Pure Friesian pioneers showing no sign of resting on their laurels

Passion for breeding: Peadar Healy with some of the pure Friesians from his Firoda herd on his farm in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny
Passion for breeding: Peadar Healy with some of the pure Friesians from his Firoda herd on his farm in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny

Martin Ryan

The Healys achieved success by embracing modern practices years ago, and they are still adopting new ideas

By pioneering practices decades ahead of the majority of their dairying peers, the Healy family have enjoyed endless success with their Firoda pure Friesian herd in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny - and they are determined to keep learning and improving.

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"My father Ned was at milk recording here when I was a youngster," recalls Peadar Healy, who runs the herd with his wife Maureen.

"He found was a great advantage to building up the herd. It meant that he knew the cows that were leaving the most money -years ago you could have a cow milking 300 gallons more than another cow and she's be leaving you less money.

"My daddy had no patience with them if they were not leaving the most money: if they did not milk well, they were gone."

Ned Healy, who passed away in 2007, had a deep passion for quality breeding.

He was one of the pioneers of milk recording in the south east, using AI and progeny testing in dairying.

He attained excellence in performance from the use of top-merit Friesian breeding, from the earliest days of the introduction of the breed into this country.

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The legacy is now into the third generation, with Peadar's son Eamon joining the partnership and milking 120 deep-pedigree Friesian cows.

The Firoda herd was showcased by the Irish Holstein-Friesian Association (IHFA) earlier this year when the farm gates were opened for the Pure Friesian open day.

The herd has an average yield of over 6,500kg milk per year (1,400 gallons), with 114 pedigree-registered cows recorded at 3.74pc fat, 3.63pc protein, 533kg milk solids in 2018.

Peadar's formative years helping his father with the herd moulded his lifetime dedication to the pursuit of excellence in Friesian breeding.

After school each day, he looked forward to completing his task of transferring the details recorded on the AI docket into a breeding book. These treasured books were archived through the decades, meaning that the grading up of the herd to pedigree status was a straightforward process.

The strong affiliation to the pure Friesian has benefited the sale of progeny as bulls and bullocks, while at the same time having a high-yielding dairy herd.

"There are some great pure Friesian cows around these counties that were served by AI from Dovea - I believe that only for Dovea's interest in the pure Friesian at that time, they were gone," Peadar says.

"I feel it is a breed which has been forgotten about over the years but you have to make sure that you keep them milky because some British Friesians can be low in the milk yield.

"I have no intention of changing from the pure Friesian in the herd.

"I bought three Holstein heifers back in 1992. They were good heifers; there was nothing wrong with them - they just didn't fit into our system. I felt they needed more meal and that bit more looking after.

"The British Friesian needed less meal and that bit less looking after and they suited our system better. So I sold all the Holstein families."

Demand for pedigree progeny from the herd is strong, with up to 50 bulls sold for breeding each year and strong demand for heifers surplus to herd replacement requirements - the livestock sales now make up half the income from the herd.

There are several regular customers, many of whom are happy to purchase the animals without inspecting them, such is the record built up over the years.

Forty-three cows scored VG or EX following the most recent 1HFA classification visit, and 37 were fourth lactation and older last year, underlining the natural longevity and maturity of the Friesian breed.

These cows averaged 7,904kg milk, at 3.73pc fat and 3.65pc protein and produced 584kg milk solids.

Five cows within the herd yielded 10 gallons/day at their peak this year.

Peadar and Eamon remain open to embracing new ideas and technologies to achieve further progress, including incorporating any benefit from genomics which show advantage for their herd.

"I have no problem using genomic sires, so long as these bulls are bred from classified dams, preferably scoring excellent (EX)," Peadar says.

Tricky terrain no barrier to pursuit of excellence

The Healy family's farm, at an altitude of around 700 ft in Co Kilkenny, is a particularly scenic setting for a dairy enterprise, but the difficult land presents many challenges.

Peadar Healy believes that the pure Friesian breed is the ideal cow for the Castlecomer plateau area. This heavy soil type demands the utmost care: grazing conditions are often tricky, and winters can be unusually long at this height.

The farm is extensively mole-drained and gravel-filled on a regular basis, and every opportunity to reseed swards is quickly availed of.

"You have to mind wet ground - if you don't it will let you down," Peadar explains.

"It's the kind of ground that will pump grass out of it if it is properly looked after, but it requires constant care and regular attention to drainage.

"We do a lot of drainage as required and you will improve it big time but you can never blackguard it, and it makes farming more difficult."

Reseeding the land is also especially difficult.

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