Michael Murphy, a former Tipp senior hurler, felt his award-winning calf to beef enterprise wasn’t making enough money so he turned to dairy – but he kept the attention to detail that had been earning him double the national average gross margin/ha in 2015
In 2015, Michael Murphy was crowned Ireland’s beef farmer of the year, having established a reputation for doing the simple things right on his calf to beef rearing enterprise.
At that time, the farm, outside Nenagh in Co Tipperary, had a stocking rate of 2.22LU/ha, delivering a gross margin of €1,143/ha, which was double the national average of €572/ha.
Today, the make-up of the farm is much different, but the attention to detail and eye-catching results remain the same.
“I was rearing 250 calves every spring, buying them at two weeks old. That was damn tough work. The first 12 weeks of a calf’s life are the most important,” Michael says.
“I felt I just wasn’t getting paid enough for the amount of time and effort I was putting into the system. My last good year in dairy beef was 2015. After that it was downhill even though I was doing the job well.”
Michael previously milked 90 cows on the farm up until 1998, when the herd was lost to a brucellosis outbreak.
He also has a rich history in hurling, having won a senior National League medal with Tipperary, along with a minor and two Under-21 All-Irelands.
“I retired from hurling at the age of 21,” he says. “My father died suddenly at 55 years of age in 1982. I was going into Thurles five nights per week, I was a ‘professional’ back then.
“I said to the county secretary one night, any chance you could get in the farm relief to do an evening milking for me, to take the bit of pressure off me. The answer I got back was ‘Michael, we’d set a very bad example if we did that’. That more or less made up my mind on the GAA.”
Michael began to consider the switch back to dairying again in the late 2010s.
“I was wondering then if I went back to dairying would my son Odhrán have any interest in helping out,” he says.
“As he got older, I kept asking the question. He used to go milking for some of the neighbours so that was a good start anyway. When he got to 18 and did his Leaving Cert I asked him if he was prepared to back me up, and he said he would.
“I spoke at the beef open day above in Grange in 2016, and I was asked if I would ever think of going back to dairying and I said ‘no I’m too old’. So they’d have a damn good laugh at me now at 63 years of age back stuck in the middle of it.”
Michael also farms alongside his wife Olivia, who works full-time with Tipperary ETB.
“We also have three daughters — Elaine, Eimear and Miriam,” he says. “They buy a calf each year and they are the couple of the best looked-after calves on the farm. The girls help me milk when I need them.”
After settling on the decision to go back to dairy, Michael bought a herd of cows from Seamus Mescal in Aglish, Co Waterford.
“I didn’t buy that herd based on EBI,” he says. “It was the last thing that I asked him about. I went and looked at the cows to see the physical appearance of the herd to see how good they were structurally.
“The farmer gave me his milk dockets for the year, which very few lads would give you. I was taken aback by the production, the fat and protein they were producing.
“I liked the herd the first day I saw them. He wanted to keep the herd together — he was that type of a man, a lovely man.
“He had loads of interest from lads wanting to buy 20 or 30 but I’d say I was the only one that would take the 77 cows. I was a lucky man to get my hands on them, he had a brilliant job done.
“They are 70pc Holstein and 30pc British Friesian, and are producing a decent calf for the beef enterprise.”
The cows are producing on average 7,500L per lactation and milk solids over 600kg.
The replacement heifer calves are calving at two years old and the Hereford and Angus calves are finished at 17 to 18 months through the ABP Advantage Beef Programme.
The old milking parlour on the 83ha (205ac) farm was still intact when Michael first began milking again in 2020.
“All I had to do was change the bulk tank. We’re milking 80 cows now and I’m not in derogation, I’m farming under 170kg N/ha,” he says.
“Those saying you need to be milking 120 cows, that’s rubbish– what’s happening there is they are being advised to avail of grants and they end up spending €150-250k on a new milking parlour and facilities.
“Ask any sales rep and they will tell you it’s a pleasure to go in to the smaller farmers. They have time to talk to you, give you money and are a pleasure to deal with.”
Despite having vastly scaled back his calf to beef enterprise, Michael still maintains the highest standards when it comes to calf rearing.
“It’s all about the first 12 weeks of life, whether it’s a breeding female or a beef animal,” he says. A vaccination programme needs to be in place for the lifetime of every animal born on the farm.
“I wouldn’t be achieving the figures I’m achieving only for the vaccination programme. I can’t afford a breakdown at any stage with any disease or virus because if I do then I’m in trouble with the 170kg limit to stay out of derogation.
“I’m a big believer in two bags of milk replacer for every calf. I use two Volac automatic calf feeders. They are brilliant. I’d find it very hard now to rear a calf without them.”
Michael says he and Odhrán are happy with their system and have no immediate plans for expansion.
“Odhrán is in Australia at the moment, he wants to see how green the far-away fields are,” Michael says. “He’s there for the winter. He has a masters in agricultural science so he can do pretty much what he likes.
“You’ll find in a lot of father and son partnerships, the father is the mainstay or the backbone because he’s always there while the younger generations are off at matches and maybe a young family.
“I’m 64 in May. I play a bit of golf every Sunday and I’d like to maybe do a bit more of that. I’ll stay going as long as I can. I just have had a huge interest in farming all of my life.”
Michael Murphy is calling on AI companies to show pictures of their bulls in catalogues and when requested by farmers.
“The dairy farmer has no say about having a look at what bull he’s using,” he says. “Last year I picked out three or four Friesian AI bulls and I couldn’t see a picture or anything and that’s leaning on me now.
“I’ve had a lot of argy-bargy between a couple of AI companies over the last 12 months over this. I’ve gotten the hairiest of excuses from them, that the Department won’t allow people in.
“I can understand that part of it from a disease point of view. But they are using every excuse under the sun not to show you a picture of the bull.
“Any good stockman, especially a guy like me that’s finishing the cattle, needs to be able to see the bull you’re using. Even a photo would put your mind at ease.
“Last year I dealt with Progressive Genetics and Dovea Genetics. I wrote a letter to Dovea, but I never got any response.
“You wouldn’t ring up enquiring about a bull advertisement in the Farming Independent and say ‘I’ll take him’ without seeing him. All you see in the AI catalogue is the dam or the grand-dam of the bull.
“This year I’m going to go through the catalogue, pick a couple of bulls, and if I can’t get a picture of the bulls I’m going to go out and buy two or three stock bulls.
“I consider I have a super herd, production-wise, with the calf I’m producing, and I want to try and keep it there.
“My average EBI is about €170 and EBI is being bandied about by the experts as the greatest thing since penicillin… and I would put a serious question mark over that.
“I reckon the higher up in EBI you go with your herd, there will be major issues down the line in terms of strength and power within your herd.
“I’m 600 feet above sea level here and you could have some damn tough days even during the grazing season and you’d need a good strong robust cow that will weather all of that.
“Listening to my vet, they are having more and more C-sections with high-EBI heifers just carrying Friesian. They find that this is going to be a big issue down the line.”