Breaking the 1,000 cow barrier
Dairy pioneer Tom Browne will reach another first this spring when he calves down over 1,000 cows
Published 27/01/2016 | 02:30
It's a milestone for the Irish dairy industry, and the culmination of a lifetime's work and dreams. This spring Tom Browne's visions have come true as he calves down 1,046 cows on his Greenhills farm in east Cork. "In a way it just creeps up on you," laughs the ever-genial Tom.
"Some 15 years ago when we first installed a 60 unit rotary parlour we were milking 300 cows. That moved to 500, then 600, and 700, and last year we milked 880. But it has always been dependent on getting more land, and we were lucky last autumn to lease another 100ac. That opened the way for us to get to the 1,000 cow mark," he explains.
Ironically, the set-up looks much like any other 200-300 cow operation when you pull into the yard on an exposed ridge of dry land between Youghal and Tallow on the Cork-Waterford border. And before you are let near the sheds, the Browne's innate hospitality has one ensconced in their modest kitchen, cup of tea in hand.
A multi-camera screen hangs over the kitchen table, complete with 16 different camera angles ranging from the milking parlour to the 300 cubicle cow-sheds and straw-bedded calving pens.
"It's partly to keep an eye on things, and partly for a bit of security around the place too," volunteers Tom's son, Simon Browne.
The 32-year-old was relatively a late-comer to the farm, having first trained and worked for three years as an accountant with Cork-based firm FDC.
"I was just one exam short of being fully qualified, but when dad started talking about selling the business, I decided that I had to give it a go. It was only when I started here fulltime that I realised how much happier I was being out of the office," says Simon.
With his book-keeping background, you would be forgiven for thinking that Simon would spend most of his time in the office, looking after the administration of such a large operation.
But the opposite is the case, with the youngest of the Browne boys avoiding the indoors for the majority of the working week.
The operation appears to be highly efficient. Profit monitor costs are around 20c/l, and with just seven full-time staff, including Browne Snr and Jnr, it means that there are close to 150 cows per labour unit.
Tom has no doubts that the 60 unit Dairymaster rotary parlour was the right choice for herd when it was installed in 2001. Yet, it still takes 18 man-hours per day to milk the cows.
"It took about three hours to milk the 880 cows last year, and that was with three lads. One guy is cupping, another is bringing the cows in, and another is making sure that they get away ok. But it'll be closer to 3.5hrs with the 1,000 cows," admits Simon.
The herd is 100pc spring calving, with 74pc due to calve within six weeks. This is an average of more than 18 cows a day, but Tom says that up to 50 can calve per day when they are at full tilt.
"We will have a person watching and dealing with calving cows 24 hours a day from now on - it's the only way to deal with the volumes," he says.
Average EBI is €143, and the herd is averaging 6,200 litres per cow on 600kg of meal, which translates into an impressive 494kg of milk solids.
"We're going to wait for another two or three years to see where crossbreeding will be," says Tom. "I've been reluctant to go down the route, because it takes a long time to get back to where you started if you ever decide that cross-breeding isn't for you. I also think that most of the fertility problems that existed in the Friesian breed have been bred out again."
Simon chips in. "I'd also be wary of results comparing the average performance of crossbred cows, because they tend to be in the better managed herds, which is compared to the national average."
The cows were all housed when I visited two weeks ago, but everything both inside and outside the sheds was neat and tidy.
I realised part of the reason why the yard layout appears so compact is that one shed is literally built into a rock wall on the side of a hill.
It is only when you get outside to the milking platform that you start to get a sense of the scale of the operation.
The 6m wide laneway stretches off to the horizon, while a 10t excavator rumbles away in one of the paddocks.
"We're trying out covering the laneways with cheap woodchip. We did a section last year and you could actually see the cows move faster over it. With the furthest paddocks 1.8km away, lameness is one of the biggest challenges that we are facing," explains Simon.
This is despite the fact that the Brownes already have some flexibility built into their system to accommodate their lame or sick cows.
"We'll run three separate mobs this year, with 400 in two along with another of about 200. That's where any cow with issues goes, and they'll tend to walk shorter distances. The 400 limit on the other groups is purely a function of the size of the collecting yard at the parlour," he adds.
The stocking rate on the milking platform is high at 3.8cows/ha, but the entire 1,200ac being farmed is also small relative to the 1,046 cows being milked.
"We have travelled up to 15 miles away to get land, and ended up putting it into maize silage just to minimise the travel to and from it," says Simon.
Out behind the cow sheds are towering pits of silage and chopped straw.
"Yeah, we pitted about 80ac of straw this year, harvested the exact same way as the grass, with a double-chop. We feed a lot of straw here every year - up to 5kg/hd for cows that are over conditioned.
"It's just mixed with silage and dry-cow minerals and fed out with a diet feeder.
"We also bring a little meal into the diet just before they calve to ease the transition over," says Simon.
Even though the silage quality tested well at 71DMD and 15pc protein, the Brownes found that the cows haven't taken to it as well as silages of similar quality in previous years.
Were they tempted to milk on last autumn with the quotas gone for the first time in a generation?
"Yes and no. We would only have had 50-100 cows milking on, so it was hardly worth it. Plus, it's important for us to stop to give everybody a break and time to socialise," says Tom.
One of the biggest challenges for staff is getting used to the numbers.
"There's bad days on every farm, but a bad day here can be like a young fella's worst nightmare," says Tom.
"But it's all down to the numbers. If a 100 cow herd loses two or three cows every year with downers and so on, that's going to be 20 or 30 here.
"You've just got to be able to handle the fact that every mistake and misfortune is going to be amplified."
How Tom Browne built up his herd
Many readers will be wondering how an Irish farmer that sold his quota in the 1980s is preparing to calve over 1,000 cows this spring, less than a year after quotas have ended.
"We were actually milking 200 cows when the quotas came in 1983, but I decided to get out of milking cows shortly afterwards because I felt there would be more scope for growth in the arable sector where we were already active," explains Tom Browne.
"But when the Mulder case was taken and won in Europe, I took the opportunity to get back into cows.
"That was in the early 1990s, and we started back with 150 cows. But at the same time I was farming a big acreage of tillage and beet through rented land.
"I got two other lucky breaks under the EU's CAP regime. The first was the compensation that was paid to farmers when the sugar beet industry was closed down. I was lucky enough to be able to plough that money into a profitable dairy system.
"The stacking of the payments also allowed me to pull back on the amount of rented land that I was forking out for, and making very little on. Instead, I was able to concentrate my efforts and money on building up the dairy enterprise here.
"Throughout all those years I bought and leased quota whenever I could. I suppose it all mounts up over time."