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Brendan Phelan - Teagasc Glanbia Monitor Farmer

03 October 2018
Type Media Article


KILMACOW DAIRY FARMER STRIVING FOR CONSTANT IMPROVEMENT

Richard Phelan moved from Mullinavat to Kilmacow in the 1970’s to start farming, around the same time as he married Mary. When Richard passed away in 2001 their son, Brendan, took over the running of the farm based near the Kilkenny – Waterford border.

Brendan grew up on the mixed dairy and beef farm and had always been interested in farming.   He completed his Green Cert in Rockwell in 1990 but it was a relatively small farm at the time and milk quota was a big constraint. Brendan spent some time during the boom years involved in building in Ireland, before returning to farming.

OPPORTUNITY TO EXPAND

Starting out with 28.3 hectares (70 acres) the real opportunities to expand came when Brendan inherited another 27 hectares (67 acres) in 2003 and later he was lucky enough to have some land adjoining his farm become available to lease.  

Now farming 82 hectares, Brendan leases 70% of the 57 hectare milking platform and says he has only ‘really got going’ since 2015 when milk quotas were abolished.

FOCUS ON DAIRY

Back in 2001 the farm was still a mixed dairying and beef enterprise, with quotas a major limiting factor. Brendan has been focusing entirely on dairy farming since 2013, believing it is better to specialise in one area and get the best out of it. The Jersey X herd is Spring calving, supplying milk to Glanbia.

At the end of 2014, Brendan was asked to take part in the Teagasc Glanbia Monitor Farm Programme, which was set up to help dairy farmers promote sustainable growth post-quotas.

When Brendan took over the farm it had about 40 cows. By 2014 he had more than doubled the herd to 100 and this year he is milking 150. It is a relatively young herd.    

‘We actually had 190 at the start of Summer 2018 but with the difficult drought conditions decided this was the year to cull back problem animals. My target is to be milking about 190 cows from Spring 2019. With 64 replacement in-calf heifers coming through the system, I think that is realistic, all going well’ says Brendan.

BETTER MANAGEMENT OF TIME

Brendan has been contract rearing since 2013 and feels he is lucky to have found somebody nearby to manage this. Weaned stock go to the contract rearer at about 100 kilos and return to the farm in November of the second year as in-calf heifers.

‘Contract rearing effectively saves half a labour unit. It improves how I can manage my time better, focusing on the cows that are milking and on the overall management of the farm.’ Most of the machinery work is contracted out and Brendan has also started to use part time labour strategically in the busy Spring period as well as relief milkers.

‘I am constantly trying to improve how things are done and the Monitor Farm programme is helping me to see how I can be more effective with my time and get that bit more from the resources that I have.’

INVESTMENT

In the past three years, Brendan invested €147,000 in farm infrastructure to support his expansion plans. The biggest part of this was €122,000 on a new tank for slurry storage with feeding space and cubicles.   The work on housing is due to finish towards the end of October 2018 which will see housing capacity expand from 185 to 240.

Brendan has been using his existing 16 unit milking parlour with a drafting unit. €14,500 has been invested in field infrastructure such as water troughs, pipes, upgrading of existing roads or putting new roads into the land leased since 2015.

COSTS REDUCING AND PROFITS INCREASING

Brendan has been using Profit Monitor and feels he is continuously learning how to improve budgeting and financial management on previous years.   He has seen average milk yield increased from 4,216 litres per cow in 2014 to 5,128 in 2017.

Average milk solids per dairy hectare increased from 740 in 2014 to 1,173 in 2017; with milk solids per cow increasing from 374 Kg in 2014 to 462 Kg in 2017.

The overall net profit per cow has almost doubled in those three years, increasing from 495 to 952 between 2014 and 2017. Costs reduced from 28.58 cent per litre to 22.38 cent per litre in the same period.

LOW LYING LAND

Brendan describes 2018 as the ‘reverse’ of any normal year, with difficult conditions and drought, but hopes to see things resuming to normal in 2019.   The land around Ballykillaboy and his farm is low lying and generally dry land under normal circumstances.

Brendan has recently mapped the farm and increased paddock sizes with more access points. Some paddocks were amalgamated for herd size, which brought down the number of paddocks.

One block of 17 hectares that came available had been used for tillage so it was reseeded towards the end of 2014.   Brendan has reseeded 50% of the land in the last four years and will continue to be proactive about it.

In 2014 the milking platform stocking rate was 2.89 (Lu/Ha). It had increased to 3.16 by 2017. Brendan was achieving 16 Kg DM/hectare grass growth in 2017 – up from 13 Kg DM/hectare in 2015.  

Brendan does soil testing saying ‘you’re not going anywhere if you don’t know your soil fertility’. Soil fertility with pH >6.3 was 75% in 2017 up from 20% in 2015.

P Index 3/4 was up to 90% in 2017 from 70% in 2015; and K index 3/4 was at 90% in 2017, unchanged from 2015.

HERD HEALTH

Brendan works with his own local vet and Glanbia’s Shane McElory on herd health planning including a comprehensive vaccination programme, saying he is ‘much better disciplined about vaccination now.’

He has seen six week calving rate moved from 76% in 2014 to 88% in 2017; with numbers of heifers calving at 22-26 months at 97%. However 2018 was the first year he didn’t use bulls and he is a bit disappointed with the results, saying the overall pregnancy rate at the end of ten weeks was not where it should be. Brendan will keep this under review but recognises his herd still has quite a young age profile.

CONSTANTLY IMPROVING

‘Improving work practices and managing labour more efficiently are important parts of the Monitor Farm programme. I have been concentrating better on management of costs and have improved management of stock,’ says Brendan. ‘I keep striving to improve, constantly improving year on year so that I can try to achieve more out of what I have.’