'The bottom line is that we have been living with constraints for the last 30 years'
Henry Walsh has increased his milk output four-fold by utilising rented land and switching to a spring calving system
Published 05/08/2015 | 02:30
The key resources for Henry Walsh's expansion from 250,000 litres to 1.2 million litres of milk all lay beneath his feet.
The Oranmore farmer has a genuine "major aversion" to spending capital on building housing infrastructure or hundreds of thousands of euro on state-of-the-art milking parlours as he feels the true potential lies in the soil and the cows.
"The one note of caution I would urge is that when you sit at your kitchen table every day the bank manager gets fed first," Henry says on bank borrowings.
"Never forget that when it comes to debt don't overreach in a start-up situation. I think on a low milk price I genuinely would be urging caution to start-ups - I think there is wonderful potential but don't let it become another Celtic Tiger of debt," he told hundreds of farmers gathered in his pristine stone-walled fields just a mile from the Galway coast.
From milking 50 cows with 230,000 litre of quota in 1996 to 280 cows next year, Henry says every step of his expansion to 144ha, including 90ha of rented land, was taken slowly and carefully with all decisions debated with his wife Patricia and the key team at the kitchen table.
"We've never expanded with the buildings or the milking parlour. We've always expanded with the cows," he says.
Yet, Paul Crosson from the Irish Grassland Association, which staged the recent tour of Henry's farm with the support of AIB, says there are many factors that make both Henry, and Noel O'Toole from Killimor, Ballinasloe, stand out among the top dairy farmers in the country.
Henry's high levels of €918 profit for every cow and €2,548/ha of the milking platform are delivered by a combination of a six-week calving rate in the region of 85pc and ensuring that cows are immediately out to grass to produce as much milk from lower cost grazing as possible.
"It wasn't a grand plan - we tapped into an awful lot of people along the way," he says, adding advice from Bryony Fitzgerald to Teagasc advisers Tom Murphy and Pat Clarke to neighbours and the farm team. The team includes his wife Patricia, engineer son Aidan and Enda, who is in his final year in Dairy Business at UCD, John Moran and young students Eoin Douglas and Darragh Keane.
"At the moment we're milking 15 lines of cows, which is unacceptable to a lot of people. Next year we're going to milk 18 lines of cows through that parlour. That's the level I'm going to go to before I decide to spend money," he says, with roadways for cows and soil fertility his idea of "real infrastructure".
It was with the advice of Bryony who encouraged him to reduce costs by extending the grazing season that saw them convert from milking 365 days a year to a spring calving system in 2002.
They had a quota of over 5,000l/ha but have trebled their productivity from the milking platform to now deliver 15,000l/ha of much higher solids milk.
"Ultimately I haven't a doubt in the world that we're making more money here per cow per hectare at spring calving milk production with less work and more time off," he says.
It was while visiting 1,000 cow farms on a family holiday to Australia in 2003 that he realised that if he could get someone else to milk once a day, it would open up the possibility of milking more than the recommended six lines.
"Suddenly, I wasn't seeing the milking parlour as a constraint either," he says.
In 2008, they built a 4.2 million litre lagoon with farm grants that set them up with slurry capacity for expansion.
Neighbour John Moran, who carries out the morning milking, has also made his 26ha farm available and manages the overwintering of the cows. The purpose of the outfarms are for rearing youngstock to in-calf heifers and extended grazing.
John says the key to keeping the in-calf heifers out until December 31 was adequate grass covers combined with feeding bales in dry weather and moving them on in wet weather in 24-hour blocks to avoid ground damage.
Henry says they started with Holsteins and began to introduce New Zealand genetics with Jerseys in the '90s. In 2004 they joined the Norwegian Red Teagasc trial as there was an attitude in the west "that it was Moorepark, they can do it down there it is Cork, but we can't do it".
"We are looking to breed a cow that fits the system and my focus is actually on 75pc Friesian and 25pc Jersey," he says, adding he is trusting the research from Moorepark that the cross was €70 more profitable per annum.
He says they now believe the farm could increase profit by €36,000 and is capable of feeding 280 cows producing 450kg/MS per annum at a stocking rate of 3.5LU/ha but profits will based on grass grown and consumed, combined with the maximum possible days at grass.
"Going forward the target is to milk the cows on the milking platform with the cows on grass for 290 days," he says, with 500kg/meal per cow by 2016.
"I'm very happy with my proteins at 3.74pc which they've been for the last few years but I believe that this year we're going to have a right crack at 3.90pc," he says.
"The bottom line is we've been breeding for protein percentage, it is not just an aspiration."
"Maybe it is coming down to three things, the genetics, the tetraploid grasses and the cows are well fed."
The limestone lands deliver optimum 6.5 pH levels, with careful attention paid to phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and sulphur levels, with nitrogen applied in 20 units to match demand with the farm blanket-spread every three weeks in summer.
The farm is 60pc grazed by the end of October with the last 40pc spread out as long as possible into December when they're housed.
Milk sales have averaged over the last five years at €4.86/kg milk solids (MS), with total costs at about €2.75/kgMS.
Henry says they dried off the herd very early last year due to the superlevy and this year after calving 250 cows had to milk once-a-day until March 26.
"The bottom line is we've been living with constraints for the last 30 years. We're going to be working in a lower milk price environment with more challenges but lets not forget we've had one hand tied behind our backs," he says.