, for over 40 years. Mark and his father Michael originally kept a flock of over 400 ewes, before switching to sucklers – where they kept over 50 head up to two years ago.

The duo used to grow sugarbeet at a time when there was a big demand for it. However, nowadays, they grow barley alongside their new dairy enterprise.

Speaking to AgriLand, Mark said: “We used to keep ewes for years. However, as time passed by I fell out of love for them and decided to go down the route of suckler cows.

My father and I have always had a huge passion for breeding good-quality stock and because we had the land to go down the route of dairy farming, it just felt right to take that step and go for it in 2018.

“The robot arrived in October 2018 and, to be honest, it was only in May of last year before we actually had everything set up. However, at that stage, all the cows were calved and my grazing system was a bit all over the place.

“Now that everything is in place I can start to focus more on my grassland management and get everything going properly.”

System

Despite converting to dairy, the duo still have a couple of suckler cows and plan to rear and finish all their bull calves from the dairy herd, along with growing malting barley.

Currently, there are 65 milking cows on a grazing block of 22ha, with the grazing platform split up into four sections.

Cows have been out grazing the past two weeks. However, they still have access to silage in the cubicle shed when they come in for milking.

The most impressive aspect of the farm is the roadways leading to the paddocks. A serious amount of time was spent getting the roads right.

The fact that Mark was able to source the majority of the rock from his own farm gave him that extra encouragement to put the extra effort into making what can only be described as the perfect roadways for cow flow and comfort.

Image source - Agriland

Grazing Platform

As mentioned above, the grazing platform is made up of 22ha or just over 52ac. The robotic-milking machine and cubicle shed are located in the middle of the grazing block.

Mark explained the furthest the cows have to walk to the robot is about 0.9km.

The grazing area is split up into four sections, with permanent fencing erected in three of these areas and temporary fencing installed in one of the blocks.

The fact the land had been used for tillage and rearing beef cattle, Mark had to reseed the entire milking platform. However, Mark was able to save a good bit of money as he was able to plough, harrow, level and reseed the ground himself with his own equipment.

He believes he saved €100/ac by doing the work himself instead of hiring a contractor in.

The grazing block is split up into the following sizes:

  • 22ac: permanent fencing;
  • 7ac: permanent fencing;
  • 7ac: permanent fencing;
  • 16ac: temporary fencing.

Sourcing the rock

As previously mentioned, Mark was able to source the entire first layer of rock for the roadways from his own farm – which was made up of shale.

Alan Ryan of Michael and Alan Ryan Construction dug out and dumped all of the rock and laid all the roadways that can be seen on the McCaughely farm.

In total, they spent two weeks laying and levelling all the roadways.

Mark explained: “In fairness to Alan he did a super job. There were two diggers and two tractors and dumpers going flat out for two weeks.

“Alan is a perfectionist and that can be clearly seen when you see the job he did. There were a couple of trees going along the old gravel roads that my father wanted to keep.

“However, Alan said no straight away and explained that if we were to leave the trees where they were it would damage the integrity of the roadways in the long run.”

Image source - Agriland

Roadways

The roadways are made up of three layers. They are quite wide at 4m, which allows ease of access for farm machinery and good cow flow from the yard right across the grazing block.

It is essential to make and maintain a road that has a smooth, fine surface. Rough surfaces with protruding stones, gravel or pebbles lying on the surface are a major lameness factor.

However, Mark won’t have this problem as the roadways are next to or near to being completely flat and consist of a fine coarse layer on the surface for extra comfort.

The bottom layer of the roadway is 300mm deep and consists of shale sourced from the farm itself. The second layer – also known as the ‘2in down’ layer – is 60mm deep, with a binding layer – also known as quarry dust – on the top.

Both the ‘2in down’ stone and the top layer were sourced from Kilcarring Quarries.

All but 80m of the 1,400m worth of roadway on the farm is 360mm deep. The roadway leading from the yard to the 7ac and 16ac blocks is about 0.8m deep.

This is because the land is below the level of the farm buildings. Therefore, this stretch of roadway required extra fill.

After each layer was laid own it was levelled, which is quite uncommon. There was a machine digging out the rock and another digger levelling the road, which allowed for extremely compact and firm roadways to be formed.

Furthermore, the roads are slightly sloped to prevent water from accumulating on the road. Mark praised the work his father did with regards to the drainage work he carried out on the farm over 40 years ago.

Mark explained: “The one thing I didn’t have to go near was the drains. My father dug them out when he inherited the farm from his uncle and to this day they can’t be faulted.”

Water troughs

There are six water troughs across the entirety of the grazing block. The 240-gallon tanks were sourced from Murphy Concrete Products.

The position of the water troughs is quite different from other dairy farms. They are placed along the roadway, instead of in the middle of the paddocks.

Explaining the reason behind this, Mark said: “I have been asked this by a few people why the drinkers are placed beside the road.

The fundamental reason behind this is to encourage the cows to leave the paddock and head down to the robot to get milked.

“If the cows are thirsty, they have no choice but to come towards the roadway and they can drink on their way down to the robot.”

Image source - Agriland

Fencing

As previously mentioned, the grazing platform is split between permanent and temporary fencing. The reason behind Mark’s decision not to install timber stakes across the entire block was because he was unsure whether he would be expanding his dairy herd.

He added: “When we were fencing last year, I was hesitant about driving timber stakes down across the whole farm and I wasn’t sure if I was going to install a second robot.

“So I said to myself I’ll just throw up a temporary fence to get me through the first year and see how it goes.

“After discussing it with my father, we decided towards the end of 2019 we would install a second robot, so the plan is to install timber stakes in the 16ac temporary block this year.”

Image source - Agriland

Furthermore, along the side of the roadway facing the outer boundary of the farm, Mark put down metal stakes, which he says “have been a great job and took no length to put up”.

Mark added: “The timber and metal stakes cost the same but I must say the metal ones surprised me. I didn’t think they would be as good but I’m glad I went ahead and bought them.”

The fencing around the grazing block was erected by Brendan Dunne Fencing, while Mark fenced the outer boundaries of the farm.

Image source - Agriland

Cost

Putting an overall cost on the grazing platform was difficult for Mark to put his finger on.

The fact that he had his own machinery to plough, reseed and level the land, as well as having the majority of the rock he required for the roadways, brought down the cost significantly.

The cost of each job and product is listed (below).

  • The 1,000m of water pipes laid down cost €1,000 (1m cost €1 to install);
  • The six water troughs cost €200 each;
  • To plough, reseed and level the entire grazing platform was €130/ac;
  • The grass seed cost €70/ac;
  • The roadways cost €3/m², with 1,400m of roadway laid down across the entire farm;
  • The cost of erecting the fencing was €1 for every 1m.

Mark added: “I am extremely happy with how everything has turned out. In the space of a couple of months, we completely transformed the farm. The original roadways and fields were in bad nick and needed a lot of work.

“This year, my plan is to focus on my grassland management and make the most of the grass I am growing.

The new roadways have worked out great so far, with no issues of lameness. Moreover, cow flow down to the yard has been great.

“So far I haven’t had to go look for a cow and bring her down to the robot and get her milked. By the end of 2020, I hope to have all the grazing block fenced and a second robot running, with the aim of milking over 130 cows,” Mark concluded.

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