'We dreamed some day we might be farmers' - Dairy farmer who's gone from zero to a thriving milking platform in five years
He had no dairy farming experience, but Jamie Kealy has gone from zero to a thriving milking platform in five years
'We drove around dreaming that some day we might be farmers and I suppose we are living the dream," says eighth-generation carpenter turned dairy farmer Jamie Kealy as he looks out over his herd of 94 cows in Tullow, Co Carlow.
Jamie, who hails from a non-farming background, last week hosted an Irish Grasslands Association farm walk sponsored by AIB, and he told the attendance of over 600 farmers how he got started on a totally leased milking platform.
With many dairy farmers entering unknown territory as they take on long-term rental leases, there was much interest in how the father-of-two had come to make both the rental relationship and the finances work.
After leaving school at 15, he went to Waterford to follow in his father's footsteps as a carpenter. However, on finishing his apprenticeship he decided carpentry was not him. Instead, he decided to go into farm contracting and he was determined to buy his own digger.
The banks wouldn't give him, a loan, but he saved the six months deposit required by working on a borrowed digger and he was on his way.
After building his own house in 1999 on a site from his father, he spotted that 16ac was for sale across the road from his house. His wife Lorraine agreed to sell and they rented a house and were then able to buy the 16ac and begin raising heifers for sale for beef. From there they worked their way up to a herd of 28 Limousin cows.
"We were getting hardship calving and that would have learnt us fairly quickly," he says.
"We just kept pushing ourselves forward. My attitude is if you don't chance your arm, you will gain nothing."
All of the couple's off-farm earnings were also going into the farming enterprise.
From the building work he came into contact with farmer Tom McDonald, who was looking to take a step back from dairy farming. He had sold his cows after a fall from a ladder on the farm.
Tom and Jamie considered forming a beef partnership, but the finances weren't sufficient to allow Jamie give up his day job.
At that point, Tom decided to rent Jamie a 26ha farm at Grange, outside Tullow. The farm was soil sampled to see if it needed investment but it was indexed 3s and 4s. The next step were many drafts of a six-year plan with Teagasc advisor Eamonn Grace.
They then approached the Department of Agriculture to run two herd numbers out of the yard as Tom hasn't quite retired and has continued to rent 180ac nearby that he raises 250 beef cattle on and they are overwintered in the yard.
After initially being turned down they approached the local office to request an inspector's visit to demonstrate that the yard was split in two - cattle accommodation on one side, and the cubicle shed, calving area, dairy and slatted tank under one roof on the other.
After successfully applying for a new entrant dairy quota in 2013, Jamie and Lorraine began milking in spring 2014 with 62 cows they had bought from one farm the previous October after strictly selecting on date of calving, EBI and herd health criteria.
Another 20 were purchased from the same farmer in October 2014 and a further 20 the following year.
"They had to calve up smartly. I didn't want to be on the back foot - I needed milk going out the gate and had to hit the ground running," he said.
They had to install an eight-unit parlour and Jamie estimates the total cost per cow at €2,000 for cows, parlour, cubicles and roads and water.
"We put nearly everything we had to get this going."
The couple now own 13ha around 10km away in three different sections, rent a further 7ha off Tom and rent another 10ha adjacent to the milking platform.
"It was a quick learning curve," says Jamie. "I'd never milked a cow before and never stood in a pit. I almost put the cluster on upside down the first time! But we had no bad habits coming into it - we knew no different so we sort of stuck to the book and kept the head down."
As a beef man, he said he was inclined to condition the heifers too much for calving the first time around. However, he said a few weeks into the calving season he did question what he was doing when he was standing there with the skin gone off of his arms.
"There was a great milk price year in 2014 - it was serious money that I never thought could have been got out of farming."
However, they felt the "pinch" in 2015 and last year when milk prices dipped and he began milking at 5am to go back to work doing groundswork for the day to earn some money. Now he is back full-time farming.
One point he stressed was that farmers should talk to agri-advisors or the banks. The experience of the last few years has taught him that a long-term loan is a better option than taking money out of cashflow in the good time.
Jamie's grassland management skills, developed in the Better Beef Farmer programme, have allowed him to grow 13.8t/DM/ha overall.
He has been aiming for 1,400kg DM/ha, with the cows currently delivering 25.5l/cow with fat at 4.16pc and protein of 3.77pc and milk solids of 2.05kg.
On the EBI front, they have pursued fertility rather than crossbreeding. The cows are now delivering 1,267kg/ha or 530kg per cow of milk solids.
The cows are turned out straight after calving for 290 days at grass a year. However, Jamie doesn't agree with some views that it is a "race to the bottom" to feed meal. He would be happy to feed around 550-600kg of meal, with 3.5kg meal fed per cow up to mid-April.
Total costs, excluding principal repayments but including a €30,000 wage and the lease, was 23.65 c/l for 2016, with a net margin of 5.06c/l.
Jamie currently has a nitrogen derogation and warns it will be the new "quota".
Jamie and Lorraine work as a team, with Lorraine - who works part-time for a local company - also looking after calf-rearing, bookwork and cost control planners.
"I'd say to people to ensure you have someone to answer to, be it a wife, bank manager or someone else, as if you have full control it is easy for it to go wrong," says Jamie.
"You'll spend money where it shouldn't be spent."
After going it alone this spring he is considering hiring some labour for the next calving season.
"This spring was tough enough - we calved 97 cows this spring. It was 90pc in six weeks but over 80pc in 21 days. So it was tough going. You'd hear people say it is a thin line and it is a thin line when you are under pressure and things seem to go wrong - it is a snowball effect. Mentally I think you would want to be very strong, this spring would have tested me a bit."
That said, the Kealys plan to drive up the stocking rate to 120-130 cows to fully utilise the milking platform.
"We still have to pay the same lease and bills," he adds.
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