Enda Farrell convinced his parents to make the change from dairy-calf-to-beef when he went into partnership with them on the family farm in Co Longford. And after 10 months of milking, he reckons they have made a ‘great start’ but he is determined to keep improving all the time
A couple of weeks of teacher training college was enough for Enda Farrell to know it wasn’t for him. Farming was the career he wanted, and his decision was validated last month when he won the Teagasc/FBD Student of the Year 2019 award.
“After the Leaving Cert in 2016 I went to UL to do secondary school teaching, but I just didn’t like it, it wasn’t for me,” he says. “So I headed to Ballyhaise the following September and was there until June 2019.”
The family farm just outside Ballymahon, Longford, which Enda is now running in partnership with his parents Kevin and Mary, had a dairy calf to beef operation and over 300 ewes.
After a couple of months working on the home farm, Enda and his parents decided to change to dairying.
“I have two older brothers also farming and myself and my parents decided to form a partnership in 2019,” he says.
“I came up with the idea to change. If we stayed at dairy calf to beef and sheep there would not be as much profit for us. We decided to go milking cows in spring 2020, but it wasn’t an overnight decision.
“There was two years of planning, including talking to accountants and the bank. It wasn’t just a case of going out and buying heifers and starting milking.”
Then there was planning permission before building started in summer of 2019. The Farrells built a 20-unit dairy pit and put in a 14-unit parlour, with room for expansion in the future. They also built a 120-cow cubicle shed that summer.
According to Enda, there has been a lot of reseeding done on the farm in recent years, with only around 25pc left to be reseeded next year.
Enda credits the Teagasc Ballyhaise Advanced Certificate in dairy herd management as giving him a lot of the foundation blocks for changing to dairying.
“There are also good trials going on in Ballyhaise with the dairy herds, with three different herds. You get to see the benefits and disadvantages of each.
“I was fairly blind, going into it. My father was from a dairy farm, but the two placements in Ballyhaise were hugely beneficial to see how good farmers operate.
“Placement was the first time I’d milked a cow. I was on two spring-calving herds, both of them large enough scale, and both are all grass-based systems, so I learned a lot there.
“I also got to appreciate a good parlour set-up — if you’re milking cows in it twice a day you need a good set-up and room to expand, while you see the benefits of having cluster removers and an auto-washer — anything that saves time and labour.
“Then, in the second year, you get down to the financial planning and the day-to-day running of a dairy farm. The five-year business plan was done up through the course, and that’s what we presented to the bank.
“The course gave me great pointers into what I needed to have right and key performance indicators on the farm — that was all very important.
“The course gave me a great grounding and a focus on where I want to go. I have a plan for the future and I know what I need to do.”
Enda is supplying Lakeland Dairies, who he says were very helpful during the build-up.
“They came out to the farm a few times and helped advise us on heifers to pick and buy and what we should be looking to do.
“Our local discussion group too, co-ordinated by Seamus Nolan in Teagasc, has been really helpful.
“We showed Seamus the figures of heifers we were looking at buying, and the farmer we bought stock from in the south showed us the figures on paper before showing us the actual heifers. That’s the main thing you need to be looking at when sourcing dairy stock.”
The discussion group also stressed the importance of grass measuring, something Enda is starting.
“I’m starting now in the next couple of weeks. We didn’t do it last year as we were busy, but that’s not an excuse! I can see that those doing it know what they are growing and are more confident in taking out a paddock for bales,” he says.
Help was also available from a neighbouring dairy farmer, he says, especially during spring.
“He was keeping an eye on what we were doing and any questions we had we could call down to him and 90pc of the time he had the answer or the solution,” he says.
“For instance, during the first few weeks of milking, we were wondering about mastitis and what we should be doing and he helped us with that.”
Enda’s business plan has the building repayments spread over 15 years and the stock over seven years. “We have also factored in a bad year, if milk prices come down and what we would do.
“You have to have a plan in place for a bad year and you should really have a back up in place or rainy day fund to get through tough times.”
According to Enda, a certain amount of controlled debt is not a bad thing on a dairy farm, and he’s currently working off-farm too.
“My mother is working full-time off the farm and my father works as co-ordinator of a beef and sheep group while I work part-time for Gerety Farm Machinery in Ballymahon, as well as working part-time for a suckler farmer nearby.
“It’s a big investment to start milking cows!”
Enda is determined not to be tied to the farm full-time just yet.
“Working off-farm is more about getting out and being off the farm too.”
Grants for young farmers, he says, have been hugely important. Through the farm partnership, they were able to receive up to 60pc funding for the cost of the building, while his father could avail of 40pc funding.
“I don’t think you could consider going spending the kind of money necessary if the grants were not available,” he says.
“There is still lots to improve on the farm, but I think we have made a great start. I want to work on grassland management and more milk recording and use selective dry cow therapy from next year, and my aim is to improve technology use to reduce labour — we are looking at collars for cows for heat detection and maybe cut out the use of a stock bull and consider using some sexed semen.”
The farm is a 135-acre block, and with 115 cows Enda Farrell says milking takes an hour and 15 minutes during the summer.
However, the farm had no roadways until June this year, which meant the first few months of milking were tough after the Farrells switched from dairy-calf-to-beef.
“We put in 700 metres of roadways in June. Grasstec mapped the farm and put in the roadways and water troughs for 150 cows,” says Enda.
“Our plan is to go to 150 cows in the next three years.
“The farm is wet enough at this time of the year, but it dries quickly and with the roadways we’ll be turning them out by day as the cows calve during the spring.
“Without the roadways this spring it was difficult to get the cows out to grass.”
The Farrells bought their first 35 heifer calves in March 2018 from a dairy farmer in the south, then bought 54 weanlings in August 2018 from a dairy farmer in Wexford. The remainder were sourced in October through Grasstec.
“They were all within our herd before we calved them down and put them through vaccination programme,” says Enda.
They started milking on February 1 and had 86pc calved in the first six weeks. It’s a predominately Holstein Friesian herd with an average EBI of €163.
“We feed as little meal as we can and are trying to achieve 500kg of solids on 500kg of meal, which will take time to achieve,” says Enda.
“Until the end of October, we produced 375kg milk solids on 710kg of concentrates.
“There was a 4pc empty rate from this year’s breeding season. We expect to have 85pc calved in the first six weeks of spring.
“It’s good to get them dried off fairly quickly and you can take a break over the Christmas. They are dried off now as we gave them 12 weeks as they are heifers.”