Last year was a year of significant change on Woodville Dairy Farm on the banks of the Little Brosna in south Co Offaly, where Mervyn Stanley farms with his wife Orla and their three children. They are farming in partnership with Eric and Ruth – Mervyn’s parents.
While Mervyn had never been a stranger to progress on the family’s 200 cow farm, progress had always come in incremental steps, that is until 2016 came along. “Bit-by-bit and year-by-year was how we developed up until last year” says Mervyn.
“You could say the quota going was a factor, but really what drove our expansion from 200 to 300 cows was the opportunity to take a long-term lease on a 100 acre block of land right next door”. “Those opportunities don’t come around very often so we saw our chance and decided to take the bull by the horns and go for it”; Mervyn explained.
To accommodate this increase to 300 cows, the on-farm investment during 2016 included upgrading the parlour including a new three phase supply, reseeding of the leased land, 1.5km of new roadways, paddocking infrastructure, sinking a new well, and finally, a 6-bay double cubicle house including EASYFIX cow cubicles and mats.
Increasing cow numbers by 50% in one year was no mean feat and Mervyn puts the success of this step-change in the farm enterprise down to the quality and dedication of the help on the farm. Mervyn’s father Eric still plays an active role, while Norton Greene and eagle-eyed herdsman Joe Gannon keep the operation ticking over on a daily basis.
Despite the help on hand, having 300 calving down, including 120 heifers made for tough going during the peak spring period. While the big jump in calf numbers required much greater management input, Mervyn explained that a big factor that helped to suppress scours and infections was the greater space and ventilation for the calves in the new calf-rearing house.
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Stanley’s new 6-bay cubicle house is the air-flow and brightness. Mervyn designed the shed in such a way as to maximise feeding space, ventilation and cow comfort. The combination of extra height at the eaves, spaced roof sheeting and a wide ridge outlet allowed for excellent ventilation. This is obvious from the almost total lack of dust on the roof timbers and one would never think the shed had been home to 140 cows over the past winter! “Good ventilation means we can eliminate condensation in the shed and this should really extend the life of the timbers and steel-work and improve cow health” says Mervyn.
Mervyn is delighted with the performance of the new EASYFIX cow cubicles would not hesitate to choose them over steel in the future. While the plastic cubicles were slightly more costly, he sees the benefits as threefold:
“They are easy to clean – Because of the nice precise edges on the mats it meant that we could get them nice and flush with the concrete step between the cubicle rows – this means there are no little gaps for muck to lodge in and lift the rubber mats”. As a result, the cubicle beds can be very easily kept clean with lime and sawdust at every milking. Mervyn reckons that because the problem of rust is eliminated with these new cubicles they should have a lifespan multiple times that of the old steel ones. “At least it won’t be me that’ll have to worry about replacing them!” he jokes.
“The cow scratchers included on the EASYFIX cubicle rails were a bonus in terms of cow comfort” says Mervyn. The shed was erected by local builder Padraig O’Toole and Mervyn credits his attention to detail – especially in the concrete work, with how easily the cubicles and scrapers were installed afterwards.
The Stanley’s herd is derived from generations of good British Friesian cow lines from Eric’s time with more Holstein blood introduced in recent years. In terms of his ideal cow, Mervyn is uncompromising – “I want her to have it all really; EBI, solids, fertility, mobility.” “As well as being able to yield well within a compact, spring-calving system, I look for a good square, deep barrelled cow who can go back in calf quickly and have no trouble on her feet”.
Given that the leased land is over 2km from the parlour it is no surprise that Mervyn needs to stay on top of lameness. A hoof parer comes to treat lame cows fortnightly during the summer and there are plans to improve the surface of roadways by blinding with quarry dust during the year.
Mervyn performs all his own AI, with over 20 cows a day being served when I visited during the good weather of early May. With 100 heifers going through the parlour this spring, a second man was required in the pit for early season milking, but the Dairymaster Sequential Bailing System is a great help in terms of speeding up the cow flow both entering and exiting the parlour. “All cows can be milked in 2 hours in the morning and under two in the evening”.
While managing 300 cows in one group at grass in a spring calving herd may seem a challenge, Mervyn’s secret is simplicity. “Some fellas tie themselves up in knots planning complicated grazing systems”. “We like to keep it simple here.” While grass quality remains high and Stanley’s herd was not restricted by drought in early May – Mervyn says it was touch-and-go for a while after 25 acres of paddocks were taken out for bales in early May. Mervyn will continue with a minimum of 1kg meal a day through the breeding season in order to get the herd of mostly heifers back in calf. The two cuts of high-quality pit silage and all bales are made by contractor now, allowing the Stanleys to get on with ensuring grassland management is optimised over the summer. The layout of roadways and paddocking is top class and it is obvious a lot of thought went into the planning and design. Even a new “ring-road” around the farmyard means that cows now no longer have to follow the same route as tractors and machinery through the yard. This means that during silage-making or slurry-spreading there are no interruptions to either cow or machinery flow. During periods of wet weather or on the shoulders of the grazing season extra gaps are opened to paddocks and strip wires are used regularly to minimise poaching.
Mervyn is cautiously optimistic about the outlook for dairying, but when asked about plans for further development on the farm, he smiles. The plan is to let the newly expanded system bed-in for a few years before any further growth would be considered. But this Centenary Co-op Supplier will not be resting on his laurels though! Plans are already in place for a new 360k Gal over-ground circular slurry store for later in the year. Ingeniously, this new tank will not be located in the farmyard but rather, almost 1km away on a greenfield site next to the leased land block. This will mean that slurry can be pumped by the umbilical system about Christmas time from the tank in the yard to the new tank. This will leave slurry closer to where it will ultimately be spread and could save 400-500km/year in terms of tractor and tanker journeys.
Attention-to-detail and an effective planning and design stage to every development means that efficiency and simplicity are guaranteed and the future of this picturesque Co Offaly farm is bright indeed.
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