Clare family battling the land and the weather to become one of the country’s top dairy farms
'It’s not the growing of the grass that’s the problem, it’s the grazing'
The Bermingham family are battling on two fronts — against the weather and the land to make a living on their farm in picturesque Doonbeg, Co Clare.
According to Danny, the weather is the ‘big big’ influence on the farm and says it was just as much if not more important than the milk price.
However, Danny, who farms with his wife Yvonne, is winning that battle as evidenced by their winning of the Grassland Farmer of the Year Award in the Heavy Soils Category.
The couple have three children and Danny is farming the land he inherited from his late father.
Despite the farm having a mixture of peat soil and clay soils, with poor drainage, it’s also in an area of high rainfall (1,250mm/annum), but since 2011 the herd size has increased from 80 cows to 100+ cows today.
On Danny’s farm, annual days at grass can range from 210 to 245, depending on spring/autumn weather conditions.
“It’s a difficult farm to run,” says Danny. “We only have 3-4 inches of topsoil and then heavy, heavy clay. The heavy soil is a big obstacle and means the weather is a major factor in what we do here.”
The Birmingham farm is split by the Doonbeg river, which Danny explains is another major issue for the farm.
“It broke its banks in March and 30-40 acres were under water,” he says.
The farm sold over 525kg milk solids/cow to Kerry Agribusiness in 2018 or over 1,250kg milk solids/ha from the milking platform.
As with high grass utilisation, good herd genetics has also a role to play in the high performance of the farm. The EBI of this herd is about €153. Compact calving is key to profitability on the Bermingham farm, where they can get high numbers of cows to grass early in the spring, which increases the value of milk sales and reduces feed costs.
Having very good grazing infrastructure in place is essential to maximise the amount of grass eaten on the farm, according to Danny. And over the years a lot of land improvement through heavy investment in drainage and reseeding has taken place, along with considerable investment in farm building infrastructure.
The Bermingham family are farming about 60ha of the land of which about 25pc is leased and in 2018, a stocking rate of 2.2 LU/ha was carried on the whole farm, which had a milking platform stocking rate of 2.4 LU/ha.
This focus on output and profit on this farm is underpinned by high grass utilisation.
400 surplus bales
While highlighting that last year had been an exceptional one for the farm, Danny explains that the 108ac milking block fed 104 cows,drainagecalves and maiden heifers, and also produced 400 surplus bales.
“The farm has no problem with growing grass — it’s the utilisation that’s the problem, especially in the spring,” says Danny. “The spring of 2018 really affected us here more than the summer drought. A lot of meal went in and there were 200 bales bought. Compared to this spring, we still haven’t opened our first cut silage. That’s the difference the weather makes to this farm.”
Danny began measuring grass in 2008 and has continued to do so ever since. “We walk the farm weekly, and twice a week in times of high growth,” he says.
“This information is then entered into the PastureBase Ireland web-based programme. Pre-grazing covers and cover per cow are two key figures we use when making decisions.
“You’re at nothing if you don’t measure grass. It gives you great peace of mind in terms of taking out paddocks,” adds Danny.
He notes that on farms like his there is a need to be opportunistic in making decisions relating to taking out surpluses, harvesting silage etc. and be flexible in taking grazing opportunities as they present themselves.
Danny has invested significant sums in land drainage systems on his farm. Teagasc specialist James O’Loughlin, who worked with Danny on designing the systems, highlights the importance of making sure the system is suited to the soil and site conditions present.
“It’s important to carry out a site investigation as the first step in the drainage design,” says James.
Two types of drainage systems exist and on the Birmingham farm both have been used: a groundwater drainage system and a shallow drainage system.
Either one was used based on the characteristics of the paddock in question.
However, O’Loughlin stresses that drains are not effective unless they are placed in a permeable soil layer or complementary measures (mole drainage, sub-soiling etc.) are used to improve soil drainage capacity.
“If water isn’t moving through the soil in one or other of these two ways, the watertable will not be lowered,” he says.
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