In this week’s Dairy FocusAgriland made the trip to the ‘wee’ county to meet Niall Matthews, chair of Lakeland Dairies, on his dairy farm in the townland of Tully.

The Co. Louth man was recently appointed chair of Lakeland Dairies Co-operative Society Ltd, having been a board member since 2017.

He is currently milking 220 mainly Holstein Friesian-type cows in partnership with his wife Juana and one full-time staff member.

Páidi Deery started on the farm just a few weeks ago and before that Conor Russell had been working on the farm for several years.

History and background

Speaking to Niall about his background and some of the history of the farm, he said: ”I took over the farm from my parents Mary and Gerry and it goes back another couple of generations before them. They continue to keep an interest in the farm even though they are not directly involved.

”When my parents managed the farm, there [were] about 90ac in total and they were milking between 30 and 40 cows. At that time the herd was mainly made up of British Friesian-type cows.

”AI was always used to breed replacements for the farm so there was always a good base cow to work from.

”I finished school in the early 1990s and went to University College Dublin (UCD) to do a degree in agricultural science; while in college I was always doing a bit at home.

”Two adjoining blocks of land were purchased in the early 1990s and with quotas restricting cow numbers, my parents operated a mixed farm with dairy, beef and a small bit of tillage.

”I finished college in 1998 and got a job working for Patton Feeds in Monaghan. In 2000 I joined Teagasc in Meath and later moved to Monaghan.

”I continue to be involved with the farm the whole time, you could say – while my parents were winding down, I was winding up. We had slowly been building cow numbers, but continued to be limited by quota.

”I got married in 2006 to Juana and continued to work with Teagasc until 2013 when I decided to work full-time on the farm, where cow numbers were up at 100-120 cows at the time.”

Production system

Speaking to Niall about the system of production currently being operated on the farm, he stated: ”We are operating a spring calving system, with calving starting in early February finishing in late April.

”We are currently milking 220 cows on a grass-based system with cows getting out to grass this year on February 20; since then, cows have only missed five grazings.

”Although it has been a cold spring, with below average growth, ground conditions have been good and that’s half the battle,” he added.

”When I took over the farm I increased cows numbers and phased out the tillage, continuing to keep a small bit of beef.

”When quotas were abolished in 2015, we were milking around 160 cows; the last year of the quotas we were hit hard with the super-levy paying €60,000 in fines.

”In 2016, we built a new 24-unit milking parlour, a new cubicle shed and an underpass which have all worked out very well for man and cow.

”The road is quiet but the underpass just makes it much easier where cows can make their own way back to grazing after milking.”

Breeding and production

Talking to Niall about the breeding and current production of the cows, he commented: ”The herd is made up of mainly Holstein Friesian-type cows with a small number of Jersey crossbreds.

”We have moved away from the crossbred cow, with Friesian genetics increasing at a quicker rate than any other breed.

”Economic Breeding Index (EBI) is the main criteria when selecting bulls; we use a big team of genomic bulls – it is not everyone’s cup of tea but has worked well for us.

”Currently the herd is producing 6,700L at 4.4% fat and 3.64% protein achieving 530-540kg of milk solids.

”I am happy with the level of production in terms of litres, with the focus moving forward to increase the percentages.

”I recently looked back at the records from 10 years ago and the litres of milk we were producing then versus now – we are achieving 4-5c/L more because of the better percentages,” he added.

”I would like to continue that momentum for another 10 years, mainly through breeding and better management of the cows. I like to think that we could get to 5% [fat] and 4% [protein] in 10 years time.

”This year we got collars for the cows and this has been useful alongside our usual checks across the herd, including information about heats, health and rumination.

”We keep about 50-60 replacement heifers each year. At 9-10 months of age they go to our contract rearer Brendan – that’s a big help labour-wise – and return at 21-22 months of age in-calf to calf down at 24 months.”

Lakeland Dairies

Niall was recently appointed chair of Lakeland Dairies Co-operative Society Ltd, having been a board member since 2017. Agriland asked Niall about his plans while he is in the role and some of his goals.

”Lakeland Dairies is in a good place – the merger with LacPatrick has worked out well with Lakeland Dairies now benefiting from an economy of scale,” he responded.

”Lakeland is currently in a strong financial position, with a good range of products to offer to the market.

”Milk processing is the main engine of the business and that is where we will primarily be focusing on, adding value to those litres of milk that go through the plant.

”It’s important for us to make continuous progress, whether that is in developing new products/brands or other initiatives, to add value to every litre of milk, which can then be passed back to producers/shareholders.

”A co-op is there to pay as much as they can to the suppliers/shareholders, but it has to be sustainable long-term. There is no point in having one great year.

”Working closely with all board members, we’ll endeavour to build on the great progress of recent years and to optimise or maximise whatever opportunities we identify, whether that is through processing more milk, adding more valued added products or a possible acquisition of an existing business.

”We are keeping our minds open to all options at the moment.”

Future of the farm

Looking to the future of the farm, Niall stated: ”The children are still quite young… it’s hard to tell as of yet if they would have any interest in taking over the farm.

”They will all do their chores, but I would not be pushing them into it; they will have to make their minds up for themselves.

”I would like to see them going to college first and decide what they want to do.

Niall Matthews of Lakeland Dairies

“In the medium term, we are heavily stocked at 3.5 cow/ha. Within that, there is always scope for further improvement like targeting fat of 5% and protein of 4%, while holding existing litres.

”This will take five to 10 years to achieve but will add to milk sales year-on-year, as well as improving fertility and grass utilised.

“All things considered, I think our family farm model is a viable and sustainable one, balancing financial, environmental and lifestyle.”