Dairy Summer Tour 2015

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Irish Grassland Association Dairy Summer Tour 2015

Dairy Summer Tour


On Tuesday, 28th July 2015 the Irish Grassland Association held their annual Dairy Summer Tour in Co. Galway. A capacity crowd of almost 500 delegates were kindly hosted by Henry and Patricia Walsh and Noel O’Toole. The theme of the day was ‘A Roadmap through Expansion’. Although there were moments when the heavens opened and rain of biblical proportions ensued it wasn’t enough to dampen the enthusiasm of the audience who enjoyed a day full of learning and lively discussion.

Henry WalshHenry and Patricia Walsh Henry and Patricia Walsh farm at The One Mile Dairy in Oranmore, Co. Galway. They have two sons Aidan and Enda, who both help out with the farm. The Walshes addressed the topic of strategies for successful large-scale expansion on the day.

In 1996 Henry and Patricia took over the farm from Henry’s parents. The farm was then 40 ha with a 50 cow purebred Holstein Friesian dairy herd supplying a liquid milk contract of 236,400 litres with a small beef enterprise consisting of 20 bullocks.

8.1 ha of land adjoining the farm were purchased and approximately 45,500 litres was also purchased from the Co-op, with some temporary leasing also availed of. Later in 1996 a further 10 ha and 84,000 litres were secured on a 10 year lease. This milk was subsequently purchased. The available quota (owned and temporary) was then over 386,400 litres filled by 72 cows milking all year round. This triggered the start of the expansion and the emphasis on the farm moved to a dairy only enterprise. 

Henry WalshHenry says a lot of their success is attributed to meeting Bryony Fitzgerald in 2001. She increased their focus on grass production and net-worth. By spring 2002 the herd had converted to spring milk production with the herd size of 104. A six week family summer holiday to Australia led to a new focus on grass management. While away a 20 year old student fresh from a Stephen Cullinane scholarship to New Zealand managed the farm and with the knowledge he had gained in New Zealand, kept milk supply level through the July-August period and the quality of the pastures on Henry’s return opened his eyes to the importance of mid-season grassland management. This trip also included a number of unplanned visits to farms most of whom were milking between ten and twenty rows of cows. The farmers agreed the number of rows was doable so long as you only milked once in the day and someone else did the other milking.

By 2003 herd size had grown to 125 cows. Expansion was slowing down due to quota restraints. In 2006 the opportunity to become a dual supplier with Kerry and Connacht Gold gave Henry access, over the next 8 years, to 500,000 litres of extra quota and a new phase of expansion began. In 2008 157 cows were being milked. Henry built a 130 cow wintering pad, and a 4.2 mn litre lined lagoon. A silage slab was also built and in-parlour feeders installed to speed up milking. In 2011 the collection yard was increased and a backing gate installed in 2012. In 2014 a second calf rearing shed was built as numbers increased.

Grassland Management

All milk from the farm is produced off grass or bales grown on the milking platform. No silage from any of the outside blocks is brought in to supplement the lactatingherd. Approximately 400 kg concentrate/cow is fed in the shoulders. The farm needs to grow 13.7 t DM/ha and utilise 11 t DM/ha (80%). To achieve this Henry puts a lot of emphasis on the spring rotation planner and the autumn planner as well as grass measuring and budgeting during the year.

Breeding management

After he took over the farm, Henry started using New Zealand genetics as part of his breeding programme and from 2000 began crossbreeding with Jersey. Henry participated in the Moorepark Norwegian Red On-Farm study in 2004 and there are still some cows from this study in the herd today. Since 2010 the herd has been predominantly crossbred using Friesian and Jersey sires. Henry’s ideal cow is 75% Friesian and 25% Jersey. Achieving 450 kg milk solids per cow

When asked how he achieves 450 kg milk solids per cow Henry said he targets 290 days in milk. He uses bulls with an average €120 EBI for fertility and also selects bulls with high fat and protein – 0.5% in 2014 and 0.42% in 2015. He also tries to ensure that the herd calve compactly, in 2015 65% calved in 3 weeks, 85% calved in 6 weeks and calving interval was 366 days. Low empty rates are also a key criteria.


