Spreading slurry was the order of the day as the Irish Farmers Journal made its way to the village of Kilrea, near the Derry/Antrim border earlier in the week.

The last of the fine weather was a perfect opportunity for farmers in the area to lower the tanks. Mid-Ulster is a strong dairy region, but you rarely sees cows out grazing.

Over the last 10 or 15 years, dairy farmers in the area have drifted more towards confinement systems.

It started by keeping the “highs” in, then keeping the “fresh” cows in and now everything is kept in, save for a few stale cows during the summer. Field activities are limited to spreading slurry and cutting silage three or four times a year.

The first calving heifers are in good body condition score. They are seen here with Meg, the new pup.

Andrew Gardiner, a new entrant to dairying is bucking the local trend. An engineer by training, he spent the last 10 years working in Belfast and farming with his father, Ken, in the evenings. They kept suckler cows and dairy calf to beef. They farm a total of 80ha, 57ha of which is owned.

After pondering about it for a few years, Andrew made the decision to get into dairying last May.

The heifers were purchased from one herd in Kilkenny.

“We were making money out of beef. We bought 30 acres a few years ago and the farm was paying for it. The big thing for me was the workload, because I couldn’t generate a full-time income from beef I was doing all my farming late in the evenings. It just wasn’t what I want to be doing, especially as Suzanne and I have a new baby.”

He looked at robotic milking but wasn’t keen on that and he looked at autumn calving but wasn’t keen on that either, mostly due to the winter workload.

This field was reseeded last year and got nitrogen two weeks ago.

The big thing for Andrew is labour efficiency and to have time off during the day to do some engineering work, which he is now doing on a part-time, self-employed basis.

At the moment, he is doing his engineering work in the evenings and at night because things are busy on the farm, but when things settle down he will do it during the day.

Andrew has 25% of the farm grazed but is struggling to get a good cleanout. He plans to reduce the amount of silage they are eating at night.

Eighty-five in-calf heifers were purchased from a herd in Kilkenny last September and 86% of these are now calved. There are 24.3ha in the milking block which is a stocking rate of 3.5 cows/ha. The land they purchased recently is just over the road, but access to this block isn’t great at the moment. In the long term, Andrew hopes to grow the herd to 140 to 150 cows which would enable him to hire in full-time help.

He’s clued-in enough not to push stocking rate above 3.5 cows/ha on the platform. The Gardiners were previously in the Irish Farmers Journal Northern Ireland Suckler Beef Programme so have been measuring grass for a good number of years. Andrew says the farm is typically growing 9t to 10t DM/ha, but reckons there’s scope to push this further.

All the calves are being reared on the farm.

“Soil fertility is reasonably good and we normally reseed around 10% per year. We’re one of the farmers in the GrassCheck programme and I find that we grow as much as everyone else in the mid-season, but are way behind everyone else in the shoulders of the year. I think that could be partly due to spreading a lot less nitrogen in beef farming, particularly in spring,” Andrew says.

Moving to milk involved the sale of the beef cattle, which more than generated enough to buy the dairy heifers. Andrew’s engineering skills were put into practice when building the new 24-unit Waikato parlour – he designed and built it himself with the help of a local block-layer. He even made all the stallwork for the plant – buying the steel, cutting and welding it, and then sending it away for galvanising.

The 24-unit Waikato plant is covered by a clear polycarbonate roof.

He also did all the plumbing work himself. The only thing he didn’t do was install the plant and do the electrical wiring. While it’s not fully complete yet, it’s 95% of the way there. Interestingly, the roof over the parlour area is 100% clear polycarbonate, giving great natural light. The parlour was built in front of a rectangular slatted cattle shed and this will soon become the holding area. With 85 cows to be milked in 2021, there will only be four rows to go through.

The 24-unit Waikato is covered by a clear perspex roof.

“I wanted a simple, no-frills parlour. The only extra thing I was considering was cluster removers but opted to go without, mostly due to cost. Milking is going well so far. It’s new to me and it’s new to the heifers but we’re getting there. I like it.”

A large slatted shed which was built in 2019 was converted to cubicles. The base layer for most of the new roadways was put down before the winter, but these need to be blinded as the home-dug basalt stone is very sharp. The water system has yet to be upgraded, with the existing small water troughs, 25mm pipe and high-pressure ballcocks already under pressure.

The centre slats were lifted and replaced by pre-cast cubicles.

These jobs will be completed next month when Andrew has a bit more time and when the first of the milk cheques will have landed into the bank account. He’s supplying milk to Dale Farm as he says it will pay the best price for milk with high solids, but the fact that the payment system is skewed more towards volume and not solids is a sore point for Andrew and other farmers in the region.

An external bulk tank was purchased but the outlet is in the dairy.

By Monday last, Andrew had 25% of the farm grazed. The heifers were out by day only and while ground conditions were good, Andrew was trying to get some of the wetter parts of the farm with higher covers grazed off. His farm is reasonably dry but there are wet patches. Total annual rainfall in the area averages about 1,000mm, which is a good bit lower than many parts further west.

Topsoil was dug out and the hardcore basalt rock base was installed but these roads need to be blinded before cows can walk on them.

Not having the roadways complete is limiting where Andrew can go with the cows and he’s picking and choosing spots and half grazing paddocks where he has access. I put it to him that he should be grazing by night too, while conditions are good and that on marginal ground you need to take all the opportunities you get, even if that means having to house cows for a period later in the spring.

The old drinkers were OK for beef cattle but are far too small for dairy stock.

A difficulty Andrew has is that it can be hard to get the cows out of the paddock in the evenings. There are no mature cows in the herd and so no animals to take the lead. This is one of the reasons why he hasn’t the cows out at night because it would be extra hard to get them out of the field on the dark mornings, particularly as the roadways are not completed. Average farm cover is very low at 503kg/ha so he needs to keep silage in the diet anyway. The herd is being fed 3.6kg of meal and they are milking 18.5l at 4.85% fat and 3.6% protein which is 1.61kgMS/cow.