Scaling up - Pat Halpin on juggling the demands a 350-cow dairy enterprise with running a thriving farm contracting business
When Pat Halpin started off in milk production 20 years ago he had 32 cows. By 2015 that had risen to 120 and it's now 350 cows and counting.
So the shackles are well and truly off for Pat (41), and his wife Carmel who farm in the heart of the Golden Vale at Lackelly near Knocklong in Co Limerick.
As if the dairy farming enterprise wasn't challenging enough, in the last few years Pat has also become one of the biggest agricultural contractors in Limerick.
The Halpins have a spring calving herd of 350 Holstein Friesian cows, supplying Dairygold Co-op.
Pat leases 500 acres which leaves little room for error and tight margins.
However, after a challenging three years since scaling up numbers, Pat feels he is only now getting fully on top of managing a dairy enterprise of this size.
He needs 150 acres of pit silage and 2,500 round bales each year to meet fodder requirements.
However, even that wasn't enough over the exceptional 2017/18 winter, and like many others Pat was forced to import extra fodder as the feeding season seemed to never end. He will be looking to make more silage this year to avoid a repeat scenario next winter.
In 2008 he decided to expand the family business of dairying into agri-contracting services for local dairy and livestock farmers around Knocklong.
He says the move came about after gaining a lot of experience working with machinery and making his own silage over the years.
"It was a natural enough move for me actually because I was already making a lot of silage for myself and had good knowledge of machinery from owning my own kit," he explained.
"We now employ seven men full-time between the dairy and contracting enterprises, and a key advantage is that we can keep our staff employed year-round by placing them in whichever side of the business is busiest at a given time."
The result, says Pat, is that he is backed by a dependable local team of workers and doesn't have to go looking for part-time workers at the last minute each summer.
"We look after the staff well - things like giving them meals and proper pay - and in return they look after me."
The Halpin contracting team has an impressive range of grass machinery that allows the outfit to offer both a baled and pit silage service to surrounding farmer customers.
They also have the machinery to offer slurry spreading, hedge cutting, drainage and reseeding services.
The fleet is fresh, with plenty of 181 registration plates around the yard. In fact, thanks to a brand new 181-plated Claas Jaguar 860 self-propelled harvester, precision chop silage is a new service offered for the 2018 season; up until this point the team were running three silage wagons (two Strautmanns and a Pottinger).
The silage season has of course now kicked off in earnest and Pat was putting the new Jaguar self-propelled harvester through its paces for the first time over the weekend.
He bought it from local dealer McCarthy's of Cork, and says the decision to abandon wagons came about as a result of increasingly longer silage hauling distances being encountered. "We just found that as dairy farmers are expanding and growing cow numbers and acreage all the time, the haulage distances were getting too long than is practical for wagon silage," Pat explained.
"Fellas are renting land here and there with out-farms of 20 or 30 acres found maybe 15 miles away from the main base. It all means more mileage and adds up to big costs and slow progress for wagon silage.
"It was a big decision to switch systems but I'm confident it's the right move for us at this point. With the dairy business we already have the staff to do it, which might perhaps be a major sticking point for other outfits.
"We bought four new Broughan trailers this year as well to cater for the change in system because obviously you need more haulage capacity for a silage harvester set-up," he adds.
'We keep our invoicing terms short and expect to be paid within 60-90 days'
For precision chop silage this season, the Halpins will be charging €115 an acre into the pit including VAT in 2018. The 35pc rise in diesel prices since last summer is presenting challenges to the business in terms of running costs.
However, Pat says he has a good customer base and is confident his farmers will pay for works done.
"We try to keep our invoicing terms short and expect to be paid for silage works done within 60-90 days maximum," he revealed.
"The customers I have built up are good reputable ones who won't let you down in return for a good quality job done with the latest machinery.
"I don't go canvassing for work. If I did the farmer could turn around after the job and say 'hold on a second you came looking to me for work, so why should I have to pay you?' It sounds unbelievable but believe it or not, that does happen!"
The Halpin team also offer a comprehensive baled silage service which includes mowing, tedding, baling, moving and stacking bales.
The baling operation is underpinned by two McHale Fusion 3 Plus baler wrapper combinations.
Pat is a big fan, having owned successive marques of Fusion balers since the original was launched.
"They aren't the cheapest baler on the market but for me they are very reliable and don't break down often," is his verdict.
Last year the team made 17,000 bales of silage and interestingly all but 700 bales were wrapped with a film wrap called Baletite, rather than the traditional net wrap.
Baletite has been designed to enhance the ensiling process and protect the bale contents by providing an additional air barrier.
Pat feels it also helps to retain a better bale shape by exerting a tighter grip around the bale circumference.
In terms of baling charges last year the team charged €14 per bale including plastic costs and VAT for mowing, baling and wrapping. Tedding adds an extra €10 per acre.
However, Pat says baling charges this year will have to be increased a little.
"Last year's price just doesn't cover the 35pc rise in diesel costs we are seeing this summer, so I will need to adjust it upwards by a euro or two to account for that," he admitted.
Turning to mowing and tedding machinery, the team runs four Claas mowers (two front and rear combinations), as well as a new Claas 1100T 11m tedder bought this year.
Moving bales will be big business this summer as the team anticipate a huge amount of round bales will be made after the fodder crisis.
On this front the Halpins depend on their Keltec ten-pack bale handler, which Pat tips as one of the handiest machines in the fleet.
"Very few of our customers now wouldn't ask you to move bales here or there so we see it as an integral part of the fleet," he revealed.
Zero Grazing on the rise
A contracting outfit this size requires considerable fire power, so perhaps unsurprisingly the Halpin machinery fleet comprises of no less than 10 tractors. Claas is the dominant brand by far, making up eight of the modern tractor fleet.
Tractors are bought from local Claas dealer Conor Breen, who Pat credits with being reliable and available on call whenever the team need back-up.
The tractor fleet is kept as new as possible. 2018-registered models in the fleet this year include Claas Arion 650 and 630 models.
There are also two 2017-plated Claas tractors in the line-up, namely a 630 and a 440. Claas certainly dominates but the two exceptions are a 2017 Massey Ferguson 7720 that is often used for mowing and a 2007-plated New Holland TM 155.
Another new machine bought this season is the ZG 100 Zero Grazer. The investment was mostly spurred on by customer demand but Pat plans to use the Zero Grazer in his own dairying business for feeding cows as well.
"In our own business, cow numbers have been going up a lot and sometimes walking distances were getting too long, so we will certainly use it there," he explained.
"I would have been getting a lot of enquiries about whether we offer zero grazing from farmer customers in similar situations, so we decided to buy one this year.
"So far so good - we paid €56,000 plus VAT and bought it from Niall O'Reilly at Zero Grazing Systems."
On the slurry spreading side, the team offers splash plate, dribble bar and umbilical spreading systems.
Pat reports customers find they get more value out of their slurry using the dribble bar system compared to the splash plate, but the latter continues to be in demand, particularly at earlier times in the spring.
The Halpins have enough hosing and pump power to offer an umbilical system over 2km in length if needed.
Abbey tankers are used - bought from another local dealer, Lynch and McCarthy's of Cork - and Pat describes the system as being well-built and durable.
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