Dairy: Lessons in achieving a good work-life balance

Edward Hennessy from Paulstown, Co Kilkenny, who has 220 cows and 120 in-calf heifers. The new 24-unit rapid exit Dairymaster milking parlour was built last February 2015. Roger Jones
Edward Hennessy from Paulstown, Co Kilkenny, who has 220 cows and 120 in-calf heifers. The new 24-unit rapid exit Dairymaster milking parlour was built last February 2015. Roger Jones
Joe Kelleher

Joe Kelleher

Over 200 farmers attended a farm walk earlier this month on the farm of Fiachra and Aidan Liston in Croom, Co Limerick.

This father and son partnership have grown their dairy herd from 130 cows in 2007 to 253 cows in 2015, but what is most impressive is the way in which they have handled the extra labour requirement. The event was organised jointly by Teagasc and Kerry Agri-business.

Herd sizes have been creeping up on many farms over the past few years and this inevitably leads to increased labour demands. More cows mean more work. How this extra work is handled varies considerably between farms.

Many farmers attempt to take on all this extra work themselves which leads to longer working days, which in turn puts pressure on one's personal life. Achieving the correct work life balance is something many farmers struggle to achieve, but not so in the Listons case.

In 2011 and 2012 the Listons had employed a person through the local Farm Relief Service (FRS) to do the evening milkings. In spring 2013, Aidan had a hip replacement operation which put him out of action for the entire spring, and Pat, the FRS man who had been doing the evening milkings was employed on a full-time basis, through the FRS. This, to many, may seem as an unusual step. Why not employ someone directly?

Fiachra explained that employing Pat through the FRS has numerous advantages including no paperwork such as payslips, employee income tax, PRSI returns etc. And there is the added benefit that if Pat gets injured or sick, the FRS will source a suitable replacement.

Everyone on Liston farm knows exactly what their role is, and this is especially important in the spring time when the workload is at its peak. Fiachra looks after all the night calvings in the spring and then milks the cows in the morning after which he then hits the bed. Pat then looks after the day calvings, feeding and bedding. Aidan looks after the calf rearing at grass and completes all the office work.

In spring 2013, when Aidan was out of action, Fiachra's wife and Aidan's wife, both called Mary, took on the responsibility for the calf rearing, emphasising the true family spirit at the centre of this farm.

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Cows are milked once a day in February. This practice started in 2013 out of necessity, but is now a practice that will be continued on indefinitely due to the massive labour saving and lifestyle benefits that it delivers. Cows are milked twice a day from early March onwards. Pat does all the evening milkings with Fiachra and Aidan rotating the morning milkings.

Pat Clarke, Teagasc, Athenry has carried out considerable on-farm research over the past few years on labour efficiency. The single factor that impacts most on hours worked on Irish dairy farms is the start time of evening milking.

The most labour efficient farmers start the evening milking earlier and at the same time every evening. The Listons are no different. Evening milking commences at 4pm (from March onwards) and all work is finished by 6.30pm.

The Listons operate a very simple system that is founded on the principles of good facilities, excellent herd health and a meticulous attention to detail. All facilities are developed with aim of one man being able to handle 250 cows. The cow drafting and handling facilities are particularly impressive. Fiachra emphasised on the day the importance of good cow health and genetics to keeping the system simple and minimising work.

The six week calving rate on this farm in 2015 was 89pc, with 240 cows out of a possible 270 calving down in this period. This is a result of the hard work put in by the Listons the previous spring and is even more impressive when you realise that there was no stock bull on the farm last year.

It was clear to all on the day that was an exceptionally well run farm in an extremely efficient manner. There were dozens of messages for the audience on how to simplify their system and reduce labour requirements. This is a good time of year for getting your system ready for next spring.

Key questions

Are you labour efficient? A good way to find out is by answering the following 10 questions.  A labour efficient farmer will answer yes to more than half of the questions;

Do you feed your calves once a day (from three weeks of age)?

Do you feed your cows at night (to increase the amount of day time calving)?

Do you milk your cows once-a-day from calving to mid-March?

Do you get outside assistance for calving season?

Do you get outside assistance for breeding season?

Do you get a technician to do your AI?

Do you get a contractor to spread your fertiliser?

Do you get a contractor to spread your slurry?

Do you milk your cows on a 16 hour: 8 hour interval for the main milking season?

Do you have a milking unit for every seven cows in your herd (calculate as peak cow numbers/no of units)?

Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc dairy advisor in Newcastle West, Co Limerick. joe.kelleher@teagasc.ie

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