All roads lead to Westmeath – Dairy Summer Tour 2019
County Westmeath will be the location for the Irish Grassland Association 2019 Dairy Summer Tour sponsored by AIB. The event takes place on Tuesday 23 July. Westmeath is amongst the counties that have seen the highest rate of growth in milk production in recent years, with new entrants to dairying forming a significant proportion of this increase. Two contrasting farming stories will be on show to tell their unique stories of how their farms have developed from being new entrants to Dairying in 2014, to become well run and efficient operations that face the future with huge confidence to maximise the future opportunities of dairy farming as a business and as a lifestyle.
Peter Hamm and Robert English are both farming close to Athlone in Co. Westmeath. Both were faced with making decisions around how they would develop their farms, and considered the possibility of a future in dairying as an alternative to their existing beef and sheep operations. While the scale of resources and opportunity presented to both farms were vastly different, the outcome was common to the success of both operations as they embarked on their journey in dairying – they both focussed on not settling for being average dairy farmers, but being amongst the top-performers. This required focussing and prioritising the key elements of their systems including soil fertility, grassland reseeding, grazing infrastructure and cow genetics.
Not only do the farms share an experience as new entrants, they have also both taken additional expansion opportunities beyond the scope of their original business plans by taking on additional leased land into their milking platform. Each of their stories are unique, but both are well worth hearing for anybody thinking of entering dairying, expanding or just doing things better!
Peter Hamm was farming 25 suckler cows on a 16 hectare farm of owned land, with a rented out-farm of 8 ha. The farm was a secondary operation to the main day-job: working in his own construction business. With the downturn in the building industry, and the increasing pressure to be on the road less and be more available for family, Peter focussed on improving the farm income to secure a viable living and lifestyle for the future.
Despite the limited land base, he developed a business plan to run a 50-cow dairy farm. He began milking in 2014 with 30 bought in heifers, with a minimal investment of €40,000 to get up and running with milking facilities, housing adaptations and grazing infrastructure. One of the key foundations to his success over time was the quality of these heifers. Of the original 30 in-calf heifers that were purchased, 27 calved down in 2015, and the cull rate of this batch of animals was limited to just 1 cow per year over the following 2 years. Peter highlights that “when you’re in small numbers, every single cow matters, so being able to keep those cows in the herd kept replacement rates low and helped build numbers”.
Aided by the availability of 3 hectares of additional rented grazing, cow numbers grew steadily to 50 by 2017, and the original business plan was achieved and performing well. This allowed Peter to be in a good position to take his next big opportunity when 32 ha of neighbouring land became available for long-term lease – all of which could be accessed by cows. The land needed soil fertility, reseeding and grazing infrastructure investment, but it was a golden opportunity. Half of it was brought into the system in 2018, and cow numbers increased to 74. Now in 2019, it is all reseeded with water and roadways, and is ready to go as Peter faces into this spring with 109 cows for 2019, and with ambition to reach 135-140 cows in 2020. Underpinning the development of this farm is a high level of performance of the herd, with milk solids per cow hitting 539 kg in 2018.
Peter’s journey into dairying has not been an easy one. It began with limited scope in terms of land base, but focussed on efficiency in terms of the grass and the herd performance. It presented major challenges in terms of cash flow in the initial years, but has delivered hugely to date for Peter in achieving his family and lifestyle targets, and in being able to take on the additional opportunity for development when it came his way. Peter is also not afraid of getting help in on the farm to help get work done without over-pressurising his own workload, and he keenly emphasises the importance of people management skills. All this, and more, will be well worth coming to hear on the day!
The opportunity of converting a block of 113 hectare of owned land into a dairy farm was what attracted Robert English to switch career from being a civil engineer to return home to farm in partnership with his father, Mervyn. However, it was not a decision that was taken blindly. Up to 2013, the farm was under beef and sheep. Before deciding on dairying, Robert took advice to go and work on a dairy farm to make sure he knew what he was taking on. After six months on a dairy farm close to home, and with a business plan in place for development, he started milking cows in 2014.
The farm is located close to Lough Ree and is variable in terms of land quality. While approximately half the farm is good dry land, there it is also approximately 60 ha of low lying land that is heavily dependent on a pumped drainage system that was installed in the 1960’s. Twenty hectares of this has been reseeded and is within the grazing block. The remainder is scheduled for improvement in 2019, but has not been prioritised as higher potential soils of the farm were being developed.
The dairy enterprise commenced with 50 bought-in heifers filling milk quota allocated from the National Reserve. Cow numbers and facilities developed over the succeeding years to reach 166 in 2018, as did herd performance, hitting 537 kg milk solids per cow in 2018. The herd (EBI 2019 = €151) has taken on cross-breeding, mainly driven by Robert’s ambition to reduce the cow maintenance requirements.
Opportunity knocked in 2018 when an additional 28 ha neighbouring parcel of land came available for lease. Cow numbers have been increased to 260 for 2019 thanks to the purchasing of additional heifers, and the additional ground is reseeded and ready for cows.
On the road to development, both of these farms concentrated on being top performers. While the scale is contrasting, the message is the same: ‘Good Practice is Essential’. Focussing on grass and cows has served both well. In both cases, the farms started from zero to maximise the return from the resources available. In doing so, both were well positioned to take full advantage of their next opportunity. The stories of both farms should make for a very interesting day!
The Irish Grassland Association greatly appreciates AIB Banks’ support of our 2019 Dairy Summer Tour Event. Speaking on behalf of the sponsors AIB, Eamonn O’Reilly AIB Agri Advisor said, ‘this year’s tour will be a great opportunity to see, hear and learn from two progressive new entrants. Both Peter and Mervyn and Robert are typical of many of the new entrants we have supported in recent years, who are now reaping the rewards of dairying and are looking to grow their businesses on the back of focussing on the fundamentals of cows and grass. In AIB, we are again delighted to be main sponsors of the IGA Dairy Summer Tour and look forward to another excellent event.’
This event sells out early every year so book now to secure your place and early booking discounts of 25%. To purchase your tickets, you can post back your booking form and payment in the prepaid envelope which all members received. Alternatively, you can also make a reservation online at www.irishgrassland.ie or phone Maura at 087-9626483.