Farm Ireland

Friday 20 April 2018

Herd instincts

Pat Flynn started out with 19 cows in 1990 - he's now the owner of the country's No 1 EBI herd; we find out how he did it

Pat Flynn and work placement student Des Twomey on the Flynn farm at Kilworth, Co Cork.
Pat Flynn and work placement student Des Twomey on the Flynn farm at Kilworth, Co Cork.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

In a world where genetic rankings change almost as often as the weather, and indexes go up and down like a government's ratings, the number one EBI herd in Ireland is becoming ever more remarkable for the fact that it is heading into its third year at the top of the league.

How did Cork's Pat Flynn do it?

In some ways, the Kilworth farmer defies the norms for the breeding world. He started out milking 19 cows 25 years ago - a blink of the eye in breeding terms. Worse again (in breeders' eyes) Flynn never used AI until just five years ago. And yet the Cork farmer has got to a point where he can afford to turn down €10,000 offers for his bull calves.

It is probably his tendency to eschew norms that has put the Coolmahon herd at the top of the EBI rankings.

When almost every other dairy farmer in the country embraced the high yielding potential of the Holstein Friesian throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Flynn stuck to the British Friesian.

The rationale is exemplified by one of his oldest cows. Coolmahon Norton Newway is not just a long lasting EX90 classified cow. The stock-bull sired 13 year-old cow has popped a calf like clock-work during 12 of those 13 years, with her calving date never varying by more than three weeks from her mean of Jan 22.

During that time, she has produced 87t of milk, and an impressive 7t of milk solids. Butterfat averaged 4.25pc and protein 3.85pc during her first 11 lactations, leaving her with an EBI of €210. The day I visit, she is out with the rest of the cows grazing away, and looking like she's cruising through her twelfth lactation (see below).

"She's the type of cow I've always aimed for. My cows walk 1.5 miles to grass, up and down hills, so they need to be hardy," explains Pat.

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One of 10 children, the small farmhouse and bed that Flynn shared with his brothers is just across the road from the farm yard, located at about 400ft above sea level in the hills that overlook Fermoy and Teagasc Moorepark.

"I started out with 19 cows in 1990, and I always put a bigger emphasis on protein and fat percentages rather than milk yield.

"That's why I stuck with the British Friesian. I only used Holstein once on the herd about 10 years ago, and I used it again on about one third of the herd last year as an outcross of sorts. I'll use another bit of Holstein again this year but then I'll switch back to the Friesian.

"I think if I have more than 40pc Holstein in the herd I'll have more casualties and infertility," he said.

For the last quarter of a century, Flynn has visited Friesian herds the length and breath of the country.

"The first serious stock-bull that I bought cost me £3,000 (€3,840) back in the 1990s. It was a Marty son. It was a lot of money when I was milking just 40 cows, but when I crossed his daughters with Image, I ended up with 20 cows that averaged 4pc protein for every lactation," he said.

Buoyed by the success of that purchase, Pat invested €2,500-4,000 in each stock-bull over subsequent years, but always taking the time to visit the farm and see the dams beforehand.

"That's what I never liked about AI - you couldn't see what the mother really looked like, and you couldn't see what kind of a diet she was producing her volumes from," he said.

By 2001, the Coolmahon herd was selling almost every one of the 35 bull calves as stock-bulls, and providing a serious top-up on farm sales. But it hasn't been without its challenges.

"I can still sell pretty much every bull calf for breeding, but I've met my fair share of crooks over the years that would threaten you with court in a heartbeat. And I've no faith in fertility tests any more after seeing how much the results can vary from one week to the next," he said.

Selling stock for breeding means that Flynn has to be particular about disease in the herd, so the basics of good biosecurity, such as getting visitors to dip their boots on arrival, and keeping a closed herd, are implemented religiously.

Eventually, the Cork farmer found himself with no option but to start using AI on the herd.

"You can't beat the convenience of the stock-bull. And he often comes into €1,800 at the end of a two year term if you decide to slaughter him," said Flynn.

"But as a breeder I realised that I needed new bloodlines that just weren't available to me here. I actually ended up buying a flask from an ex-AI man here locally with all kinds of bulls.

"I'd love to be using some, but even the great bulls from over the years only have EBIs of €80-100 which would have a big effect on my herd average," he laments.

While Flynn knows that maintaining a high EBI has enabled him to add serious value to his bull calves and sell five into AI, he is also wary about getting more of his bloodlines into wider circulation.

"Three of AI bulls that I bred were all out of the same bloodlines - Ballynagrana Nautical out of cows sired by another stock-bull I bought, Ballykennedy Lysell Image.But I'm not keen on letting all my bloodlines into AI, so I've turned down up to €10,000 for calves. In fact, I even have a contract for buyers preventing them selling on stock-bulls into AI."

Pat Flynn is hosting an open day on June 22 for the IHFA and the Pure Friesian club

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