'It was either once a day milking or get rid of the cows as I couldn't cope anymore'
A Waterford farming family had to rethink their approach to dairying following the loss of a beloved son and brother six years ago
Published 29/07/2015 | 02:30
In April 2009, Michael Wall hit a barrier. He'd just put in another 13 hour day on his own with his herd of 90 spring-calving cows. As he approached his 63rd year, he was dreading having to cope with the workload for the rest of the season.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Three months earlier, the Wall family received the terrible news that their 27-year-old son and brother, Vincent, had tragically drowned in the flooded Tiber while attending a wedding in Rome. He was due to get married three weeks later, had built a house on the farm and was well into a herd expansion plan with his dad on the home place at Colligan, Co Waterford.
Vincent's sister, Gillian, took temporary leave from her job as a vet in Dublin to come home and help her dad out with the intense calving period. By April however, she had to return back to her job in Dublin, and suddenly Michael was facing life on the farm on his own. He knew something had to change.
"I talked to my local Teagasc adviser, Brian Hilliard, and the idea of going once-a-day (OAD) was discussed. It was never something that I'd considered before. I decided to give it a go when I worked out the cost of getting in additional labour to help me. It was that or else get rid of the cows, because I wasn't going to be able to cope, and I suppose in the back of my mind I was hoping that Gillian might come home, so I really didn't want to sell the cows," recalls Michael.
The following week, the cows were switched to OAD milking, and the herd has remained that way ever since.
In the meantime, Gillian left her job in the small animal practice in Bray to return home to the farm with her veterinarian husband, Neil.
"He wasn't from a farming background, and I didn't really know how to drive a tractor or milk cows, so it was all a bit of a trial-by-experiment for us, but seven years later, we wouldn't have it any other way," she says.
The performance of the herd is quite startling, given that it is producing the same amount of milk solids per cow as the Glanbia average.
"In the first year, we dropped from an average of 365kg milk solids (MS) per cow to 280kgMS. And really there was almost 25pc of the herd that just didn't take to the system - they were drying themselves off in August - so we had to cull them out," says Gillian.
In addition, the locals were beginning to worry that one of the top-performing farmers in the area had lost the plot.
"Dad was always doing everything right, measuring grass growth from way back and taking part in profit monitor studies. So when he switched to OAD, the locals really thought that he'd lost his marbles," she laughs.
But by the end of the second year, the average was back up to 342kgMS, and as Gillian recalls, "there was no talk of going back at that stage".
"Last year we milk recorded 400kg of milk solids per cow, and delivered 385kg/cow, but we think that there is scope for this to increase further. The best cow in the herd is doing 550kg per lactation."
Obviously, the cows have adapted well to the new regime, but how have the vets taken to life on the farm?
"We both still work as locums, but with two young children I've reduced my shifts to one day a week. That suits me perfectly, because it allows me keep my hand in, but if I'm honest, I prefer the farming. I think that I would've always had a soft spot for farming, but never thought that I would be the one at home. My dad made it easy for us, since he is a great teacher, and still does all the tractor work for us," says Gillian.
And now that quotas are gone, would they consider switching back to twice-a-day?
"No way. We've a herd now that is tailored to the system. It has taken us five years to get it right, and we've come through the first year or two where you take a financial hit. Plus, we like the opportunity that it gives us to mix farming with off-farm work.
"Neil is a great surgeon, and he gets a real kick out of that, so he wants to keep that up. We still start at 6am to allow us to be back at the house by 8.30am, when kids are getting ready or we need to be heading out to work," she says.
"We used to be asked when we were going to switch 'back', but now that people realise the performance that can be achieved, they're asking that question a lot less."