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Taking the zero grazing path to dairy expansion

Meath farmer Gerry Hoey tells Michael Keaveny how he has expanded from 60 to 260 cows based around a zero-grazing approach after phasing out beef

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Measured approach: Gerry Hoey in the milking parlour on the family farm at Furryhill, Navan, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Measured approach: Gerry Hoey in the milking parlour on the family farm at Furryhill, Navan, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Gerry measuring grass on the milking platform as part of his zero-grazing strategy: “There’s feed space for about 300 cows in the shed,” he says, “so I give it to them in the evening and whatever is left over I just it push in and they eat that the next morning after milking. The most important thing is to keep measuring every week.” Photo: Gerry Mooney

Gerry measuring grass on the milking platform as part of his zero-grazing strategy: “There’s feed space for about 300 cows in the shed,” he says, “so I give it to them in the evening and whatever is left over I just it push in and they eat that the next morning after milking. The most important thing is to keep measuring every week.” Photo: Gerry Mooney

The Hoeys milk 260 cows on their Co Meath farm

The Hoeys milk 260 cows on their Co Meath farm

Gerry Hoey and his father Pat

Gerry Hoey and his father Pat

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Measured approach: Gerry Hoey in the milking parlour on the family farm at Furryhill, Navan, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Operating two farming enterprises side by side doesn't always allow for the best use of time, money and resources.

This is why Meath farmer Gerry Hoey, alongside his father Pat, decided to consolidate the dairy side of his business while gradually rowing back on the beef.

"We were initially split between dairy and beef," says Gerry, one of the three dairy category finalists in the Zurich Farmer Insurance/Farming Independent 2019 Farmer of the Year awards.

"In 2005 we were milking 60 cows through a six-unit parlour. A lot of the land is scattered - two-thirds of it is away from the farm - so we were milking on the home block and raising the beef on the out-farm.

"We were after buying weanlings at the time and were rearing calf to beef as well. We tried a lot of different things like raising bulls, bulled beef, bullocks and things like that."

However, Gerry realised that his passion lay in dairy farming and he sought to build that side of the farm up as much as possible while getting out of beef.

"We gradually phased out the beef over six or seven years. It was more hassle, there was no money in it, and it gave us a lot of problems with things like IBR and TB."

Over the past decade, Gerry has gradually built up the dairy herd on the family farm between Nobber and Navan in Meath.

Between 2005 and 2012 the herd grew from 60 to 150 cows.

This year he plans to calve down 300 cows and milk 260 throughout the season, selling the additional 40.

The farm's infrastructure has grown in line to match the cow numbers. Gerry's milking parlour was recently upgraded from 14 to 30 units with ACRs.

He also built a new cubicle shed with space for 186 cows, as well as 300,000 gallons of slurry space, leaving him with over 250 cubicles in total.

The yard also has a new handling and drafting unit, a green water sprinkler unit and a rain water collection system.

When making the transition from dairy to beef, Gerry was able to draw on the help and advice of members of his local discussion group called Bó na Bóinne led by Teagasc's Joe Patton.

He's also a member of the Boyne Valley purchasing group, one of the biggest groups of its kind in the country.

Drainage

Rather than letting the fact that most of his land is away from his platform hold him back from expanding, Gerry decided to make the most of the resources at his disposal and started zero-grazing.

"We have a lot of grazing blocks away from the farm and we spent a lot over the years on draining and getting them right.

"Then we got them in order and decided to bring them into the system. We started zero-grazing about four years ago. I measure grass every week and whatever I'm short I bring back and buffer it.

"Before we started zero-grazing we were at a level where we didn't have to buffer as much. We were milking 186 cows on 118 acres. It was tight, but we were able to feed a little bit more meal as well. I'd prefer to have a 500-acre block", he says with a laugh, "but we don't have that. It's important to make do with what you have and make it work."

While zero-grazing occupies a lot of his time, Gerry reckons it can be a labour-saving tool at different times of the year.

"Some guys say you're better off cutting silage from the out-block, but I find zero-grazing works for me. During peak growth in May and June they're cutting over 100 bales every week, so surely that's more work.

"When I'm zero-grazing I aim to try to cut a leafy cover of around 1500-1600 - I just go out to try to bring in the fresh grass. There's feed space for about 300 cows in the shed so I give it to them in the evening, and whatever is left over I just push it in and they eat that the next morning after milking.

