'I couldn't see a long-term future in beef for full-time farming'
Nigel Daunt grew up on a suckler beef farm, but in the last four years, in partnership with his parents, he has converted the family holding into an award winning dairy enterprise, reports Claire Fox
Young farmer Nigel Daunt has transformed his family's long-standing suckler farm into an award-winning dairy enterprise in the space of two years.
While Nigel's parents Dorothy and Robert ran a 75-strong suckler beef system farm in Coolcullitha near Innishannon, Co Cork, Nigel always had a keen interest in dairying.
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This interest took a step closer to action in 2010 when he decided to study Dairy Business in UCD. Having spent time working on an 830-cow herd in New Zealand and on a dairy farm in Cork, after graduating Nigel approached his parents about converting the suckler operation to cows and discovered that they too were open to the idea.
"The beef system had low profitability. We had a relatively good genetic merit, but you're very reliant on the basic payment coming from Europe," says Nigel, a Carbery Group milk quality award winner who hosted a walk on the family farm last week.
"There were very little drawings left for reinvestment in the farm. When it came to sustainability you couldn't see a future in it long term if you were going to go farming full time."
In spring 2015, the Daunts made their leap in to dairying when they purchased 33 high EBI dairy-bred heifer calves from a single dairy herd.
In spring 2016 they bought a further 24 calves from the same herd, with the aim of calving in spring 2017.
While delayed planning permission for their eight-unit dairy parlour - which has the potential to be expanded to 20 units - meant they couldn't milk until May 2017, Nigel has been happy with the progress on the farm so far. He says sourcing animals from one herd was very important.
"The suckler herd would've been a closed herd for years so we wanted to keep to as little sourcing as possible so all stock was purchased from a single herd with a known disease status and herd health programme," says Nigel who milked 29 Holstein Friesian cows in 2017 and currently milks 68.
"Some might say we started with small numbers, but we were happy with that route even if it takes longer to build it up.
"Calves are cheaper from the outset instead of buying in-calf heifers and you also get to rear them the way you want to so they get used to you."
The Daunts' Teagasc advisor Nigel Kennington explains that a lot of reseeding work and tidying up of ditches had to be done to make the farm suitable for dairy operation.
The 43.3ha farm was mapped professionally, with 23 paddocks divided in to 2ha each.
"A road network was designed to make sure that every paddock was accessible to a farm road. The Daunts were fortunate that they already had a lot of existing cubicles and sheds," says Mr Kennington.
He points out that the herd currently has an EBI of €153 and adds that the in-calf heifers due to join the herd next year have an EBI of €184, with the 2019 calves scoring an EBI of €197.
"The fertility performance of the herd has been very good, with 89pc of the herd calving in six weeks in 2019." Compact calving is a really strong goal for this family as they know it will drive performance.
In terms of grassland management the farm is walked regularly during the grazing season, with clover playing a huge role in the farm system resulting in higher milk solids.
Despite only being in dairying for just over two years, Nigel was recently crowned Carbery Milk Quality winner 2019 with his herd noted for delivering 5,000 litres of milk and 400kg of milk solids.
While Nigel acknowledges that dairying isn't for everyone, he feels it offers his farm a more sustainable chance of survival and believes they can expand to 120 cows in the not too distant future.
"Thankfully we had a block of ground that we were able to convert. Dairying is probably 40pc extra workload than beef but you're getting way more of a return for your work," he says.
"It's unfortunate the way things are going with beef at the moment. We still have some beef.
"One thing we noticed when we got in to dairying is that you're supplying to a co-op, whereas beef farmers are supplying to a private entity that want to make as much money as possible."
Gearing up for chlorine-free cleaning
Farmers need to start planning chlorine free alternatives for cleaning before the 2021 ban on chlorine products is introduced, says Teagasc advisor Don Crowley.
Chlorine cleaning products have traditionally been used to wash milking machines, bulk tanks and dairy units.
Chlorine can sometimes leave behind a residue called Trichloromethane (TCM) which can then get transferred to dairy produce.
While Ornua acknowledge that progress has been made on TCM issues, it has decided to go ahead with a ban on chlorine-based cleaning products.
Don Crowley has been undertaking chlorine-free cleaning research in Moorepark.
He said that since TCM can limit the shelf life of pasteurised milk and spoil products such as butter, infant formula and milk powder, it is important farmers switch to alternative cleaning methods as soon as possible.
Options for machine washing include seven hot washes a week, three acid washes per week, using washing products that have higher caustic levels, peracetic acid or 'one for all products'.
"Hot washes will really become a bigger part of it all with higher acid inclusion per week as well," he said.
On bulk tank washing, he said that various options can be used depending on whether the wash system is manual, semi automatic or fully automatic.
For example, fully automatic dosing units can be programmed to use caustic detergent after two collections and an acid detergent after the third collection, using hot water at each collection.
This routine is suitable for fully automatic, semi automatic and manual bulk tank cleaning.
Alternatively the caustic detergent could be used with hot water and a second pump used to add peracetic acid to an additional final rinse, after each collection, however this routine is only suitable for automatic systems.
While an acid-based 'one for all' product is manufactured to both clean and disinfect without using additional cleaning agents, the addition of a caustic detergent in place of the acid product every third wash is considered beneficial and is suitable for automatic, semi automatic and manual systems.
Mr Crowley stated that farm hygiene and cow management is key to controlling TCM levels and that farmers should take care to clean and dry teats prior to cluster attachment and trim cow tails up to three times yearly.
"Don't underestimate clipping tails. It can help mitigate against contamination. Farmers need to start doing more of it. Having a clean environment is also important. The last 200m where cows are coming in to the parlour needs to be kept as clean as possible," said Mr Crowley.
Longer lactations needed for sustainable dairy expansion
Cows will have to lactate for longer if Irish dairying is to expand at a sustainable level in to the future, Teagasc animal and grassland researcher, Dr Brendan Horan, told last week's farm walk on the Daunt holding in Inishannon, Co Cork.
Dr Horan says that currently the average lactation on Irish dairy herds is 3.4, but that the aim should be to increase this by one lactation to ensure more efficient dairy practice.
"Longer lasting cows is the genetic trait that is most important. Improving fertility will be central to sustainability. Our herds are far too young today," says Dr Horan.
He points out that while the average dairy herd uses 180kg of chemical fertiliser each year and the most intensive herds use 250kg, he says in the future dairy herds won't be able to go over the 250kg mark if they want to remain environmentally efficient.
"Our emissions per hectare have been growing. Over the last five years alone it has grown by 12pc. We have to be able to curtail that, that's not going to be allowed to continue," he says.
"Being a more sustainable dairy farm means being more profitable as well so it's in your best interest."
Dr Horan added that more emphasis needs to be placed on white clover pastures which allow for a reduction in nitrogen application and promote a 7pc to 10pc increase in milk solids.
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