Grassroots inspiration on one of the most productive dairy farms in the country

Martin Ryan travelled to east Limerick last week to see how the Macnamara family have built their farm into one of the most productive dairy holdings in the country

Green shoots: John and Olivia Macnamara with their children Caoimhe (14), Conor (3), Pádraic (12) and Ailbhe (10)
Green shoots: John and Olivia Macnamara with their children Caoimhe (14), Conor (3), Pádraic (12) and Ailbhe (10)
Stan Lalor of Grassland Agro speaking about soil fertility management at the open day on the Macnamara farm
Some of the farmers and their families at the open day on the Starview Farm in Co Limerick. Photo: O’Gorman Photography

Martin Ryan

The work ethic and love for farming instilled in John Macnamara by his parents from a young age has seen him develop the family's holding into one of the most efficient dairy farms in the country.

The figures tell their own story. In a relatively short period of time, the Macnamaras have achieved a five-fold increase in milk production, milk solids have increased to 483kg/cow producing 1,016kg solids/ha, and the herd EBI is in the top 10pc nationally.

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Star View Farm is near the village of Knockainey in east Limerick, and last year John was named the Teagasc Grassland Farmer of the Year, another national accolade for a man who won Macra na Feirme/FBD Young Farmer of the Future and FBD National Farmyard awards in recent years.

Last week John and his wife Olivia hosted an estimated 1,000 farmers on their 78ha farm for a Teagasc open day which focused on how they have maximised grass production and management.

Some of the farmers and their families at the open day on the Starview Farm in Co Limerick. Photo: O’Gorman Photography
Some of the farmers and their families at the open day on the Starview Farm in Co Limerick. Photo: O’Gorman Photography

"I was the eldest of six of us in the family, four boys and two girls, and we were always very close and had a great work ethic because we were always working on the farm when we were going to school," John told the visiting farmers.

"Our parents instilled a work ethic and pride of the farm in us, so from an early age we all understood the importance of high farming standards, and this has stood us well."

Expansion

Having been handed over the farm by his late father, Pat, two years after finishing school (he completed the Green Certificate at Teagasc, Kilmallock), the 35ha home holding with 50 cows has been increased to 78ha, of which 20ha is leased, and the dairy herd expanded to 244 cows.

"Just before the quota ended two blocks of additional ground came up for sale. In February 2012 we purchased 11ha and in September 2014 we purchased 12ha as we were lucky enough to be in a position to purchase it," John said.

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"We had our own challenges with that land. We had to put in two bridges and an underpass to access the land, but these are the things that you have to do to develop.

"One of the main reasons why we purchased these blocks was that we were good at growing good grass.

Stan Lalor of Grassland Agro speaking about soil fertility management at the open day on the Macnamara farm
Stan Lalor of Grassland Agro speaking about soil fertility management at the open day on the Macnamara farm

"We were not really good at anything else and these blocks came up and we were in a position to purchase them at the time and they helped us to develop the farm."

Following those purchases John moved up to 215 cows, and over the last two years another block of 20ha became available to lease, and the dairy herd has been increased to 244 cows.

Although the land is mainly heavy Elton-type soil, excellent management has aided the production of 15 tonnes of grass dry matter per hectare consistently from 2012 to 2017, and achieved 280-290 days at grass.

The grassland management has been built around the cornerstones of soil fertility, reseeding, good infrastructure, grass measurement and excellent management.

A lot of reseeding has been done and the work will continue with a selection of paddocks for renewing from the cumulative growth chart at the end of the year.

Reseeding has been targeted for spring to minimise the turnaround time with least risk.

Milking it: cows grazing on John and Olivia Macnamara's Starview Farm in Knockainey, Co Limerick. Photographs: Liam Burke/Press 22
Milking it: cows grazing on John and Olivia Macnamara's Starview Farm in Knockainey, Co Limerick. Photographs: Liam Burke/Press 22

Building the infrastructure has been vital to the operation of the farm, with extensive roadways enabling cows to get out to grass after almost every milking after calving.

In addition to the two bridges and an underpass to link the additional land to the original farm, extra water troughs and larger piping were required.

Targets for grass management are also vital. Target covers are set for each stage of the year with the objective to close on December 1 with a cover of 700kg/DM/ha.

The target is for 10 rotations of the paddocks in the year with 30pc of the farm grazed by March 1 and the third rotation starting the first week in April.

It was particularly challenging to meet the targets in 2018, with the late spring grass growth following by the early summer heatwave.

The average 15t/DM/ha since 2014 was reduced to 12.7t/DM/ha with nine grazings and supplemented with increased concentrates rising from the average of 400kg/cow to 1.2t/cow.

The emphasis in the dairy herd has been on increasing solids. The herd produced 483kg milk solids in 2018, up from 400kg/cow in 2014. Herd EBI is €143 placing it in the top 10pc in the country.

Concentration

In 2012 the decision was made to cross the existing pedigree Friesian herd with Jersey. For the first two years the concentration was on breeding the heifers to Jersey.

Today 40pc of the AI straws being used across the herd are Jersey. The herd returned an average milk price of 39.6c/l in 2018 with production costs at 17.5c/l.

In addition to the home farm and leased land there is a 38ha farm, six miles away - Olivia's former home - on which 100 calves and 70 1-2-year-olds are kept. This farm is also used for silage production, with a 3.1LU/ha stocking rate for the overall farm.

All replacement animals, including bulls, are home-bred, with no bought-in animals within the past 12 years.

Labour on the farm consists of John plus a professional farm management student and student help in the spring, with a local contractor engaged for slurry spreading, fertiliser application and baling surplus grass.

The farm objective is a low cost base. Whatever changes are introduced going forward, they must not add costs to the system.

"There is nothing fancy in what we do, but what we do, we try to do right and make sure that we review and set achievable targets for ourselves," says John.

"Having a good team of people working with us has always been, and will continue to be a pivotal part of our strategy."

'I firmly believe in calling a problem a challenge'

"I need to spend more time at building resilience to be able to manage with volatility," said John Macnamara about his future plans.

"Whether that is cash or stock or with fodder, I need to do that. At the end of the day we have four children that are going to cost more money as they go forward and I still need to be able to deliver a good income.

"We will build as we go forward and we have to watch the environment as well, and there will be challenges but is see those as opportunities. Cost control is crucial. I am not going to add anything into the farm that is going to start adding costs to the system that we have."

John's positive philosophy impressed the farmers who attended last week's Teagasc open day.

"I am a firm believer in calling a problem a challenge. If you look up the definition of a challenge in the dictionary it will tell you it is something that you can overcome. I have never looked up the definition of problems," he said.

"You can have a lot of problems any day of the year and it is important to see them as challenges and try to solve them one by one."

And the mission statement for the farm is: "To run an enjoyable, profitable, efficient and sustainable dairy business while also enjoying good family and work life balance."

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