David O’Leary

Castleisland, Co Kerry

Not only is David O’Leary a new entrant to dairy farming but he’s also a new entrant to farming. David’s parents aren’t farmers, so his love of farming and dairying in particular came from David’s neighbours. After completing a degree and a masters in agriculture, David worked in the industry for a while before setting up his own dairy farm on a leased block.

His first cow was milked in January 2018 so he is now about to commence his fourth season as a full-time dairy farmer. He milked 72 cows in 2020 and plans to milk 80 cows in 2021. The leased farm is 80 acres in size which is split by a busy road. There are 55 good acres at the yard side of the road and 25 acres, of more variable soil types across the road.

A spur roadway on the O'Leary farm to get to the back of a paddock.

The farm was an existing dairy operation, so the main infrastructure such as cubicles, parlour and roadways were already in place as the farm owners – who David says are a huge help to him – have only recently retired from farming.

Since taking on the farm, David has focused on improving the productive assets on the farm: cows and grass. At this stage, 35% of the farm has been reseeded and David has made a big effort to get more grass into cows, by investing in spur roads, water and realigning paddocks. Almost 13t DM/ha of grass was grown in 2020 from 180kg N/ha on the milking platform.

Kerry is a high rainfall area and autumn 2020 was particularly challenging. David’s neighbour measures rainfall and he recorded 214mm in August and 420mm between September and November. This meant that most of the land across the road was unable to be grazed in the last rotation. He also reckons it greatly reduced the response to the final application of nitrogen in mid-September. The herd sold 440kg MS/cow in 2020 from 840kg of meal per head. The herd is young, having been mostly heifers in 2018, with an average of 2.5 lactations in 2020. David reckons the herd should produce closer to 520kg MS/cow when it is mature.

David’s priority over the coming years is to focus on getting more of the farm reseeded as he sees a huge difference in growth between older pastures and reseeded pastures. He says the response to nitrogen is far greater in the recently reseeded fields also. There is very little clover on the farm as of yet, but this is another area he plans to change in the coming years. Most of the farm is at index 2 and 3 for soil fertility.

At 80 cows in 2021, the overall milking platform will be stocked at 2.5 cows/ha but as David points out, grazing across the road is tricky, both from the point of view of having to cross the busy road but also because the land is wetter there. As a result, the stocking rate in spring is closer to 3.5 cows/ha at 80 cows.

Niall Callanan

Craughwell,Co Galway

Niall Callanan, Craughwell, Co Galway.

The Callanan farm at Craughwell, not far from Galway city, is sitting on very variable soils. At one end of the farm are dry and sandy soils while the other end is subject to flooding. Milking 240 cows next year, the herd has grown dramatically from the 70 cows it was milking in 2005.

Niall’s aim is to run the farm with as little labour input as possible, either by himself or others. All machinery work has been contracted out and there’s a big emphasis on growing and utilising grass to reduce the workload.

Almost 14t DM/ha was grown on the farm in 2019 but this reduced in 2020 as more land was taken on and this needed to be reclaimed and reseeded, so that reduced his average growth to slightly less than 13tDM/ha. The herd sold 420kgMS/cow in 2020 from a total of 430kg of meal per cow with 19% of the cows first lactation.

There are 72ha in the milking block, giving a milking platform stocking rate of 3.33 cows/ha, which Niall is very comfortable with as it gives flexibility for different weather events.

Soil fertility is excellent, having been part of the Aurivo sustainability project for the last number of years. The majority of the farm is at index 3 and 4 for phosphorus and potassium and all the farm is on target for pH.

Niall says that pH status is the first thing he looks at when he gets soil results back and if soil samples are less than pH of 6.4 he will spread lime. About 60% of the slurry is spread in spring using a trike-and-injector system, which he says is a brilliant way to reduce soil compaction and to grow grass. Just over 250kg N/ha was spread on the milking platform in 2020. There is very little clover on the farm at present but this is something that Niall intends to work on over the coming years, as part of the effort to become even more sustainable.

The farm is very well developed with grazing infrastructure with large 550 gallon troughs fed by a 40mm pipe and an excellent roadway infrastructure.

A significant proportion of the farm has been reseeded in recent years and the swards are rich and vibrant looking. Niall uses the pasture profit index (PPI) when choosing varieties and tends to go for a mix of tetraploid and diploid varieties, with more diploids used on heavier fields. His preferred method of reseeding, where no drainage work needs to be completed is by disc and Güttler.

The farm is effectively in an island surrounded by rivers, so Niall is very conscious of maintaining buffer zones when spreading fertiliser and slurry. All fences are back 2m from the top of river banks. Fertility performance is excellent with just 5% empty after 12 weeks of breeding. His herd has a high proportion of Jersey genes but high EBI Holstein Friesian bulls have been used in recent years.

The awards

There are 15 nominees for the coveted prize of Grassland Farmer of the Year 2020. With an overall prize fund of €30,000, shared between the overall winner and sector winners, the rewards are high. The winners will be announced by the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue on Tuesday 19 January at an online awards event.

The competition aims to reward farmers for achieving excellence in grassland management. Finalists are selected from a number of categories: dairy, beef, sheep, heavy soils and young farmer. Farms are selected for a visit by the judges based on total tonnage grown per hectare, number of grazings and number of grass measures. The full list of finalists is presented in Table 1.

The judges for 2020 represent the Grass10 programme sponsors. These are Liz Hyland, Department of Agriculture; John Maher, Teagasc; Ciaran Roche, FBD Insurance; Bryan Doocey, AIB; PJ O’Connor, Grassland Agro and Aidan Brennan, Irish Farmers Journal. The judges rank the farms on a number of criteria: grassland management, sustainability, soil fertility, grazing infrastructure and reseeding policy.