'We're an overnight success story after 40 years' - Dairy farmer of the year insists he's doing nothing out of the ordinary
Patrick Brennan was "totally surprised" to win the Farming Independent/Zurich Insurance Dairy Farmer of the Year 2018 and insists "we are doing nothing out of the ordinary".
But his skill is in making an inspiring success story look simple.
The hallmarks of the Tipperary man's success are a well thought-out approach to forward planning and expansion, and a deep personal commitment to good management.
"We are just ordinary farmers not doing anything exceptional, but working hard - and that is not exceptional because there are plenty of people as good and maybe better than us," he said when I met him at his Lurganross Farm, outside the attractive village of Ballingarry in North Tipperary.
"We are an overnight success story after 40 years at it," joked the Bord Bia Sustainable Dairying winner.
"But we do get a great kick out of doing it and couldn't believe why we were picked."
Having built up a 400-acre farm, from the original land base of 100 acres purchased by his late father, Pat, for £3,500, almost three-quarters of a century ago, Patrick carries stocking of 530 head, made up of a dairy herd of 204 cows and their followers.
"The cows were introduced by my mother, Sarah, who came from Lorrha," he said. "My father was always a grain and beef man and he had no interest in cows. She said that there would be an income from the cows every month and it would pay for the messages (for the home). She was a very sound woman.
"She kept 11 red Shorthorn cows and milked them herself by hand morning and night, and the milk was sent to Borrisokane creamery."
By the time that Patrick completed school in 1978 and returned to full-time work on the farm, the herd had increased to 23 cows, all Shorthorn with the exception of one Friesian, a breed which his father never liked because he reckoned that the calves would not make good beef animals.
"He always liked the cattle and sheep. He was a big man to grow turnips, and as a youngster I walked sheep all over the area to feed on turnips for the winter because he used to rent the land for the sheep," said Patrick.
His mother was also the inspiration for to increase the dairy herd and the gradual change over to all Holstein-Friesian "because she wanted to get a two-unit bucket milking machine", which was purchased.
"It was hard to get my father out of tillage and we had moved slowly up to 60 cows by 1983 when the milk quota came in," said.
"It was a very good cow at that time that milked 600 gallons, and we might not even have them that good. A lot of the cows at that time were doing 450-500 gallons."
Within two years Patrick faced the shock realisation of the milk quota restriction with "a huge super-levy bill" for over-production because production had increased and cows were being fed more concentrate.
The following year he rented land and milk quota before "buying land and quota a few times" to match the increase in the herd to 90 cows by the '90s.
"Some of the land was a good distance away and it was a nuisance but we had no choice because we had to get the quota," he said.
"We kept the home farm as the milking base and put cattle on the outside farms."
After buying land six times, and inheriting land twice, the 400-acre farm is spread between the home at Ballingarry, Eglish, Borrisokane and Ardcroney.
Coping with this spread can be challenging.
"With the better and more modern machinery, Ardcroney is not even a problem any more," said Patrick.
"They were able to cut 60 acres for silage in a day this year (and transport back to the farmyard at Ballingarry).
"One time it was an awful problem but not any more; the tractors are faster and more powerful now and we keep the outside farms for the cattle and silage."
Production from the 204-cow all-Holstein-Friesian herd is now averaging 5,500 litres at 3.55pc pr and 3.80pc bf, which returns a bonus of 3-4 cents/lt over base from Arrabawn Co-Op, where the intake of milk has gone up 30pc since the lifting of milk quota.
Patrick is a member of the board of the society, which has just received planning permission for a €30m expansion in processing facilities to cater for the increase in production in their area, which is running well ahead of the original projection.
Farming on good free-draining land was challenging for grass growth this year, resulting in the necessity to feed 450 bales of silage over eight weeks as well as a big increase in meal feeding to maintain yields.
Patrick's son Padraig is studying business and dairying in college and will return to continue to farming operations.
"The paperwork in farming is getting unreal and my wife Helen looks after all of that so a business training is very important in farming today. It is a business," said Patrick.
The farm is used by nearby Gurteen Agricultural College for student placement in dairying.
Patrick is aiming to go to about 230 cows and believes that can be achieved in the not too distant future.
With his meticulous planning, further expansion should be achieved without any problems.
'You want to be milking your own cows'
After a lifetime's experience in dairying, Patrick Brennan's advice to young farmers is that they must be personally involved "every day" in running the operation, and that herd size should be developed gradually.
"The colleges are telling young students to get into 200 cows, and some of them leave the colleges thinking that if they put in a farm manager, they can walk around in their suit every day, but in my experience that is the dream world and that doesn't work," he warned.
"If a young fella could start at about 50- 60 cows and never pass a cow to the acre (milking platform) on stocking… above 2.5 cow/ha on the milking platform you are into extremes and pressure which is not good."
Patrick is a strong believer in "consistent progress with no big jumps" and is convinced "you need dairying to be on a family-run farm" for it to be a success.
"If you don't have the time to milk your own cows at least once a day you should not have them I reckon," he said. "You want to be milking your own cows at least once a day because I see too many farms where inexperience is taking charge and it does not work."
Nevertheless, he stresses the importance of the milk cheque,
"We did a good bit of agricultural contracting and it was always a problem collecting money. The milk cheque is lodged to the bank account on the 18th of the month and it is like a wage coming every month," he said.
Patrick also recommends a good working relationship with the bank and believes that without the support of AIB and their regional agricultural advisor, Pat O'Meara, he could not have achieved so much over his lifetime "even though we will still give out about the banks".
"I bought land during the recession at a time when it was hard for the banks themselves to get the money, but without their support I could not have done it and it would cost double as much today," he said.
"It was a good buy at the time and we were lucky to get it, it has served us well, but it wasn't easy because money was so scarce then and very hard to get even for the banks."
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