Ask a Farmer: Thomas Duffy – Dairy Farm, County Cavan, Ireland


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Photo courtesy of Thomas Duffy

Back in September the FAFDL community held an Ask a Farmer event with Thomas Duffy an Irish dairy farmer (and FAFDL community moderator). I’ve been meaning to get the interview written up since then and St. Patrick’s Day seemed like a perfectly clichéd reason to finally get it done, so here it is.

Thomas had recently been nominated national Young Farmer of the Year. Thomas is a young dairy farmer from County Cavan, Ireland who farms in partnership with his parents Kathleen and Ned.

[The interview has been lightly edited for continuity. Questions from the community are grouped together under the label “FAFDL”.]

About the Operation

Thomas Duffy: I farm about 55ha (136 acres) of good ground. I am in a partnership with my mother, Kathleen, and my father, Ned. We have a 10-unit Dairymaster parlour for milking. We have 90 cows milking at the moment. They are a mix of Norwegian Red, Jerseys, Montbéliarde X and pedigree Holsteins. In terms of performance, the cows are performing at 3.3% protein and 4.2% fat.

A 10-unit Dairymaster parlour

Calving: We have been hectic for the last few weeks. We have had 87 calves so far, so we are just about finished up. We would sell off our Angus calves at 14 to 21 days and we’d be fetching between €220 and €250 for them  ($240 – $270)

This week:  With the calving finished up, I started to focus on the breeding plan. We have been analyzing where we went right and wrong last year and seeing if we can improve, so that will take the best part of five days.

Holland: “I went to Holland recently with Lely, and it was a real eye-opener. I was amazed to see how little meal is fed versus how much milk is produced. They place a huge focus on their forage. We can learn a lot from that here.

We have already gone through our expansion phase. From now on, we are focusing on getting better, rather than bigger. Improving efficiency has become our main goal.

The calves sold are all going on to neighboring farms to be reared. Nothing I sell goes for veal as there’s very little market for it here.

On my bit about forage, I was surprised about how well they’re using stored forage to produce milk as here it would be almost all grazed grass rather than stored forage

The outside blocks that I can’t graze cows on are mostly extensive grassland, silage (fermented grass for winter) grassland or what’s called “high nature value” grassland managed under environmental projection to increase biodiversity

To add a bit to the discussion some pictures to make it easier to explain.

Photos courtesy of Thomas Duffy

The bulk of my cows would be outdoors for 7-8 months depending on the weather (it gets wet here over winter). This is what we would normally be grazing out: grass paddocks mixed with clover species.

FAFDL: Can you talk about about math involved in veal/rearing ? Why isn’t there enough of a market for veal?

TD: First to clear up a bit. As to why wehave an autumn-compact calving herd, the article quoted above was actually written in April, we are all spring calving. The simple reason for calving Jan-April only rather than all year is to make the best use of summer grass when its growing at its maximum

“Why isn’t there enough of a market for veal?” – Its a cultural thing, Irish people rarely ate veal despite being big beef eaters (The Irish are the top beef eaters in Europe). We do export calves to the Netherlands for rearing for their veal market (I should mention veal crates are banned throughout the EU just in case anyone gets the wrong idea). We do have some of our own rose veal (13month) as does the UK but its a tiny export market. Veal calves are also generally the lowest priced calves.

On Breeding

How do you pick your breeds? Can you explain to North Americans why you have an autumn-compact calving herd, the difference between the fresh milk and manufacturing milk markets, and your breeding programme – I’m assuming you cross your heifers and poorer cows with beef breeds or easier calving breeds?

I’ve managed my breeding plans so I have very few friesian bulls (using friesian sexed semens and crossbreeding). The ones I do produce are bought by local beef farmers for rearing as bull or steer beef.

As to the question about crossing our heifers and poorer cows with beef breeds or easier calving breeds, this is a bit complicated, most farmers in Ireland wouldn’t use as many different ones as I do. As said my poorer cows and heifers would be bred to natural service with an Angus bull (I have two, one black, one red). My breeding programme is heavily focused on health and longevity. My target is a cow capable of 7 lactation (9 years old) without mastitis.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Duffy

So first cows not for breeding replacement are selected as any animal that had mastitis or high SCC in their first year. These automatically get angus.  After that it depends: the best cows in the herd stay pure Holstein (but Irish Holsteins which are smaller and lower yield with higher fat and protein content). Cows in need of more fat and protein but no health issues get Jersey sires to improve that. Cows with some health issues but not enough to exclude them from breeding get Norwegian Reds (as they have bred obsessively to produce bulls with a very high health status). Cows in need of yield increases get either higher yield Norwegian Reds or Montbelliard

At this stage I have a few cows with 3 breeds mixed in, Norwegian out of Montbelliard X Holstein are the most common at the moment. The ideal cow stays mostly the same, a cow capable of producing 400+kg of fat and protein, at around 500-550 body weight and able to maintain their fat reserves after calving to ensure their longevity and health and robust enough to fight off infection.

