Why this Co. Cork farmer will not return to twice-a-day milking

Farming in west Co. Cork, six miles outside Clonakilty, Declan and Louise White and their four children (aged 11-17) milk a herd of 250 cows once-a-day (OAD).

Heading into their seventh season, Declan outlined – to the large number of farmers who attended the Teagasc OAD milking conference in Co. Tipperary earlier this week – his journey when the decision was made to switch to twice-a-day (TAD) milking.

The farm stretches across 117ha; 85ha of which encompasses the milking platform. Two outside silage blocks are located 1.5 miles from the milking platform. These are also grazed during the shoulders of the year.

In addition, 7ha of fodder beet is grown on the grazing platform and this is also grazed at the shoulders of the year by the cows.

Declan also employees half a labour unit on the farm – Denis, who Declan speaks very highly of.

Denis has worked on the White’s farm for eight years and is an essential ‘cog on the wheel’. He works on the farm until lunchtime everyday and all two-man jobs are carried out before this time.

Occasionally, Denis works longer due to the heavy workload at certain times of the year.

Why OAD and cow type?

In 2012, with an eye on April 1, 2015, Declan was in expansion mode; however, he admitted that this was at an accelerated rate.

“There was only one reason that OAD milking came into our heads and that was superlevy.”

In September 2012, after learning how little quota was available until quota abolishment, the decision was made not to milk the cows that evening. Declan has not looked back since.

Declan’s herd consists of cross-bred cows and prefers a “low-maintenance cow that will calve to grass, with a high-fertility rate and one that will look after herself over the course of the year”.

The plan of attack for 2019 is to milk 250 cows, carry 60 replacement heifers and rear 100 replacement heifer calves putting 30-40 of these calves on the market after their first summer.

2019 stock:
  • 250 cows;
  • 60 replacement heifers;
  • 100 replacement heifer calves.

Why continue OAD milking?

The White’s milking platform is divided into two blocks; 45ha are located around the parlour within the road network, while 40ha can only be accessed by walking the cows 800m on a public road.

“It’s not ideal, but it is what we were given to work with,” he explained.

However, between Declan and Denis working together, the cows are only on the road for 12-13 minutes and measures are put in place to accommodate neighbours and the local school bus; the road is cleaned when needs be.

Declan explained: “Going back to 2012, OAD was always seen as a temporary measure and we had planned to go back to TAD on April 1, 2015.

But, in the intervening years, we discovered that it really did suit our farm. Our cows were now able to graze paddocks up to 3km away.

OAD milking also allowed Declan to double his grazing platform, stating: “In west Cork, you take every opportunity to take land; land is as scarce as hens’ teeth.”

Declan also highlighted that OAD milking helps lower labour costs.

“It also frees up time to manage our day and concentrate on keeping things simple, which I think is one of the core things to making OAD work; it was made for simplistic dairy farming.

“We can concentrate on grassland management, ensuring good-quality grass is in front of the cows at all times. They get fresh grass when they need it after hitting their residuals, not so much after every milking; they get it when they have their work done in that paddock.

“And, one of the big bonuses is that it gives us a better work-life balance which is self explanatory,” he added.

A bump on the road

However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Last year, the farm experienced a problem with cell count.

Declan, quite honestly, said: “In an effort to reduce costs, we used an inferior dry cow tube and paid dearly for it in 2018, where our cell count has come in over 260,000.

“It’s not ideal. It’s the fly in the ointment at the moment. We have moved to a better-quality tube and improved facilities. Hopefully, things will improve from here on in.”

The calving interval stands at 365 days and 90% of the cows will calve in the first six weeks and – from calving – will be turned out to grass full-time, just coming in at night if weather conditions deteriorate.

Cost of production

Commenting on 2018, he said: “In the past year, 850kg of concentrates were fed per cow, but normally we aim for under 200kg.

In 2017, there was €20/cow spent on purchased feed, which gave us a cost of production of €2.39/kg of milk.

“In 2018, our average milk price was 44.2c/L, while the average co-op price was 37.5c/L. Since we have started milking OAD, we have always had a margin of at least 7c/L over the creamery average,” he added.

The future

Touching on the future, Declan said: “Going forward, the number one point for us is to continue to keep it simple. We will maintain current numbers, focus on soil fertility and continue to improve herd genetics using better suited OAD bulls.

“With the investment we have made in the past year, we will be able to put all cows up in cubicles. Hopefully, we will be being able to milk on until December 1, which will improve average milk solids/cow.

“OAD milking has transformed our lives and it has been a perfect fit for our farm,” he concluded.