'It's all about grass, breeding and culling cows at the right time' - top dairy farmer
The All-Ireland Quality Milk champions from Monaghan reveal the secrets of their success
Darran and Denise McKenna created a slice of farming history last year when they became the first winners from Ulster of the "All-Ireland Championship for dairy farmers".
The McKennas qualified for the 2018 NDC/Kerrygold Quality Milk Award shortlist by having a somatic cell count (SCC) under 80,000 and a TBC under 10,000 each month for the previous year.
They opened their farm to the public last week for a farm walk organised by Teagasc, the NDC, Ornua and McKenna's milk processor, Lakeland Dairies.
The key to achieving such quality standards is a no-brainer for Darran. It comes down to investment.
"If you produce quality milk, you get a good price. It really is as simple as that," he said on the farm walk.
The McKennas milk on average 92 cows over the course of the year; the herd currently stands at 109. The key to getting quality milk and a good price is down to two things: breeding and grass.
Darran takes a ruthless approach to culling of cows and breeds only from the best.
"If she's empty, she's gone. Once you have the quality cows there it's easy to maintain. With regards to culling, people think there's a lot to it but if they're empty, they're out. That brings up the quality," he said.
The quality also extends to having a fit-for-purpose cow in the parlour.
"I want a cow that comes into the parlour and doesn't give me any grief. If I have a heifer with an EBI of €300 but she gives me grief in the parlour, then she's out too."
The basis of the herd is British Friesian, with crossing with Jersey and Holstein genetics.
Darran built two underpasses in recent years in order to have good access to grass on the whole of the 31ha grazing platform. The farm is 63ha in total, made up of owned and rented ground.
"To get good grass, you have to have 24-hour access to grass everywhere on the farm… I put in the underpasses for welfare for the cow and welfare for myself. It was torture there at times getting the cows across the road without help," he explained.
In 2018, the farm produced 521kg of milk solids per cow, with the cows yielding 6,654 litres per cow with constituents of 4.19pc fat and 3.42pc protein off of 700kg to 800kg of meal. The six-week calving rate was 80pc in 2018, which has risen to 85pc in 2019.
"If I could get all of them calved in the six weeks, I would and get it out of the way but it's tough going," Darran said.
Earlier at the event, Lakeland Dairies CEO Michael Hanley provided the keynote speech in which he paid tribute to the McKennas.
"The daily standards you set for yourselves are the yardstick for all farmers and you should be very proud of your continued achievements," he said.
"We are very happy to have you as part of the Lakeland Dairies family now and we are looking forward to working with you all into the future."
Mr Hanley provided an update on progress following the merger between Lakeland and LacPatick Dairies earlier this year.
"Our co-op has grown sustainably, brick by brick, and litre by litre, to be in the position it is in now," he said.
"Our farmers in the region have consistently made brave decisions with regards to consolidation in their own mutual best interests.
"The merger of Lakeland and LacPatrick was the largest of its kind across Europe in recent times and is testament to the foresight of the farmers in the northern half of the country.
"We intend to realise the benefits of the merger to the maximum possible extent for our dairy farmers."
Mr Hanley described climate change and sustainability as the "single biggest challenge" to the industry at present.
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