How this blocklayer in the boom built up a champion dairy herd from scratch

New start: Edward and Breda Donovan, winners of the 2018 Dairygold Milk Quality Awards, with their children Caoimhe and Aoife, and Dairygold milk advisor Maeve O’Connor on their farm at Ballybrannagh, Cloyne, Co Cork. Edward started milking in January 2014 as a new entrant to dairying and currently milks 203 cows from a grazing platform of 79ha. Photo: O’Gorman Photography.
New start: Edward and Breda Donovan, winners of the 2018 Dairygold Milk Quality Awards, with their children Caoimhe and Aoife, and Dairygold milk advisor Maeve O’Connor on their farm at Ballybrannagh, Cloyne, Co Cork. Edward started milking in January 2014 as a new entrant to dairying and currently milks 203 cows from a grazing platform of 79ha. Photo: O’Gorman Photography.
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

'Overwhelmed is something I never got; tired yes, but never overwhelmed." That's according to the overall winner of the latest Dairygold Milk Quality Awards, Edward Donovan, who is reflecting on him transforming the family tillage farm in Cloyne, Co Cork into a dairy operation as a new entrant in 2014.

During the Celtic Tiger years, Edward worked in construction and subsequently became a self-employed blocklayer which he says was "fine while it lasted but finished up quite quickly".

However, an already completed degree in agriculture meant he was able to take up a managerial position at Goldcrop in Killavullen, in north Cork.

While Edward enjoyed the work, he says he always had itchy feet to work for himself again and when the scheme for new entrants to dairying opened in 2011, that's when he began thinking about trying his hand at farming.

Edward's father John had been operating a successful tillage farm on the holding where he grew vegetables and sugar beet down through the years but with the closure of the sugar factories, he later focused on wheat and barley production in rotation.

Edward admits that his father and mother Eileen got an "initial shock" when their son proposed getting into cows. However, when they saw the detailed plans that he had prepared, they jumped on board.

"I would've been looking at part-time farming if we continued with tillage. Part-time anything was not what I wanted.

"My parents were very supportive and dad is very important in terms of labour help. He's very happy with it now," says Edward, who lives with his wife Breda and their two young children Caoimhe and Aoife on the farm.

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Edward applied to the scheme in 2012 and joined in 2013. Ever since then, it has been all systems go on the east Cork farm, with Edward crediting the stringent farm plan for the success of the business.

"I always felt the plan was a reasonable one. Some people might dismiss business plans but I think they are a worthwhile tool. As soon as we were granted the scheme, we put in for planning permission and got building in mid 2013 and started milking 47 heifers in spring 2014," he says.

"If I started saying I'll only have so many cows and we'll see what happens, I don't think it would've worked out."

The installing of new facilities on the farm took place at a gradual pace. The only new structures added to the farm in 2014 were the 24-unit milking parlour and dairy.

While Edward was working full-time for Goldcrop during his first calving season, he soon realised if he wanted to drive on farm production and performance he would have to give up the off-farm work.

Grazing platform

"I very quickly realised you can't divide your time. I knew where I was going and what work was involved in getting there and I said you couldn't hold down a full-time job and progress a business, so I left work in April 2014."

Edward now has 203 mainly Friesian cows on a grazing platform of 79ha. He bought the majority of cows and is breeding his own replacements. Edward says balancing an expanding dairy herd and construction work meant that the workload on the farm was initially very high and took a lot of getting used to.

"We have calving cameras and things like that which all help. If it was just the cows, it wouldn't have been too bad but we had to face into construction work a lot which we did ourselves and were probably going a bit too much.

"In 2017 we got a builder to come in to do the rest of the construction work."

With the intense dairy workload ever increasing, Edward decided this year that it was time to hire a full-time worker which he says has been very successful. From his years working in the private sector, Edward knows that treating employees right is key to creating a profitable and productive business.

"If you treat people well and pay them well and on time, things should work out. You've to be aware they have other things going on in their life. From my time working as a PAYE worker, I know the flip side.

"You come, you do your job but you want to go."

Last year due to the extreme drought, Edward, like many of his farming counterparts, had to cancel a family holiday - he says that won't happen this year.

"The workload was a killer last year we couldn't have asked our relief milker to feed the cows silage and soya. It wouldn't have been fair," he explained.

"We're having our holiday this year, that's guaranteed," Edward insisted.

Last year his cows delivered 520kg milk solids and he says that sustainable farming is very important to him going forward. "Farmers are open to change and are starting to see the pressure from the public mounting. If you can get what's inside the farm gate right, you're doing well."

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