Farm Ireland

Saturday 21 April 2018

Spotlight on Shinagh: new dairy demo operation up and running

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The dairy farmers in west Cork will be pleased with the latest milk price leagues which show that their four co-ops of Bandon, Barryroe, Drinagh and Lissavaird top the rankings.

But they should be even more satisfied with the role that their co-ops are beginning to play in helping Teagasc generate practical information on optimising profitability on farms in their own region through the recently converted dairy unit at Shinagh, just outside Bandon town.

It's hard to beat the relevance of demonstration farms in generating real figures on maximising profitability for farmers.

This has been proved already by the massive crowds that have flocked to the Greenfield site in Kilkenny during it first year in business.

The latest dairy business to be established by Teagasc should be a win-win for the co-ops involved. Not only do they have a perfect opportunity to encourage further investment in milk production in their region, they pocket an annual rent of €36,000 over the next 15 years for renting their 195ac grassland farm to the Shinagh Dairy farm company set up by Teagasc.

At the same time, they're getting annual interest dividend on the €260,000 that they've loaned to the project. Another €500,000 has been loaned to the project by Ulster Bank, who appear to have been on a major PR drive within the farming community in recent weeks.

With this investment, the beef unit that was originally used for progeny-test trials for South Western Services' AI unit, has been converted into a 200+ spring calving dairy cow farm.

You would be forgiven for thinking that a farm operated on such a commercial basis would take little modification, apart from the construction of a milking parlour. So I was surprised to learn on a visit to the farm last week that sheds, fencing, water-troughs and even laneways were all required to get the enterprise up and running. But these exercises in themselves have valuable lessons for any farmer on the expansion trail. Teagasc's Padraig French explained to me they minimised the cost of creating the 2.5km of new laneways.

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"We stripped and mounded the top-soil from the area where the lane was going, and then we stripped the same width again beside it," he said.

"Then we dug out enough shale and stone on the non-lane side to build up the lane area to a height above the level of the surrounding field. The top soil was then simply folded back into the area where the top soil was taken out and re-seeded. It's the same principle that's used to build a motorway and works out at about €6/m. In some places, where the soil type wasn't suitable, we did bring in some extra stone."

A 20-unit Fullwood herringbone parlour was also installed for €200,000. That didn't come without its headaches either. "We were milking 15 cows with a single unit in a half constructed parlour last February," recalls herd manager Kevin Ahern.

"The severe frosts delayed the concreting because you can't pour concrete if the temperature isn't above four degrees Celsius. The crew installing the parlour were seriously busy and often weren't on-site until after midday. I had a rule that they were to be out of the parlour by 4pm every evening, so the whole schedule started to slip."

When they finally got the parlour up and going, the next challenge was to get the 199 first lactation cows through it. The herd, 40pc of which crossbreds, were purchased with the aim of calving them as two year-olds in a two-month calving period from the middle of February. The selection process was stringent. The most important criteria, according to the Teagasc-Carbery dairy specialist John McNamara, was that they tested negative for BVD, neospora and Johne's disease. They also had to have a EBI fertility index of at least €60 and cost no more than €1,200 each.

Training in new heifers in the parlour is always a stressful time of the year for any farmer. Training 198 heifers into parlour that had never been set foot in before, without a single mature cow to show the way was always going to be a tall order. It is a credit to the patience and perseverance of the farm manager, Kevin Ahern, that 197 of the original 199 animals calved are still milking today.

"There was always somebody here at night checking every few hours on the heifers because you just couldn't take chances like the way you might with a mature herd of cows," he said.

"My philosophy was that the cow must always be able to get up after calving. Keep the cow alive at all costs."

Kevin did a good job at keeping the calf mortality at 8pc too. "Nobody from outside the farm was allowed into the calf shed during the housing period. It is the same policy that any good pig farmer will use. As a result, we had no scours at all during the year."


But as with any new project, there were plenty of other teething issues. "I noticed that the cows would come as far as an invisible line just before they entered the parlour," said Kevin.

"It was especially noticeable when it was a really wet day. Our SCC was also higher than we felt it should have been at 160-220,000. We decided to do some tests for stray current and picked up about 3V of stray current. We put down a new earth bar and the stray voltage problem was sorted and SCC levels stabilised at 100,000 ."

Even with all the attention to detail, the cows were yielding 15pc below the targets set up by Teagasc's management team. Bloods were sampled, milk was tested and dungs were analysed. Despite looking for every disease and mineral deficiency, the team eventually discovered that it was a wormer that the herd required.

"This was despite the fact that the whole herd had been wormed and fluked before they calved," said Padraig French. "Almost immediately we saw that milk yields and protein increase from 3.2pc to the 3.63pc that they are at today. It points to a blind spot that we have in the management of our first calving cows I think in relation to parasitic control, because that depressed yield could have been masked by their older herd-mates in a standard herd."

Despite these challenges, the overall performance of the herd has been remarkably good. Only eight of the original 205 purchased heifers are not still milking. Four were empty, one died, one calved with E coli mastitis, while another was recently dried off because of a bleeding ulcer. There was one Caesarean. Current TBCs are less than 13,000 and the favourable grazing season has meant that the herd has only been housed two nights since the beginning of calving.

While the farm has been facilitated by the best of advice and an initial quota allocation of 850,000 litres from the Department of Agriculture, every farmer will know, following the negative publicity surrounding some of Teagasc's other demonstration farms, that making this project work under the gaze of the public eye will take real perseverance. The farm budget allows €65,000 for labour, which is basically designed to cater for the farm manager's wages and that of contractors and relief milkers. However, during the first year, extra student help has been drafted in during the labour intensive set-up phase.

Low-cost options have been targeted in getting the farm up and going. A 10-bay slatted beef shed was rebuilt with 200 cubicles for a surprising €550/cow. The project team calculated that this was actually cheaper than building and maintaining a stand-off pad during the 15-year time-span for the project. The parlour also demonstrates some of those characteristics more common in milking parlours Down Under, with one side completely open to the elements.

"You can feel the rain here some days coming in on top of the first three units in the parlour," admits Kevin, before adding with a wry smile, "I still haven't convinced them to spend the extra €500 to sheet off the other side of the shed."

Watch out for monthly updates from Shinagh Farm over the coming months on our management pages.

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