Ger Cussen’s 150-cow dairy farm on the Limerick side of Charleville was the venue for last week’s Limerick Ladies discussion group meeting.

The all-women discussion group was formed in 2021 and is made up of over 23 women involved in dairy farming, either on their own or in family arrangements.

The focus of the meeting was on preparing for calving and the Cussen farm provided the ideal backdrop in terms of labour efficiency.

Milking 150 Holstein Friesian dairy cows, plus rearing all replacements with no full-time or regular part-time help in spring, Ger has adapted his farm to make it as labour efficient as possible.

Performance is excellent, with 85% of the herd calving in six weeks, 9% of cows empty after 12 weeks of breeding and the herd sold over 480kg MS/cow to Kerry in 2021 from around 750kg of meal per cow.

It’s even more impressive when you consider Ger is looking after over 180 livestock units.

Ger Cussen's cubicle cleaner.

Ger told the group that his farming philosophy is to ensure that, at any cost, he has enough silage and enough slurry storage. He says that when these are in place, you are never at the behest of the weather.

Secondly, he finishes up work every evening at 6pm, outside of the busiest few weeks of calving. He says he takes plenty of time off in the second half of the year, making use of relief milkers and outside help.

There’s no getting away from the fact that he works hard for the first half of the season, doing the majority of the milkings on his own.

He had full-time help a few years ago, but moved away from it and has instead focused on making the farm as simple and easy to run as possible.

While the farm is considered heavy, it’s well laid out, with a good network of farm roadways, paddocks and a new water system installed last year.

Large calving area on the Cussen farm.

One big advantage is that all the land is in one block, meaning Ger doesn’t have to travel to an out-farm to check youngstock, etc.

There’s one cubicle per cow and enough feed space for 120 cows to feed at the one time. The cubicle shed is well laid out and cows can be kept in separate groups or kept as just one group. In-calf heifers are mixed with the cows since the start of January. The first 30 cows due to calve are kept in a part of the shed closest to the calving area.

These cubicles are on a slatted floor with no automatic scraper, meaning if one cow accidentally calves in this area, there is no risk to the calf.

A gate from this part of the shed leads into the calving area – a large loose pen that could easily take 15 or 20 cows.

There are single pens next to this if a cow needs to be handled and this is also where the newborn calves are kept for the first few days until they are drinking well. They are kept in pens of five at first.

Single pens were used in the past, but Ger says he’ll never use them again because they added to the workload.

Calf pens on Ger Cussen's farm.

Calves are moved every day or every second day from the pens next to the calving area to the calf shed.

Ger has a special crate that can be attached to either the telehandler or tractor for moving calves.

It’s similar in size to a caged platform used for cleaning gutters or working at a height and can move five or six calves with little or no manual labour involved.

The main calf shed is a simple lean-to design with the open end facing the cubicle shed.

Ger says he was worried about the calves being too cold after it was built, but he has never had any problems with it and calves are very comfortable, even on cold and windy nights.

A milk trolley, pulled behind a Massey Ferguson 165, draws milk from the parlour to the calf shed. Calves are fed after morning milking and at 3pm in the afternoon, before the evening milking with cold milk.

Mobile barriers for moving stock around the yard.

“I considered getting a computerised feeder and even applied for the grant, but in the end I talked myself out of it.

“The main reason is that I have a tight calving pattern and have a lot of surplus milk available to feed to calves in February and March.

“If I had the feeder, I’d be tied to using milk replacer and would end up dumping a lot of milk which I’m not happy about. The system I have is simple and quick, so I’ll keep at it,” Ger says.

Calves are fed once a day from four weeks of age and bull calves are sold to a local farmer at two weeks of age.

Teagasc adviser Meadhbh Johnston, who facilitates the discussion group, looked at the impact of selling bull calves at different ages on calf shed space and milk use.

In her analysis, if Ger kept 55 dairy heifer calves for the full rearing period and sold all beef and dairy bull calves at four weeks of age, peak calf numbers would be 104 calves on 5 March and Ger would need a minimum calf shed space of 176m2.

The value of milk and meal fed to all calves sold, plus the bedding costs, would be €67/head.

Ger's calf shed.

However, based on selling the beef calves and dairy bull calves at two weeks of age, the number of calves on the farm at peak drops to 75 by 12 March and total floor space required drops to 128m2. The value of milk, meal and bedding per calf sold also decreases to €32/head.

Other things that Ger does to reduce labour in spring is to milk cows once a day in February.

The question was asked about the opportunity cost of once-a-day milking this spring given the high milk price, but Ger is adamant that the labour saving benefits far outweigh the value of any extra milk.

He also turns out cows to grass in February, which has huge benefits.

“I’ll always try to get the cows out if I can, even for a few hours. The land is heavy, but we have a few dry paddocks and that’s where they go first.

“It’s some relief to have them out, it means you can go inside and enjoy the breakfast and not be rushing to get back out to put in silage and clean cubicles and all that,” he says.

Cows closest to calving are kept in the slatted cubicle area nearest the calving area.

A few of the group members commented on how clean the cubicles and the cows were in the shed. This, he says is thanks to a ride-on cubicle brush and lime/sawdust spreader he bought a few years ago and is another item of machinery he says he wouldn’t farm without. Cleaning cubicles was a job that he hated, and even employed someone just to do the cubicles every day.

Now, he says it’s a two-minute job and the cubicles were never as clean. The downside – the machine cost €18,000.

Mobile barriers about 16ft long are used to block off sections of the yard when moving cows or youngstock. These can be moved by hand or lifted with the tractor and are a quick, easy and safe way of moving stock if you are on your own.

The milking parlour is a 15-unit herringbone. Milking takes 1.5 hours at peak and an automatic wash unit has been installed. He’s contemplated adding an extra five units to the plant, but weighs up the time saved by reducing the number of rows versus doing more walking in the pit.

Another key labour-saving tip from Ger involves nighttime feeding of cows. Ger starts this in early March for two reasons.

Firstly, a lot of cows will have calved at that point and should be out at grass, which increases the feed space available to the dry cows. Secondly, he’s happy to get up at night for the first few weeks when calving is at its busiest.

“After three or four weeks, the adrenalin wears off and you need the rest more.

“I move back the silage with the loader at around 3pm and push it back last thing in the evening at 6pm. All the cows get up and start eating and generally speaking won’t calve until the following morning.

“I have good calving cameras and will check the cows on that but very rarely do I have to get up during the night to calve a cow,” Ger says.

While many will baulk at one person managing so many cows on his own, Ger has invested in facilities and equipment to make that possible while still not being a slave to the job, a message he is very keen to get across.

Women in dairy

The Limerick Ladies group was formed in 2021 following on from another women’s discussion group formed in South Kerry. The groups are facilitated by Teagasc through the financial support of Kerry Agribusiness. There are many other female dairy discussion groups around the country imparting technical knowledge/education and social/networking opportunities for women involved in dairy farming in Ireland.