As the farm has grown, the role of motivated skilled labour has become more and more essential with regards the day-to-day tasks like milking the cows. Currently, there are six people plus Henry involved in the running of the farm. These are Henry’s wife Patricia, sons Aidan and Enda, college students and his neighbour John. The business relationship between John and Henry started in 2007 when Henry got access to extra quota through a dual supply contract and employed John for morning milking. John had just exited dairy farming due to a requirement for major capital investment to continue and had moved into sucklers, dry stock and relief milking. There is a long history of employing students on this farm and there are currently two employed by Henry, Eoin Douglas and Darragh Keane. Patricia, Henry’s wife, plays the important role of facilitator on the farm. Most of the planning, organisation and discussion is done at the kitchen table with all the farm workers. Patrica also looks after the feeding of the new born calves, particularly when they are getting colostrum. Contractors are primarily employed for silage, reseeding and land reclamation works.


The profitability of Henry’s farm is excellent with a net margin of €918/cow and €2548/milking platform ha. What makes these figures even more impressive is the fact that continuous expansion has taken place over the past 10 years with little effect on farm profitability. The key to these impressive figures has been Henry's continued pursuit in a low cost model of farming. This, combined with a low infrastructure spend and cheap out-wintering of a portion of the herd has kept the capital spend low throughout his journey of expansion. Profit per ha is also boosted by increased milk solids output/ha (1150+ kg MS/ha on average) over the last 5 years. Henry plans to push stocking rate on the milking platform to 3.5 cows/ha in 2016. The milking platform will increase by 4 ha in 2016 and the herd will grow by 40 cows. The challenge is to keep margin per cow the same by retaining the low cost ethos of thefarm. The increased stocking rate and additional 4 ha have the potential to add over €36,000 to existing profits.

Noel O’Toole

Noel O'TooleThe visit to Noel O’Tooles farm was an impressive exercise, not least because of the open manner in which Noel discussed his business, but also his attitude to life and farming, and how he has influenced so many other farmers in the area. The theme of the visit to Noels farm was high output at low cost.

The O’Toole’s are farming on a 41 ha milking block near the village of Killimor in east Galway. Noel has been farming all his life and the farm has changed immeasurably under his guidance. Milk production began on the farm in the 1960’s but initially this was just one of many enterprises. By the 1970’s the enterprise mix had narrowed to just milk and beef production and when quotas were introduced in 1984 Noel was milking 50 cows supplying a 204,600 litre quota. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s Noel expanded his herd through the purchase of milk quota and by 2006 had built the herd up to 75 cows. In 2006 Noel became a dual supplier with Connacht Gold and Kerry which allowed
him to expand his herd further. At this point the beef cattle were sold and Noel focused entirely on milk production. A few years prior to this Noel had joined a discussion group of like-minded dairy farmers; this was a turning point for Noel and his farming business. The group facNoel O'Tooleilitator, Bryony Fitzgerald, introduced the group to the concept of calving cows compactly in spring in order to maximise grass utilisation and minimise cost. From this point forward Noel became a true believer in the potential of grass based milk production systems and has spent the past 18 years honing his grassland management skills and breeding a herd of cows capable of converting grass to milk at high stocking rates.

Down through the years Noel has remained an active member of the Galway Grazers Discussion Group and the Greenfield Discussion Group. He is also a member of the European Dairy Farmers Group. The discussion groups have been pivotal to his success and have helped him to keep up to date with the latest developments in grazing technology and systems. Over this period milk solids output/ha has increased to 1575 kg MS/ha with concentrate inputs of 500 - 600 kg/cow. With many dairy farmers planning on expanding milk production on their farms in the coming years there are many valuable lessons to be learned from Noel’s experience.

The System

Noel has developed a milk production system that is entirely focused on high production per ha at low cost per kg of milk solids produced. Young stock were originally reared on the home block but they have been replaced by more cows as the herd has expanded. Noel is a firm believer that the milking platform should be used for milking cows only. The 41 ha block produces enough grass to feed the 163 cow herd throughout lactation in the form of grazed grass and some surplus bales which are used to fill feed deficits in spring and autumn. Young stock are reared on outside blocks (15 ha) where some silage is also made. In addition to a very high milking platform stocking rate of 4.0 cows/ha the overall farm SR is also high at 2.8 LU/ha. Shortages of winter feed are filled by buying silage swards on the stem or as bales. All silage is made as round bales; Noel feels that this is a more flexible option than pit silage which allows him to cut silage on different blocks of land at different times. In addition he can avail of opportunities to take grass on the stem at short notice if the opportunity arises. While most see bales as an expensive method of making winter feed Noel sees this as an integral part of his system – the benefits to grass  management on both the home block and outside blocks far outweigh the extra cost per kg DM of silage. This approach also lends itself to low levels of investment in machinery and low machinery running costs. 

