Hitting peak performance
A Kerry dairy farmer is proving anything is possible, even at 950 feet above sea-level
Published 27/07/2016 | 02:30
"Every drop of rain that comes into the country seems to come up along those mountains!"
It was half joking, but all in earnest as Conor Creedon took Irish Grassland Association around his farm on the foothills of the majestic Macgillycuddy Reeks.
The recent Zurich Farming Independent Dairy Farmer of the Year finalist has one of the top performing dairy herds despite the 1.95m of rainfall that drenches his farm annually.
Thankfully, it was a blistering day when the Irish Grassland Association brought their summer tour to the farm located between Rathmore and Killarney on the Cork Kerry border.
Indeed, many of the farmers attending were working up a serious sweat as they climbed 1.2km up the 950ft that Creedons milking platform reaches up to.
The views were impressive, but it was the all-round performance of this unit despite the obvious challenges that really took farmers' breaths away.
Predictably, the entire operation revolved around grass, with Conor obsessively walking his fields every five days to gauge growth.
However, the attention to detail has paid off, with the Kerryman succeeding in harvesting 12.5t/ha of drymatter (DM) last year.
This is only achieved with a serious stocking rate on the milking platform, with 1.5 cows per acre - a good 50pc higher than most farmers are achieving.
This is partly a result of the particular type of cow that Creedon has favoured over the last six years.
After going through the financial wringer in 2009, he decided to try to reduce the impact of yo-yoing milk prices by increasing his milk solids. Cue the move to cross the entire herd with Jersey bulls.
"You could say that it was a brave move to go 100pc crossbreeding in 2010, but we had visited a lot of farms and talked a lot to the likes of Frank Buckley in Teagasc, so we weren't going in with our eyes closed. When I averaged 22c/l for my milk in 2009 I just said that it couldn't continue," explained Conor.
"I said the only way to make a difference was to do the whole lot. And I felt that even if we weren't happy after three years that we could always switch again and breed the Jersey out of them fairly quickly."
As it happened, the Creedons have no regrets about the move to crossbreeding. Not only has it helped boost his milk cheque - they are more like the 'invisible cow' that hardcore grazers like to breed.
"You'd turn your back and the cow would be calved, and the calf would have the cow sucked and was away.
"It really halved the work. We're in our second year of milking the crossbred cows, and while there's ones that cause a few problems, when I went back to look at the records, I found that they were all ones with a maintenance index of less than €12," he said.
For this reason Conor is only using breeding bulls that have a minimum maintenance index of €30, which has ruled out most of the high EBI Friesian bulls.
"That's really narrowed down the number of bulls available to me. I want a bull that has high solids and good fertility too.
"But they've got to be able to produce a robust cow that is able to hack climbing up from 350ft to 950ft."
After three years of using Jersey on the herd, Creedon wanted to switch back to a different breed, and flirted with the idea of using Norwegian Reds, but in the end has relied mostly on Kiwi crossbreds.
"We've reached about 40pc Jersey in the genes, and I don't want to go too much higher, so that required a change in genetics this year."
One of the concerns that many have with crossbreeding is what will happen with the much derided Jersey bull calf.
"It was actually one of the things that convinced me to give cross-breeding a go because in 2010 even the Friesian bull calves weren't very exciting. And coming up to the first of the crossbred calvings in 2011, I heard all the scare stories and I was wondering if we'd even get the price of the tag for them.
"But when I started asking around, I ended up getting €20-25/hd for them, and we now have a regular customer for the whole lot of them."
After over 15 years of using Kiwi Friesians, Jerseys and crossbreds, Conor has seen his milk solids and, crucially, his milk cheque get a serious bounce.
"I didn't really believe the data that was coming out of Teagasc claiming that a 100 cow herd would be €18,000 better off.
"But our milk price this year is 5.5c/l higher than the base price. We've effectively raised our milk solids by 1pc to 8.6pc now. The target is to get to 9pc."
Creedon has experienced other benefits from the move away from a pure Friesian herd.
"I haven't lifted a cow's hoof in five years. They get foot-bathed maybe once or twice a week, but that's it.
"Our six week calving rate moved from the mid 80s to the mid 90s now, with an empty rate of 9pc," he said.
One of Conor Creedon’s biggest bugbears is nitrates directives.
The amount of phosphorus that he can apply annually barely matches the rate that the nutrient leaves in his soils.
“It’s a problem that affects the very top-end of producers who are extremely intensive in terms of their grass output and utilisation,” explains local Teagasc dairy advisor, Ger Courtney.
He estimates that farmers producing 14t/ha of grass drymatter have an annual phosphorus requirement of 30kg/ha.
However, nitrate regulations limit the typical phosphorus application to 15kg/ha for soils that are index 3. Even soils that are rated index 2 are limited to 25kg/ha, preventing farmers like Conor from ever getting their fields into optimum fertility status.
Despite an intensive fertiliser regime, he has seen his phosphorus indexes fall on the farm to the point where less than half of his land is as the optimum index 3. Five years ago 58pc of his farm was at index 3.
“I need to have my soils at index 3 to maximise the potential of what I’m doing,” said Conor. “But not only that, I need them to be high index three so ensure that I’m getting maximum grass growth on the shoulders during the spring and autumn.
“So not only do we need higher allowances, we also need an acknowledgement by the people that set the rules that a low index 3 soil will not produce as much grass as a high index 3 soil. We really need a three-way sub-division in index three to allow this to happen. But the research is all pointing this way, so we need the science to be put in front of the politicians so that they can make a case to the powers that be in Brussels.”
Grazing ‘to the board’
It’s one thing growing a lot of grass, but it’s another to get it properly utilised. Conor Creedon appears to have mastered this with a massive 12.5tDM/ha utilised last year.
Despite being located on what many would consider very marginal soils, Conor manages to average 11 grazings per year, with cows normally out a week later than the likes of the Teagasc herds at Moorepark.
“It’s grazing Kerry-style,” claimed Conor.
“We practice a lot of on-off grazing where the cows are brought back in after 3 hours, and use things like cow passes, which are basically narrow lanes made from sand. On the out farm we would put the heifers in different fields in bunches of three or four until ground conditions improved.
“I treat February as a training month, where we are training the cows how to graze right down. I’m really focused on getting cows to graze to the board because there’s a lot of my land that you cannot every top or mow.
“For this reason I don’t buffer feed any silage if at all possible. I will feed meal up to 4kg/cow per day, but after that I’ll resort to feeding silage because I feel the cow needs to feel like she’s had a good fill at least once every day – she’s never going to have that from a pile of concentrates.
“As we’ve got better at grazing, I’ve become more comfortable with grazing on to the point where we might only have 120kgDM/cow available across the whole farm. Ten years ago we were vary of ever going below 200kgDM/cow.”