Farm Ireland

Sunday 20 January 2019

Building resilience - how streamlined work practices and contract rearing can insulate dairy farmers from milk price volatility


Teagasc advisor Donal Patton speaking at the Ballyhaise Agricultural College Open Day. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Teagasc advisor Donal Patton speaking at the Ballyhaise Agricultural College Open Day. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

"If you're not changing, you're standing still and eventually going backwards." This philosophy is what drove dairy farmer Patrick Traynor's decision 10 years ago to expand his dairy herd.

Based in Corduff, Co Monaghan with his wife Mairead and four-month old daughter Siomha, Patrick originally started with 50 acres but over the years he has bought 30 acres to facilitate expanding the herd. He has also leased and swapped land to increase the milking platform.

Patrick is now milking 130 crossbred Holstein and Jersey cows in a spring calving system.

The reasons he was eager to expand were linked to wanting a better lifestyle and he admits that the changes he made to his farm were gradual.

"I did it as opportunities arose; 30 cows would've been average enough at the time but now that's quite small. I did it because I wanted a better lifestyle and wanted to be able to come to a point where I would be able to afford help and it wouldn't be a one-man job," says Patrick.

His milking operation is certainly no longer a "one-man job". Every spring a student from the nearby Ballyhaise Agricultural College in Co Cavan works on his farm during calving time, and he also gets help from his nephew and brother.

The biggest outside help comes from his contract rearer for heifers.

"The contract rearing is brilliant and saves me time. I'm not thinking of all the things I have to do. Instead I can focus on grass management and milking the cows," he says.

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Patrick hopes to have a grass growth rate of 15 tonnes per hectare over the next five years and plans to achieve it by focusing more on soil fertility.

"We're getting there slowly. It's about improving and building on what you've got all the time and using better fertilisers," he says.

Patrick has recently built a 20-unit milking parlour, and like all dairy farmers he has to deal with milk price volatility.

With all this in mind, the Monaghan man believes that proper financial management is key to farm survival

"I don't like to be cash stretched so I'm lucky enough that I haven't been in much debt. When it comes to milk price you just have to get on with it and try and remain in a low level of debt.


"You need to be conscious of the bad times during the good times and cushion yourself for the future," explains Patrick.

While the building of the new parlour faced setbacks such as Storm Ophelia and Storm Emma, Patrick aims that the new milking parlour will save him two hours each day and that it will further increase labour efficiency on the farm.

He also urged any young farmer out there to get as much experience as possible farming in different locations before running their own farm as it's something he would've liked to have done more of.

"Young farmers should get away from home and see different ways of doing things and get as much experience as possible. It's something I didn't do as my father became ill and I had to take over when I was quite young.

"It's not only good for your development as a farmer but as an individual," he adds.

It's clear that Patrick is what Teagasc research officer Laurence Shalloo calls a resilient dairy farmer.

Speaking at a recent dairy day in Ballyhaise Agricultural College, Laurence said: "A resilient dairy business will achieve high farm profitability per hectare on average while also minimising the impact of low milk prices.

"There also needs to be an emphasis on producing high-quality milk without adverse impact on the welfare of animals or the environment."

He added: "Increasing labour efficiency by operating more streamlined work practices, using contractors and contract rearing of heifers will have a major impact on reducing requirements and costs and will ultimately improve the efficiency of the overall business."

If you want to be a resilient farmer you should be aiming for a net profit of €2,500/ha, and this can be achieved by maximising grass performance and matching the feed available on farm with demand by operating the appropriate stocking rate.

"Realistically, setting a net profit target of €2,500/ha and achieving that target is based on significant attention to detail across all of the components of the farm business.

"However, the rewards are huge and place the business in a very positive position when dealing with milk price volatility as well as realising returns from the business on or off farm," said Laurence.

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