"The most important thing is to keep measuring every week. It wouldn't be long getting away from you if you don't keep an eye on it."

It's not always the case with a father-son working relationship, but Gerry and his father Pat (pictured below) can work side by side without too much friction.

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Gerry Hoey and his father Pat

Gerry Hoey and his father Pat

Gerry Hoey and his father Pat

 

"Dad is very good. Holding him back is nearly a bigger job than trying to get him to come around to my ideas," says Gerry. "He was never afraid to drive on with the cows. If I wanted to increase numbers it was fine by him, he was pushing it on as much as I was."

While Pat was sceptical at first about newer methods such as grass measuring, Gerry says he wasn't long in coming around.

"Once he saw things working, he was happy to row in behind it. I think he would have liked to have kept at the beef a bit, but I don't think he's too bothered at this stage. A lot of lads might have trouble with their father holding them back and not driving them on but it's not the case here," says Gerry.

Pat isn't the only family member involved on the farm: Gerry's wife Nuala also plays a pivotal role in keeping the ship afloat.

"Nuala gave up work last year. She is a great help doing office work, registering calves and things like that. It saves me from having to do paperwork late at night. We have a three young kids - Aoibheann (11), Aoife (9) and Darragh (4) - so it helps to have everyone singing off the same hymn sheet.

"Apart from that, we have had a great guy from Brazil called Sivonei who has been with us for over 11 years on a full-time basis and his son, Raffael who does some part-time work."

Farm Facts

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The Hoeys milk 260 cows on their Co Meath farm

The Hoeys milk 260 cows on their Co Meath farm

The Hoeys milk 260 cows on their Co Meath farm

 

Size: 124 ha

Milking platform: 46 ha

Output: 2.6lu/ ha whole farm

Milk solids 2019: 512kg ms/ cow

Calving interval: 366 days, 86pc calved at six weeks

Milk supplier: Glanbia

 

'We are using Kiwi cross genetics and the fats and proteins have improved a lot'

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Gerry measuring grass on the milking platform as part of his zero-grazing strategy: “There’s feed space for about 300 cows in the shed,” he says, “so I give it to them in the evening and whatever is left over I just it push in and they eat that the next morning after milking. The most important thing is to keep measuring every week.” Photo: Gerry Mooney

Gerry measuring grass on the milking platform as part of his zero-grazing strategy: “There’s feed space for about 300 cows in the shed,” he says, “so I give it to them in the evening and whatever is left over I just it push in and they eat that the next morning after milking. The most important thing is to keep measuring every week.” Photo: Gerry Mooney

Gerry measuring grass on the milking platform as part of his zero-grazing strategy: “There’s feed space for about 300 cows in the shed,” he says, “so I give it to them in the evening and whatever is left over I just it push in and they eat that the next morning after milking. The most important thing is to keep measuring every week.” Photo: Gerry Mooney

 

While Gerry Hoey operates a spring-calving herd, this is the first year that he has stopped milking over the winter period.

"I tightened up our calving pattern," he says. "Before we were just milking on late-calving cows and empty cows into the winter. Now 86pc of cows are calved at six weeks, which is a big improvement on a couple of years ago when there would have been at around 70pc."

Despite his success Gerry acknowledges he has made a few mistakes made along the way.

"We used a British Friesian stock bull to try and expand," he says. "It brought the size of the cows down, but the solids were very poor. We're using Kiwi cross genetics now and the fats and proteins have improved a lot.

"Last year the cows did 520kg of milk solids. A few years ago the milk protein dipped as far as 2.9pc, but last year the lowest it went was 3.6pc so we went from below base price to three or four cents above it now as long as the processors don't move the goalposts."

Gerry has no major plans for further expansion or a second unit.

"I'm quite happy with my lot. One thing I'd like to do is increase the size of the home block to cut back on zero-grazing and make life a bit simpler.

"I'm not sure about these second units. Maybe if I had a brother interested in farming we could have one but I think you could lose more than you could gain if you tried to take one on."

When he's not farming Gerry can be found training with his local athletics club, Rathkenny AC.

"I never played football or any sport, but I'm mad about running now. I do 5ks and 10ks and even did a mountain run a few weeks ago. It's great for morale and to clear the head. When I'm out running around the last thing I'm thinking about is farming, and when I come back, I'm fresh and ready to go."

Indo Farming