‘New entrants should forget the bling and work hard’

A progressive Co. Westmeath dairy farmer said anyone considering milking cows should keep costs low and do the simple things well.

Over two farms, Gerry and Mairead Fallon are milking some 275 cows having started off milking 60 on one farm 15 years ago. The Fallons have grown steadily incorporating a second farm in that time to stand where they are now.

Speaking at a Lakeland Dairies new entrant dairy skills workshop on his farm this week, Gerry said the key to any successful new start is keeping costs under control.

“We started off with the 60 cows; we did a lot of the building ourselves and added on development in a piecemeal type of way. We had to do it that way to keep the costs down.

Maybe that’s the one thing I see being done a bit differently nowadays. Most new entrants want to go with the huge, big investments on day one – they want the bling. I think it’s important for any new entrant to forget about the bling and work hard at being efficient.

“Going milking cows will cost you more than anyone or any expert tells you. You’ll always be spending and adding on bits and pieces. They key is to put as much milk in the tank as cost effectively as possible,” Gerry said.

When the Fallons started milking in their own right in 2004, Gerry said selecting heifers and cows was “a bit like shooting in the dark”.

“The hardest part of it all back then was sourcing good stock. The EBI [Economic Breeding Index] was really only getting going; it was barely being mentioned. Milk recording was around alright but it wasn’t the done thing either.

“Any man or woman getting into milking now can start off with stock producing the type of solids it took us 10 years to get to,” Gerry said.

“Back when we were starting out, the cows were doing 3.3% or 3.4% protein and 3.6% or 3.7% butterfat. The stock just wasn’t there at the time to choose from. It’s a great head-start for the younger and newer farmers these days.”

And the Fallon’s cow performance is impressive. The cows are currently averaging 4.2% protein and 5.1% butterfat.

Even as we approach November, the cows are still producing 16kg of milk. The cows are getting 3.5kg of meal in the parlour and are still grazing day and night.

For Gerry the housing date is “as far away as possible” with the cows likely to be in by night in the next couple of weeks.

“Grass growth has dropped from 45kg to 27kg after the deluges of rain so the housing date is probably coming on me a bit quicker than I had thought a month ago.”

Fashionable clover

The Fallons bought the first of the farms in 2000. Gerry, originally from Ballybay, Co. Monaghan, had been milking cows as his day job before he took the plunge and bought his own holding.

Between 2000 and 2003, Gerry kept beef cattle before setting up the dairy operating in 2004. He seeded every square inch of the farm in 2004 and began soil testing and reseeding again in 2015.

“We didn’t plough the ground; there are too many stones, so we just ran the Guttler over it and reseeded it that way.

“We used a lot of clover when we reseeded it first,” Gerry explained.

“Back then clover was very fashionable; it went away for a while but it seems to be fashionable again. Apart from the risk of bloat, we have no problem with the clover. It works well and is better for the environment too, they say.”

‘The Friesian genetics have really caught up’

The Fallons are producing impressive solids with relatively little Jersey genetics in the herd.

“We have a few crossbred cows but we wouldn’t be sold on them over all. I think we’d have about 10% to 15% of the herd with Jersey genetics. We put Jersey straws on their heifers alright but that’s about it. We have no particular desire to have a herd of crossbreds,” Gerry said.

On both farms, the Fallons use dairy AI, followed by beef AI with Angus bulls then to mop up anything that isn’t in calf. The breeding season lasts 13 weeks.

“We have always bred for high solids. It’s just that it took us about 10 years to get where we are at today. The bulls back then didn’t have the best performance behind then but they are much better for solids and fertility now.”

The herd is made up of Friesian genetics – British and New Zealand Friesian. Gerry maintains that the breeding in the Friesian has improved dramatically in his time milking. He insists that farmers should not be completely wed to cow type but, rather, the key is having a profitable cow.

“The Friesian genetics have really caught up. The Friesians were very delicate, too, even five years ago. But, again, the breeding and the genetics have greatly improved. We’ve no issues with fertility or sickness with cows in the herd really at all.

“If the animal has the EBI figures for fat, for protein and for fertility, that’s all that matters. The breed is irrelevant if she’s good and she’s looked after.

“At the end of the day, it’s about money in your pockets; it’s not about tearing yourself apart over the colour of the cow. It’s about putting milk in the tank and selling that milk,” Gerry concluded.