Grassland Management

Noels sees the grazing infrastructure as the most important link in the chain if grass utilisation is to be maximised. Noel has an extensive network of farm roadways giving excellent access to all areas of the farm. Noel has managed to achieve an exceptionally high level of production per ha at low cost through excellent grassland management practices developed over time. In 2014 he grew 13.8 t DM/ha and utilised 11.7 t DM/ha. Noel firmly believes the starting point is soil fertility and no expense has been spared to improve and maintain the soil fertility status on the farm. Reseeding poor performing swards has also been an essential route to improving grass production. These paddocks are identified through the use of grass measurement. Noel has been measuring grass for a long time but has not become complacent about the exercise – this is the key driver of his business. The secret when operating at a high stocking rate is to be aggressive when removing surpluses. Noel does not believe in skipping over paddocks to allow them to build up heavy covers or closing an area on the milking platform for silage. Instead he cuts the paddock straight away and bales so it is straight back into the grazing rotation. The grazing season starts on the 10th

August when Noel starts building cover; this can be quite a challenge at a stocking rate of 4 cows/ha. High quality bale silage harvested off the milking platform is used as a buffer feed to reduce demand to build. Peak farm cover of 1250 kg DM/ha is reached on 1st October, which is then used to stretch the grazing season into late November. The most critical farm cover of the year is the closing cover which must be 650 kg DM/ha to ensure sufficient grass is available for spring. Cows start calving on the 10th February and are turned out to grass as they calve. The spring rotation planner is used to set the farm up for the second rotation. In conjunction with this, weekly grass walks are used with a grass budget to identify deficits early. Again high quality bale silage is used as a buffer feed.

Breeding Management

Noel believes strongly in breeding a cow that suits his system instead of changing the system to suit the cow. Pre 2000 Noel had always used Holstein√óBritish Friesian bulls. However, around 2000 he started to use some Jersey sires on his heifers mainly for ease of calving as his herd was growing. Around this time he also started to use New Zealand Friesian bulls on his cows to breed a more compact cow with the potential to produce higher milk solids. When choosing bulls No

el picks from the proven bull list and pays particular attention to the calving sub index and the health sub index. The current herd EBI is €184 and Noel plans to continue using a mix of high EBI Jersey, Friesian and crossbred sires across the herd in future.


As the farm has expanded the labour structure has changed to accommodate the extra cow numbers. In addition to more paid labour and contractors being used to cope with an increasing workload, Noel also believes that cow type and farming system are the corner stones of a labour efficient farm. His compact calving pattern allows him to employ labour when it is needed and can be fully utilised. His crossbred cows are easy care animals that do not require a lot of individual attention, particularly around calving. His system also affords him the opportunity to have some down time over the winter months where only the bare minimum tasks are done. According to Noel this quite time of year is essential and gives him a chance to recharge the batteries before the next spring. In recent years Noel has employed a local person to do 6 – 8 milkings a week which has freed him up to do other jobs. This has worked brilliantly and he highly recommends this approach for those operating at scale where hiring someone fulltime is not practical. In addition to this Noel takes a student from an Ag College every year for 12 weeks placement during calving season. Again this has been a positive experience and Noel enjoys teaching and mentoring these young students.

Financial Performance

Noel’s constant focus on achieving high levels of grass utilisation have resulted in high profitability per ha which has been sustained across arange of milk prices and weather conditions. With a five year average of €3,500 net margin per ha, Noel is living proof of the potential that exists for dairy farmers in a post quota environment. Noel has maintained a high profit per cow (€932/cow) while increasing stocking rate by increasing grass grown and utilised and by keeping borrowings and investments in capital infrastructure to a minimum. This is a highly profitable and sustainable system which achieves a high output per ha at low cost.

“We would like to thank our sponsor AIB”

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Posted on Monday, 19 October 2015  |  By Irish Grassland Association
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