Powering ahead with 500-cow unit in Kilkenny

Jim, Edmund, John Power and Ger Cunningham who works for them.
Jim, Edmund, John Power and Ger Cunningham who works for them.
The new 50-unit Dairymaster rotary parlour cost €235,000 and went 'live' a month ago.
The Powers have also invested heavily in a new 300 cubicle shed, handling facilities and housing for the new parlour and dairy.
John Power playing for Kilkenny in 1999
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Kilkenny's Power family are renowned for their hurlers, but the John Locke's men are also well established players on the farming scene in the southeast.

Over the last 30 years, three of the six brothers - Jim, Edmond and John - have built up a 1,200ac mixed farming enterprise based on beef, cereals and milk.

But the latter looks set to take centre stage, with the Powers investing a large six-figure sum in a massive new milking facility designed to cater for 500 cows.

"When I came home in the 1980s we had a quota of just over 80,000 gallons," recalls Jim Power.

"The quota system did more harm than good for this country in my opinion. It tried to cut us out of dairying. But we built it up to over 800,000 litres today, with every single one of those litres bought," he added.

Come next spring, the Powers will be aiming to supply over 2m litres with more than 400 cows and heifers due to calve down. With such rapid expansion in less than 12 months, how are the brothers coping with the disease pressures and quota constraints?

"We seem to be tipping away grand disease-wise. That's probably because we didn't need to buy in any stock," says John.

But quota pressures are a separate matter, with the Kilkenny men forking out over €50,000 in super-levy fines in recent years.

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"We're kinda chancers down here - and we've been paying super-levies all our lives," laughs Jim. He expects to have the quota filled by October 15 this year, and plans to simply dry off all the cows.

As suppliers to Callan Co-op, the Powers' milk ends up in Glanbia, one of the dairy processors most severely affected by quota restrictions in recent years.

But Jim Power doesn't let the vagaries of increasingly volatile milk prices worry him.

"I'm not one bit worried about what milk price is going to be over the coming year, because we've absolutely no control over it. It's a bit like the dog at dinnertime - you'll take what you get," he said.

Despite building up significant beef and cereal enterprises - the brothers farm over 400ac of cereals and have fattened up to 1,500 head a year - the Powers now believe their future lies in the white gold that flows from their dairy herd.

"Over the years the cow always did the best - the beef and tillage are too hit and miss. Happily, it was always the first love for us here too. Sure there's no comparison between the returns from the other enterprises and the cows at the moment," says Edmond, before admitting that there's a big element of chance in whatever direction the farm takes.

"No-one can ever be sure that they're doing the right thing. Look at us back in the 1990s when we were buying cattle and trying to maximise our headage. On one hand we were told that we were giving away the slaughter premium to the suckler man, but as it turned out we got paid those slaughter premiums ten-times over when they were rolled into our Single Farm Payment," he says.

The Powers can take comfort from the fact that they've amassed a rare land bank in terms of its scale, quality and lack of fragmentation.

Over the last 30 years, they've bought close to 500ac at prices that ranged from under €4,000 to €22,000 per acre, leaving them with a single block around their farm of 600ac, along with another 200ac in the surrounding locality.

"We were just dead lucky in that we live in an area that was full of bachelors, and as they died off, we kept buying, especially during the 1990s when nobody else was interested. I'd say we picked up most of the land for close to €4,000/ac," said Jim.

Now the Powers have an enviable 600ac block of land around the home farm, which they plan to dedicate to a milking herd of 500 cows.

"That sets us up nicely for dairying because land is going to be the new quota," says Edmond.

"The other thing that we have in our favour is labour, because you need reliable labour when you're at the cows.

"That's the thing about working with family - there's plenty of rows, but you can be sure of a labour force, and crucially, a labour force that cares.

"I find that as soon as you step away the cows, things start going wrong," he said.

Does he see a big increase in the national dairy herd?

"I don't think there will be that big an increase. A lot of cows are only being half milked at the moment. I'd say the increase in cow numbers will only cancel out the number of men that are getting out because they've nobody coming through behind them," says Jim.

While Jim jokes that they "stayed away from the women for as long as possible," there's no shortage of potential farmers in the next generation of Powers, with John's 17 year-old twins the eldest of the farmers' sons.

"They worked us into the ground this summer, harder than any contractor I'd say," says John.

"It's great to see them with a love for the cows and I'd be keen to see them come home to the farm, but they're good at school and we have to give them a chance to make up their own minds."

But as Jim, Edmond and John approach the 50 year-old mark, the brothers are starting to think about a time when they may not be able to work so hard.

"Our dad used to always say that by the time you're 50, you need a young fellow with you. Otherwise, you'll age 20 years before you've hit 60," said John.

Powers on beef

"The price wasn't too bad for us this year, largely because we had contract with Dawn, which they stuck to, in fairness to them," says Jim.

While the Powers have scaled back their beefing operation from the massive 1,500 head they were handling during the heyday of the headage schemes, they still fatten 850 head, and don't plan to shrink any further.

"With the number of cows, we won't need to buy in stock. Instead we'll run an Angus bull with the heifers and a Friesian with the cows."

They also intend to stick with the intensive bull-beef system that sees them finishing bulls from 16 months of age.

The Powers believe their future reliance on the dairy cow will be replicated around the country. "You need a big premium to carry the suckler cow, and that just isn't there now," says John.

"I think it is all going to go back to the traditional breeds off the dairy cow. That's the way it used to be," he said.

Powers on 2014

"There was unbelievable growth this year - we've cobs on the maize like bottles of wine," says Jim Power.

He reckons that they will harvest 30-35t/ac in maize this year. But their cereal crops also threw off some record yields. "We had a demo combine in cutting spring barley with a yield monitor on it," says Edmond.

"It was showing over 4t/ac with a bushel weight of 72kph, which was certainly a first for me. That was a two row variety called Quintus. It was a strong field from the start when it was sown in March.

"But yields all around were exceptional. Winter wheat was busheling to 80kph, winter barley was hitting 70kph."

Hurling, Cody and Tipperary

"If he was kicking a soccer-ball for 16 years, he wouldn't need to ever look at a cow again," laughs Jim, referring to John's impressive stint with the Kilkenny seniors.

"I don't think he'd survive under Cody now - it's so time demanding that there's no farmers on the team," said Edmond.

But what does the man himself think?

"I don't think Brian (Cody) is the slave-driver everybody says he is," says John.

"His ethos was honest, and he lives in the country. So if I had to ring up to say that I wouldn't make training, he was always very accommodating."

Were Jim and Edmond ever frustrated with the amount of time he spent away from the farm?

"Not a bit. We're very family-oriented, and I was always prepared to push that bit harder through the work to get away," says John.

What about Tipperary ?

"It'll be very difficult to beat Kilkenny in a replay, and there's probably that bit less pressure from the supporters. I fancy our chances."

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