How one farmer doubled cow numbers and milk output without any extra land

Image: Roger Jones
Image: Roger Jones
Joe Kelleher

Joe Kelleher

Doubling cow numbers and milk output in nine years without increasing land is no mean feat, but that is what Limerick farmer, Dermot O’Connor has achieved since he commenced farming in 2008.

How has he achieved his? By almost doubling the amount of grass grown on his farm in the same period.

This was the key message for the 200 strong crowd that attended the recent Grass 10 event on Dermot’s farm organised jointly by Teagasc and Kerry Agribusiness.

Dermot outlined how he had grown the herd since he started out in a milk production partnership with his father Tom in 2008 from 80 cows to the 172 strong herd that are being milked today.

This is quite a significant expansion especially when you consider that he was depopulated in 2015 due to TB.

Dermot won the FBD Young Farmer of the Year award in 2012 and in 2013 he addressed the Teagasc National Dairy Conference when he revealed his five-year plan which predicted that he would be milking 175 cows and growing 15t of grass dry matter by 2017, and this is exactly what he has done.

There has been a gradual increase in tonnes of grass grown per hectare on Dermot’s farm since he commenced farming.

The jump between 2016 and the predicted 15t that will be grown in 2017  (12t to 15t) looks quite stark, but when you consider that there was no herd on this farm for the last quarter of 2015 and the first five months of 2016, then you realise that this farm has been increasing the amount of grass it is capable of growing at a very steady pace.

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So how has this increased growth rate come about?

The audience were informed on the day that this was not as the result of any one single action, but rather the benefit of numerous actions such as increased soil fertility, increasing the number of grazings per paddock, better infrastructure (especially in terms of roadways and paddock layout) and most importantly the attention Dermot gives to his grassland management on a daily basis.

Ger Courtney, co-ordinator of the Teagasc/Kerry Agribusiness joint programme, outlined the importance of rectifying soil fertility and claimed that if all Dermot’s farm was at an optimum level for phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), then the potential was there to grow 17-18t of dry matter.

Ger outlined how by increasing the soil pH on 86pc of the paddocks on the farm had contributed to the extra grass grown.

Dermot also outlined how he has really attacked the low P and K levels this year. In the past three weeks he has spread one bag per acre of 0.7.30 across the entire farm and intends spreading another 1.5 bags/acre of 18-6-12 in the coming week. This on top of the two bags/acre of 18-6-12 spread in the spring.

John Maher, co-ordinator of the Grass 10 programme, outlined how the key to increasing the grass grown nationally from its present level of just over 10t was by increasing the number of grazings achieved in each paddock.

He explained how he felt many farmers were achieving the grazings at the beginning and end of the season, but where the real difference occurred was during the main grazing season between April 10 and September 10.

John put it very simply “There are 120 days in this period, six rotations of 20 days each gets you six grazings”.

Dermot is well on his way to hitting John’s targets. Each paddock has been grazed seven times on average this year as well as being cut once also giving a total of eight grazings/cuts taken to-date.

Dermot has entered 26 grass covers on his Agrinet/Pasturebase programme already this year. It is this level of commitment to measuring the grass his farm grows on a weekly basis that has enabled him to increase the grass he is growing on such a consistent basis.

With his commitment to grass measurement, that 18tonnes of dry matter/ha target may be achieved in the not too distant future.

Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc advisor based in Newcastle West, Co Limerick

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