Donegal farmer on taking the leap from beef and sheep into dairying

The initial challenges are daunting but new entrants are riding the crest of a dairying boom

Vincent McNamee's herd has an average EBI of €125
Vincent McNamee's herd has an average EBI of €125
Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

It is said that taking on challenges and pushing the boundaries of your 'comfort zone' is a sure way of remaining healthy and active into one's later years.

Vincent and Frances McNamee hope this so-called life truth is correct, given the nature of the challenge the Donegal family have undertaken since 2015.

The McNamees converted from drystock farming to dairying over the last two years and have been on a steep learning curve since they took the plunge.

The family farm a 36ha (89ac) holding at Convoy, near Lifford, Co Donegal that carried around 30 suckler cows and 60 Suffolk ewes until the changeover.

The bull calves from the suckler herd were sold at 12 months, while the heifer calves, and some bought-in stock, were carried to beef.

However, the farming enterprise totally changed two years ago when the drystock operation was replaced by dairying.

The main driver of the changeover was the McNamees' eldest son Andrew. A Teagasc advisor, Andrew had seen the potential benefits of switching to milk production while working with the State advisory service in Cavan.

At the time he was working with new dairy entrants in the county who were supplying Lakeland Dairies and the experience opened his eyes to the possible rewards.

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Not that dairying was something new to Andrew. He had milked cows for his cousin and a neighbouring farmer when he was younger.

Dairying was also central to his studies at Ballyhaise College in Cavan, and he received further exposure on an 800-cow unit outside Christchurch, New Zealand, where he spent six months prior to returning to complete an agriculture degree in UCD.

However, the idea of milking cows on the home farm never really crossed his mind until milk quotas were in the process of being scrapped in the run-up to 2015 and opportunities for moving into dairying became available.

Andrew discussed the matter with both Vincent and Frances, who were up for the challenge.

"We knew that we didn't have a huge amount of work to do to convert the farm," Andrew explains.

The building requirements were limited enough as there was an existing six-bay beef shed and slurry tanks on the farm. Inserting 75 cubicles into the former beef shed sorted the herd's needs.

Construction of a 12-unit milking parlour, with an 8,500-litre bulk tank, was the main investment, although extensive work was also required on the farm roadways, paddock fencing and the holding's water supply.

The focus then turned to the stock.

In spring 2015 the McNamees bought 75 high EBI heifers. These were all Black and Whites sourced from three or four top dairy operators in Donegal. Today the herd has an average EBI of €125.

These heifers were inseminated in May and the fun kicked off in the second week of February 2016 when they started to calve down.

"That first spring was a baptism of fire. We had one day at the height of it when 12 heifers calved, there was feet out everywhere," Andrew recalls.

Getting the heifers through the parlour was also a bit tricky, Andrew says, but they invariably quietened down after three or four days.

Matters have settled into a routine at this stage. The cows are doing 19 litres per day at the moment, at 4.04pc butterfat and 3.6pc protein. Last year the herd supplied around 280,000 litres.

However, Andrew expects the cows to yield around 5,000 litres, or around 380,000 litres in total, once the herd matures over the next two years.

The benefits of a young herd are seen in his somatic cell count average which stands at 70,000. That's a stat that will certainly please their milk processor Aurivo.

Grass covers

Vincent, Frances, Andrew and his younger brother Brian, who did the Leaving Cert this year, share the milking duties.

However, keeping a handle on grass covers is Andrew's primary responsibility. He measures covers every Saturday and believes grass utilisation on the farm has improved exponentially as a result, with around 12t/ha grown last year.

Although some of the swards have not been reseeded for over 25 years, grass growth this year has been excellent and he has saved around 100 round bales off the milking platform since the spring.

Despite this strong performance, he reseeded 10ac this spring, and will continue the reseeding programme over the next few years.

"Because the land is in one block we've been able to utilise the full 36ha for the milking platform after second cut silage is taken," Andrew explains.

The McNamees usually graze the full farm up to 'Magic Day', then close 13ha for two cuts of silage.

This means that the farm operates on a stocking rate of around three cows to the hectare until the silage ground comes back into the grazing rotation in August.

Keeping an eye on the farm's P and K and pH levels, so that they don't slip, is also a continuing focus for Andrew.

Another is breeding, with Andrew keen to increase the herd's already impressive EBI average. The benefits of this were witnessed this spring when the McNamees were in a position to offload surplus heifers.

The McNamees are satisfied with their decision to switch from drystock to dairying.

Total borrowings came to €110,000 after TAMS grants are taken into account. Still, as Andrew points out, the farm is covering all its commitments and providing a living for the family.

There are no plans to expand beyond current levels. Indeed, the farm carried 80 cows this summer but Andrew says they are considering dropping back to 75-77 next year rather than "pinching the system" with too high a stocking rate.

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