The wipers in the car were going full belt on Tuesday morning as the Irish Farmers Journal made its way around the winding roads of west Cork to the Coombes’ farm near Skibbereen.
It wasn’t a day for having cows out grazing and nor has any day been suitable so far this February.
Kevin Coombes farms with his parents, Eric and Regina, at Betsboro, on the banks of the Ilen River.
A dairy business graduate from UCD, he returned home to farm in 2018 and is now in the process of going into a partnership with Eric.
There are 44ha in the milking block and they milked 160 cows last year.
They plan to milk the same this year, giving a milking platform stocking rate of 3.63 cows/ha.
All pit silage and youngstock are on the outfarms – a 24ha block one mile away and 33ha of rented land in different divisions.
There are 190 cows to calve this year, but Kevin says they’ll be selling 30 or so of these after calving, or else sell some of the later-calving cows in March.
A couple of first- and second-lactation cows were carried over from 2019 and these, along with extra in-calf heifers are bolstering numbers this year. One of the carried-over cows gave birth to a nice Charolais calf on the morning of my visit.
“We used to carry over a lot of empty cows but have it down to small numbers now and ideally I wouldn’t like to be doing it all,” says Kevin.
“They run with the bullocks or the maiden heifers on land that we can’t cut for silage and I bull them a week before the cows with beef AI, mostly Charolais and Limousin.
“I don’t want to breed heifers off them so they will get a beef straw for life.”
Kevin has been calling the shots on breeding decisions for the last couple of years, but Eric has been crossbreeding and using high-EBI AI bulls for decades, reflected in the herd EBI of €152.
One of the first decisions he made was to retire Eric from DIY AI and get in a technician, which both Eric and Kevin are happy about as conception rates have improved and Eric is no longer tied to the job.
All the heifers got sexed semen last year and conception rate was over 70%, which Kevin says is as good as they were getting with conventional semen.
All the heifers were injected with PG three weeks before the start of mating and were then served to natural heat over a 10-day period three weeks later.
Thirty of the best cows got sexed semen also. These were second- and third-calvers that had calved early, had been seen cycling and were in good body condition score.
The conception rate to the sexed semen on the cows was 62%, which is a very good figure. The sexed bulls used were a mix of Jersey and Holstein Friesian.
“My ideal cow is probably one-third to one-quarter Jersey and the rest Holstein Friesian. I haven’t used much Kiwicross and tend to concentrate on the pure breeds.
“Sexed semen has allowed us to use a lot more beef AI so any low-EBI or poor cows get beef AI, even if they come bulling in the first few weeks.
“We do four weeks of dairy AI, then three weeks of beef AI which is a mixture of all sorts of breeds through the Gene Ireland beef pack and then we do three or four weeks of Hereford stock bulls,” Kevin says.
The beef-bred calves are kept on the farm and sold at 12 to 18 months. Of the 110 weanlings on the farm now, 55 are coloured beef calves and the rest are dairy heifers.
Eric says they have two purposes – firstly not all of the rented land can be cut for silage so they graze these areas, and secondly they hold money together and can be sold at any time of the year.
He used to rear dairy-bred bull calves but found he was limited to selling them at certain times of the year, whereas there are buyers for coloured cattle at any time.
Calving due date was 1 February but they had 30 calved by then. A new calving shed was built this year which is proving a big success.
Two small individual calving pens were replaced by a large shed that can hold 20 or 30 cows.
There’s a small slatted tank at one end where cows are fed silage and an individual pen to handle a cow with pens for newborn calves at the other end of the shed.
Kevin’s cousin helped them build the shed over the last few months, with most of the work done part-time and at weekends.
Calves are left with the cow until the next milking before being taken away and fed colostrum with a stomach tube.
Calves are kept in small pens for a few days before being moved to larger groups. They’re fed 2l of milk twice a day before going to once-a-day feeding. Milk replacer is used when the amount of ‘waste milk’ declines.
Kevin says calving the cows isn’t a big ordeal, even the Charolais and Limousin calves come easily enough once cows are in the right body condition score.
A calving camera was installed this year so he checks the cows at night on his phone and will get up if there’s a problem. Start time at the moment is 7am and he says they usually work until 7pm but it all depends on the day.
The farm grew over 14tDM/ha last year. A farm grass walk was completed last week and an average farm cover of 920kgDM/ha was recorded and an over winter growth of 4.5kg/day.
The opening cover is higher than this time last year. Kevin aims to have 40% of the farm grazed in February, which is something he has struggled to do, having got to 30% grazed last year after a big effort in wet weather.
The start to this February isn’t very promising but Eric and Kevin are confident they’ll have cows out next week. Soil type on the home farm is mixed.
About two-thirds is flat land along the banks of the river and the rest is higher ground that has been reclaimed and is heavier.
The flat land is on the banks of the river and is really free-draining, with about one foot of topsoil over gravel, but the snag is that it’s prone to flooding.
The river flooded last August, heralding a difficult backend. The flood comes and goes quickly but the August flood caused damage because it brought a lot of dead grass and debris with it, which dirtied the grass and set cows back.
There are currently ponds of water in these fields but it’s surprisingly dry underfoot. Kevin says the water will go quickly and then it’ll be fine for grazing.
No fertiliser has been spread yet but about three-quarters of the milking platform got slurry by contractor with an umbilical spreader.
Eric plans to spread a half-bag of urea per acre when conditions improve and another half-bag of urea/acre in March.
Last year they used a product called Optigrass (13:2.2:4.2+6S, sodium, magnesium and calcium) at a rate of three bags per acre instead of 18:6:12 in April.
The calved cows are currently on good-quality bale silage and 4kg of meal. They fed 6kg of meal last spring but Kevin says this was a mistake as they meant to feed 4kg but the meal feeders weren’t calibrated for nuts. If cows can go out day and night they won’t get any silage in the yard. They purchase washed beet from a local grower and will chop and feed this as a buffer feed through an auger bucket to the milkers for February and March.
Last year, the herd sold 484kgMS/cow to Drinagh Co-op from a total of 1,050kg of meal which Kevin says is about 200kg higher than normal due to feeding extra in spring and a wet autumn.
The 25-year-old’s target is to sell 500kgMS/cow from 800kg of meal per head. The empty rate last year was 9% after 10.5 weeks of breeding.
Most of the physical farm work is done by Kevin and Eric, with Regina doing the bookwork and registering calves.
The family and Skibbereen got a boost this week as Kevin’s brother Gavin got called up to Ireland rugby squad, so he won’t be pulling too many calves this spring.