How the Farmer of the Year is adding a new dimension to a traditional dairy holding


David Russell on the family farm at Corbally House, Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo: John Kelly
David Russell on the family farm at Corbally House, Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo: John Kelly
Winning team: David and Loughlin Russell on the family farm in Co Tipperary. Photo: John Kelly

Peter Hynes

David Russell is the youngest winner of the Zurich Farm Insurance/Farming Independent Farmer of the Year, and he modestly insists that much of his success is down to his father Loughlin, with whom he farms in partnership at Corbally House near Thurles.

But David has definitely brought something extra to the farm. In 2015 the enterprise consisted of 100 cows with all beef calves reared to 24 months. The addition of 58 acres in 2016 has seen the farm rapidly expand to 240 cows.

The Russells milk all year round and 2020 will see the herd grow to 300 and switch to 100pc spring calving.

It's not easy expanding at that pace while also achieving superb figures - the herd will average 500kg/ms per cow this year with six week calving rates at 84pc.

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Winning team: David and Loughlin Russell on the family farm in Co Tipperary. Photo: John Kelly
Winning team: David and Loughlin Russell on the family farm in Co Tipperary. Photo: John Kelly

EBI for the herd is €127 and David has a focus on breeding as his bull choices target further improvement with a team average of €276 for the 2019 breeding season.

Expansion doesn't come cheap, and having purchased land, the next challenge was opening up the milking platform, which is split by the main Dublin-Thurles road.

Prior to the construction of an underpass in 2016, at a cost of €100,000, it took 40 minutes a day to cross the cows.

In the same year, additional roadways were constructed on the farm as well as a 160-cow cubicle shed which was completed in just 17 days.

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A DeLaval rotary milking parlour was added this year.

I put it to Loughlin that his wife Antoinette must have thought he and David were mad spending all this money!

Photo: John D Kelly
Photo: John D Kelly

"She did at the start but with a lot of planning and the help of a solid business plan from accountant Martin Kennedy, she knew David could make it work," he replies.

Growing grass is key to a system like David's. Growing 14.5 tonnes in 2018 was an achievement considering the drought; the newly reseeded 58 acres along with a good choice of grass varieties and clear focus on soil fertility was a big driver in this figure.

This year the farm has grown 16.5 tonnes, and David makes grass measuring a priority, doing weekly walks using a combination of the grasshopper plate meter and visual.

If you are a machinery enthusiast, then this is not the farm for you as contractors do the bulk of machinery work.

All that sits in the yard is a good industrial loader for feeding cows and a 1988 Fiat used for spreading 20pc of the fertiliser.

"I want to stay specialised," says David. "Cows are my job and that's how I can be the best."

Having used contractors to do everything from baling, reseeding, umbilical slurry spreading and the other 80pc of fertiliser, he sees no benefit from taking on this work himself and firmly believes that using contractors is a more cost-effective way to run the farm.

Despite the pressures of expansion, quality of life at Corbally House is a priority, with Loughlin and Annette taking yearly holidays.

And David finds time for serious fitness activity, and travel.

We are sure to hear a lot more from this determined young farmer.

Opting for a non-GM dairy ration set to pay dividends with new milk product launch

Emissions reduction and the environment are a key focus for the Russell farm.

Soil fertility is monitored through soil sampling every two years to ensure nitrogen is used efficiently.

Liquid fertiliser is used for the first application in the spring to avoid leaching, while protected urea is also used through out the season.

All slurry is spread via low-emission umbilical spreading, and there won't be a drop of water wasted in Corbally House as all water used on the plate cooler is collected to wash down the rotary parlour and collected to be used a third time in the automatic flood system to wash the collecting yard.

Animal welfare measures sees all calves taken from the cow at birth and placed in a warming pen where they receive colostrum via a stomach tube.

Calf mortality at birth is 0pc, while mortality at 28 days is a very impressive 0.9pc, and all cows not required to breed replacements are inseminated to Hereford.

David says their dairy herd have been fed non-GM dairy ration for the last two years.

This is part of Centenary Co-op which will see the launch of Tipperary Fresh Brand non-GMO milk early next year.

The dairy ration used is a mix of barley, wheat, oats, peas and rye, and not alone does this look like a great opportunity for dairy farmers but also for the tillage sector, which badly needs to supported .

All eyes will be on Tipperary Fresh Brand as the potential for non-GMO butter in Germany alone is huge and could well be another string to the bow of Irish dairy.

Challenges will never faze David, who uses a list system to keep his daily life structured.

"Every time I tick something off the list, it's another little step forward," he says.

New Zealand experience shaped vision for the farm

Up to the age of 16 David didn't show much interest in farming, and it was only h during his transition year at Thurles CBS that he started to help out.

The farming bug bit fast and in 2013 he headed for Kildalton Agricultural College to complete his Level 5 & 6 certificates in agriculture.

New Zealand beckoned in June 2015 - he worked under contract milker James Emmett on an 800-cow farm.

He wasn't the only 2019 Farmer of the Year finalist on that six-month trip: Rising Star nominee Mairead Barron was also part of the 30-student contingent that headed Down Under.

The pair have remained good friends - Mairead is now running her own dairy herd as a new entrant to the business.

David spent most nights on fellow students' farms sharing info and many a party, but the seed for expansion was also planted here.

Prior to his trip to New Zealand, David didn't believe farming at home would be sustainable financially.

One hundred cows wasn't going to deliver and with retirement a long way off for his father Loughlin (55), his parents saw the potential of David's plan for the farm.

Discussion groups

Returning home in December 2015 he did relief milking while also helping at home and joining two discussion groups.

He is secretary of the Thurles Dairy group and held the position of chairman in the Moyne Group last year.

Teagasc advisors Lorcan Dooley and Matt Ryan, have played a key part in the success of the farm and have clearly been great mentors to David.

"Matt says it as it is - good or bad - and really focuses on the business," says David.

Future travel is now on the agenda as David is keen to soak up more knowledge and further develop his farming future.

Scaling new heights off the farm

Sport and fitness have always been high on David's agenda.

He played hurling with Thurles Sarsfields to minor level and he has a good collection of county medals.

In 2016 he started running to keep himself in shape and two years later he ran his first Dublin marathon; he returned this year when he clocked a time of 3 hours 11 minutes. Getting under three hours is his target for next year.

He runs 6-7km every morning before milking at 6am.

He learned to swim in January and also bought his first bike and began to clock impressive mileage on the road and in the pool ahead of his first Iron Man event which he completed in Dun Laoghaire.

Many Monday nights are spent down in Dunmore East in Waterford swimming in the sea as part of his training regime, and he can be found in the gym every other night.

Distance isn't an issue and neither is height as he travelled to Tanzania this year to climb Mt Kilimanjaro with friends Eric and Jamie (pictured right). Having reached the 5,000-metre base camp he told me their summit attempt began at 11pm in temperatures of -20c.

It took seven hours to complete the last 7km due to altitude, but seeing the sunrise when they reached the top made it all worthwhile.

Jordan is on his adventure list for 2020 as he plans to complete the desert challenge there - 250km over five days.

It's no wonder he describes himself as a hardship specialist.

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