The Economics of Dairy in Ireland

FAFDL: Beyond milk sales where is income derived from?

TD: I should probably explain a bit: I know in the US grass fed seems to be a bit more laid back and less intensive. In Ireland we manage grass as you would crops, including constant measurement and fertilisation.

Our climate here is really hard on growing crops, for instance where I live got 1269mm (49 inches) of rain last year. However even worse for crops is that, while our climate is exceptional mild, our spring and autumn are very wet and cool, meaning planting and harvesting are very challenging. At the moment there’s a crisis because some areas are losing 50% of their crops with only 20% harvested. For this reason livestock farming is the majority of the agriculture.

Dairy is now the most profitable as beef has struggled due to a number of factors. Back in the 90s we were following the same trends as the continental Europe, housing animals and feeding greater and greater cereal and stored forage.

What really changed things was the work of our national research body Teagasc that discovered the excess meal and loss of fertility had whiped out most of the profit from increased yields. This led to a return to the traditional focus on grazing grass. As a result our breed index (how we rank cows and bulls) was significantly changed to reflect a smaller cow with better quality milk (protein and butterfat) as that’s how we are paid. As a result N. American genetics of high yielding cows has become less and less common. Pretty much dying out now as it’s replaced with the more grass based genetics of New Zealand and now Irish genetics.

On the difference between the fresh milk and manufacturing milk markets – in Ireland, because our domestic market is so small, fresh milk is a tiny fraction of the productive herds. Manufacturing milk is the vast majority and stretches from products such as infant formula to butter such as Kerrygold! We also produce quite a lot of cheese, milk powder as a commodity, and other dairy products. A lot of that product goes to the UK as our traditional economic partner, but we are always expanding and looking for new markets. Kerrygold is the highest selling foreign butter in Germany and I think second in the US!

Farm Policy in the EU

FAFDL: I know the EU structure is quite different from the US. Are there payments for environmental protections and/or specific animal production practices?

TD: We have the Common Agricultural Policy here which ensures payments to protect mostly the family farm model, but also to compensate farmers for the extensive legislation on everything from welfare to water quality. I could be all day listing them but I’ll try to stick to the main point

At the moment the payments are based on historical figures of what was paid out, while payments were still “coupled” to what you produced in 2000-2002. So the more produced then the higher your payment.

I disagree strongly with this system as it is unfair to young farmers and those who’ve pushed forward while still paying big payments to some. However, the threat of losing that money is a VERY effective way to ensure compliance with environmental or welfare regulation.

After the basic payment there are individual schemes that are funded by the EU.

I work as an advisor to farmers on some of these schemes such as the environmental scheme, they’re quite diverse. For instance the measures I’ve done on my farm are habitat creation (bat and bird boxes with sand habitats for wild bees), low emission slurry spreading, protecting water course from animals entering them. While others keep their land as high biodiversity to get their payment or use min-til and cover crops. Its not big money but every bit helps.

FAFDL: What is the current stance of EU regulations related to abx use in dairy production?

TD: The current regs aren’t dissimilar to the US in regards to therapeutic use. All treatments have to be recorded and kept in Ireland for 5 years. All antibiotics must be bought using a prescription. Withdrawal periods have to be observed.

Where the EU and US really differ is in sub-therapeutic use for growth promotion. All drugs for that purpose are banned since I think the 90s. You can get a prescription for preventative antibiotics in cases where there has already been a breakout (for instance bacterial pneumonia) but it’s very limited.

That said even now antibiotic use is coming under more and more scrutiny. In particular the use of blanket dry cow therapy as a preventative against mastitis over the non-milk producing period. I can see it being banned within 5-10 years.

One thing I’m really happy about was discovering that the time of the discovery of resistance to the last resort antibiotic drug Colistin in Chinese pigs that no sales of it is recorded in Ireland. It surprised me that the EU would allow its use anywhere to be honest.

At the moment I’m updating my winter housing so that I can move away from it myself, mostly to reduce costs, but also because it’s not as necessary since I started improving animal udder health. I’d argue that since all the grant aid we’ve had to improve animal housing that really any need for it due to poor health is mostly out of poor farming.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Duffy


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