High-profile beef farmer's switch to dairy in 2014 has gone well

Michael Doran is quite a new entrant to dairy farming based at Johnstown, Duncormick, Co Wexford.

He is the fourth generation to run the family farm, but a lot has changed since the time his parents, James and Catherine, were farming.

His father’s parents had a mixed farm with 12 cows all milked by hand, some sheep and tillage. They stopped milking cows in the 1950s.

Michael studied agricultural at Rockwell College, finishing in 1994, and came home to farm full time.

Michael started with 50 suckler cows, 75 ewes and 12 hectares of cereals.

He became a well-known suckler farmer, increasing the suckler herd to 120 and sheep to 200, with 40 hectares of grain.

Making a change

In September 2012, his son, James, was born with Down’s Syndrome, and spent much of his first year in hospital. It was a worrying time.

They faced decisions about Ciara leaving work.

Income from the beef enterprise was declining.

Waiting in hospitals, Michael spent some of his time searching profit monitors online, and explored differences between dairy and beef.

Looking at the profits made by good quality dairy farmers, he felt it would be a logical decision to switch from beef to dairy, as he believed it would offer better opportunities.

“I had never milked a cow. But this was the best decision we ever made for the farm,” says Michael.

He and Ciara had a lot of contacts in Teagasc and spoke with advisers who gave them very valuable advice.

In 2013, Michael applied for a milk quota under a new scheme for entrants, and was allocated a quota of 200,000 litres.

He built a new 24-unit herringbone milking parlour, upgraded roadways on the farm, and sold about 60 suckler cows to buy 80 in-calf Jersey cross heifers.

His decision to go with Jersey cross cows was well researched and based on their good track record in fertility, solids and easy handling.

He managed to buy the first 80 in-calf heifers from two farmers in October 2013.

He milked his first cow in January 2014, and started supplying manufacturing milk to Glanbia Ireland.

Monitor farm programme

Michael joined the Teagasc Glanbia Monitor Farm Programme in 2015, and says it was a “brilliant” decision.

The Joint Programme set out to help dairy farmers promote sustainable growth, post-quotas.

Michael has found the experience very useful, as he has had access to superb information.

It’s been fantastic. We’ve seen big improvements in a number of areas, but the focus on finance and planning has been especially useful.

Michael had 135 cows when he joined the Programme, but knew when he reached a herd size of 200 cows that he would need more land.

In 2015, he purchased an adjoining 26-hectare block.

He sold about 16 hectares of land five miles away from the milking platform, and the additional land increased his milking platform to 80 hectares.

Managing expansion costs

Michael continued to expand his herd, and in 2018 milked 240 cows.

Over a three-year period from 2013, Michael invested €309,500 on infrastructure alone, including the new parlour/dairy, housing cubicles, storage and field infrastructure such as water, roadways and fencing.

Managing our finances has been crucial, with this investment.

“We use the Cost Control Planner every year, and have six-year plans in place for the farm, which are reviewed regularly.

“The Monitor Farm Programme has given me a brilliant discipline about financial planning.’ Michael has managed to reduce variable and fixed costs between 2014 and 2017.

The overall net profit per cow has increased from €607 per cow in 2014 to €936 per cow in 2017.

Making grass work profitably

Michael believes that having the right cow and getting grassland management right are both critical.

“I called myself a grass farmer before I called myself a beef or dairy farmer,” he says.

He has been measuring grass since 2008. Michael’s average milk yield in 2017 was 4,754 litres, but he says that pushing big yields is not as important as improving solids and maximising production from grass.

Average milk solids in 2017 were at 427 kg/cow, protein at 3.87%, and fat at 4.85%, with 55% of the herd first and second calvers.

In 2017, the stocking rate was 2.85 (LU/ha).

Michael was achieving 18 tons of dry matter per hectare grass growth, but had also improved soil fertility with pH over 6.3 at 85% in 2017, up from 20% in 2015. P Index at 3/4 was up to 90% in 2017, from 65% in 2015.

And K index 3/4 was at 95% in 2017, from 90% in 2015.

He is doing soil testing every year to “keep a handle on it all.”

Managing a large herd

Michael works closely with his vet on herd health plans and a good vaccination programme. In 2018 he sent 40 heifers for contract rearing.

It did free up more time and made sure our stocking rates weren’t under pressure, especially when we faced conditions like drought.

Work and lifestyle balance

Michael now has two labour units working with him.

Spring is a busy time, so he works every second weekend of the first five months.

When breeding is over, everyone works every third weekend.

He also manages to take a summer holiday in July each year, which would have been impossible in his previous enterprise.

Michael and Ciara have three children, Ella aged ten, James aged six, and Tomás is five. Both boys started primary school in September 2018, which is a big step.

Michael hopes that one of the children may be interested in the farm in the future, but is determined that the farm that he passes on will be as good if not better than the farm he got from his parents.

“That’s what family farming is really all about,” he says.

This Teagasc/ Glanbia Monitor Farm Programme 2015-2018 is reproduced with permission from the www.glanbiaconnect.com website.

Dairy cows have increased in many counties, but remain most numerous in Co Cork

The number of dairy cows in Ireland increased by 48,200 (or 3.4%) from 2017 to 2018, according to the June 2018 Crops and Livestock Survey recently released by the Central Statistics Office.

Other cows dropped by 33,100 (or 3.1%).

In the survey, dairy cows numbered 1,480,900, which is up from 1,397,900 in June, 2016 (a total increase of 6%).

But the increase in dairy cows is more than 14% since June 2015, following the ending of the EU milk quota system on March 31, 2015.

Dairy cows have increased in many counties, but remain most numerous in Co Cork, with 378,200.

Tipperary ranked second, with 173,200.

Next came Limerick and Kerry with respectively 118,900 and 100,600. They were followed by Meath, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford, with respectively 63,500; 90,100; 85,600; and 77,900.

More recent statistics show that the milk intake by creameries and pasteurisers was up 8.6% for the January to March period this year, compared with last year.

The 697.3 million litres intake for March was 11.1 % above the corresponding 2018 figure.

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