Kevin O’Hanlon, Ballywilliam, Co Wexford

Kevin O’Hanlon is a farmer who likes to do things a bit differently. Kevin is the farm manager of an organic dairy farm in Ballywilliam, Co Wexford, that has recently completed the conversion to organic.

The last time chemical nitrogen was applied on the farm was in 2021 and just 6t was spread then.

The judges with Kevin O’Hanlon. From left: John O’Loughlin, Grassland Agro; Liz Hyland, Department of Agriculture; Kevin O’Hanlon; John Maher, Teagasc and Colin Heaney, FBD. INSET (left): Some of the multispecies swards in Ballywilliam.

Kevin is passionate about soils and releasing the untapped potential that they hold to produce high pasture yields with less inputs.

The farm milked 155 cows in 2023, but has plans to milk 175 cows in 2024, when everything is calved.

There are 59.5ha in the milking platform and this is supported by two outside blocks totalling 73ha. All replacements are reared on the farm, with some dry cows outwintered on stubble crops.

Kevin is a bit of a pioneer when it comes to multispecies swards and, at this stage, has 65% to 70% of the swards on the milking platform in multispecies with the rest in grass and clover swards.

Some of the multispecies swards in Ballywilliam.

A lot of the clover has been incorporated through the slurry tanker, where the required amount of clover seed is thrown into the pipe before it’s attached to the tanker and then mixed in with the slurry in the tank.

Not afraid of an experiment, oversowing clover with the slurry spreader is just one of the things Kevin is doing to get legumes established on the farm.

Reseeding is now usually carried out as part of a forage crop, where multispecies are undersown to a crop of peas, oats and barley.

The peas, oats and barley are then cut for silage and then the multispecies takes over. In terms of inputs, the farm feeds around 600kg of meal per cow and buys in between 450 and 500 round bales of straw each year.

Milk is produced all year round and cows get access to grass almost each day of the year, with a long rotation in winter time.

Kevin is competing in the organic category of the sustainable grassland farmer of the year.

Michael Carroll, Bruree, Co Limerick

The focus on the Carroll family farm at Bruree in Co Limerick is very much on breeding a good cow and managing her well on good-quality grass.

With a huge variation in soil type ranging from free-draining to extremely wet, black and mud soils, keeping cows at grass can be difficult.

In such situations, good infrastructure is key and the Carrolls have good roadways and plenty of access points to paddocks.

Milking around 140 cows, Michael is helped by father, Martin, and local man, Ollie.

With 53ha on the milking platform, the stocking rate on the milking block is around 2.6 cows/ha, which Michael thinks is a sustainable stocking rate given the soil type variation and the amount of grass being grown.

John O’Loughlin, Grassland Agro; Colin Heaney, FBD; John Maher, Teagasc; Michael Carroll; John Farrell, AIB; and Liz Hyland, Department of Agriculture.

Heifers and some silage are produced on the outblocks.

Michael reckons about 25% of the farm is very good for clover, but about half of the farm has some clover. The parts with good clover content are on a reduced rate of chemical nitrogen from about May onwards.

A staggering 90% of the farm is on target for phosphorus, potash and lime, which is an outstanding result.

Michael says he aims to maintain that by soil sampling once per year. As soon as around 10 cows are calved, Michael will start grazing, but says he typically loses 10 days or two weeks of grazing each spring because of weather.

The farm grew over 13t DM/ha in 2023 from 133kg N/ha of chemical nitrogen.

The herd of high-EBI Holstein Friesian cows normally produce around 530kg MS/cow, but this was back a bit last year due to the bad weather.

Jonathan Higgins Skreen, Co Sligo

Father-and-son team Philip and Jonathan Higgins are farming a total of 86ha near Skreen in Co Sligo.

Drystock farmers, the Higgins, used to have 40 to 50 sucklers and rear everything to beef, but due to a lack of profit they got out of sucklers and now rear 160 dairy heifers in a contract-rearing agreement, along with keeping 310 ewes of their own.

Most of the land is one block of dry and free-draining land, about 100ft above sea level.

Liz Hyland, Department of Agriculture; David Corbett, Grassland Agro; Colin Heaney, FBD; Jonathan Higgins; John Farrell, AIB; and Joe Dunphy, Teagasc.

Jonathan finished his postgraduate studies in UCD last June and has been working on the farm full-time since then.

The heifer calves arrive on the farm as weaned calves in May and return to their owner as in-calf heifers the following October.

The maiden heifers don’t go to grass until after the ewes are lambed, which is typically 20 April each year. Jonathan says they do this, so as to prioritise grass for the lambs.

The farm grows around 10.5t DM/ha with very little reseeding having been carried out in recent years. A 3ha block was reseeded with multispecies swards in 2022 and a further 2ha was reseeded in 2023 and these areas are performing very well for Jonathan, with good lamb thrive and no need to dose for worms. This ground is typically on a 25- to 28-day rotation.

Billy Gilmore, Tuam, Co Galway

Billy Gilmore operates a contract-rearing enterprise just outside Tuam, Co Galway. Billy took over the farm in 1974 and has been farming in his own right since the age of 15. He milked 24 cows with a small bit of tillage.

Billy reared suckler cows and sheep for many years, picking up many awards along the way, including winning a grassland management competition in 1984. He was also involved in the Better Farm programme for many years.

Billy Gilmore, Tuam Co Galway.

Billy converted over to contract rearing in 2016. He felt he was getting older and didn’t need the health risk of calving suckler cows every year. With milk quotas abolished, he saw a gap in the market for contract rearing.

In 2023, Billy contract reared 200 heifers on the farm. The farm is very fragmented with five different blocks, both owned and rented. This gave Billy an opportunity to take stock from more than one farmer without mixing.

Billy grew over 13 tonnes of DM/ha in 2023, and walked the farm 33 times throughout the year

He now rears heifers for five farmers; he takes the heifers at housing of their first winter and they return before their second winter. There is only one age group of animals on the farm at any one time, which Billy says simplifies the system for him.

Billy grew over 13 tonnes of DM/ha in 2023, and walked the farm 33 times throughout the year. The farm was stocked at 1.97 LU/ha on average in 2023. All reseeding is a full reseed, with no oversowing or multispecies sward (MSS).

Billy said he liked to see it work somewhere else before trying it and isn’t quite convinced with MSS yet.

There was a good clover level on the farm, with one field in particular having 15% clover level in it and it had not been reseeded for more than 20 years. From May onwards, clover paddocks are skipped at every second round of nitrogen.

Billy doesn’t have much dedicated silage ground, but likes to cut as many paddocks as possible out throughout the year for bales. Any land he does save for long-term silage gets no more than 70 units of N/acre as he likes to cut early.

Billy does all artificial insemination (AI) through the breeding season. This is his busiest period on the farm, as he does all DIY AI himself.

Billy’s routine through the breeding season is to go out at 6am watching heifers for bulling. He goes around to all blocks noting which heifers are coming in heat.

Typically, once he finishes this, he will go around to these blocks again and artificially inseminate the heifers in heat. Some farmers he rears heifers for prefer to use fixed-time AI and he has also inseminated some sexed semen in the past.