‘Contract rearing has allowed us to maximise our production per cow and per hectare’

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Farming can be difficult at the best of times. Trying to juggle it with a demanding off-farm career can be doubly challenging, but it’s manageable as Brian Roche is proving on his farm just outside Kilkenny city .

The principal of St John’s Senior School, which caters for children from third to sixth classes, he milks 180 cows with the herd split between spring and autumn calving.

While the Covid-19 restrictions have shut the school, there is still a lot of work of organisational work to do.

On the farm, the drought, which is hitting the southeast particularly hard, is the big issue, but so far the herd performance is holding up.

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Brian with his wife Orla and their children, Tom, Mary, Orla, baby Michael and Con. Photo: John D Kelly

“The cows are doing 31 litres per cow per day as well as 1.59 kg ms/ cow/day. It was 1.98 kg/ms but it slipped back a little bit but we’re trying to hold it,” says Brian.

“Silage is done and dusted, we knocked it on May 11, and made some bales as well. We were supposed to cut the bales in a few weeks, but it was beginning to go back under the drought, so rather than let the sun bake it, we wrapped it early and put it away. It’s slightly different silage and will be more used for heifers or dry cows because we lost a bit of quality on it.

“We finished our third round of fertiliser which we put out at a lower rate because we were using protected urea with sulphur for the first time. It was the first time we changed fertiliser like that – we usually used CAN or pasture sward before.

“One of the main benefits of the sulphur is despite the drought and lack of growth there is a greenness to the paddocks since we put out the fertiliser. I’m not sure if other people are seeing this, but in 2018 when we had similar drought conditions the paddocks did turn very yellow, but it’s not as bad this time.

“We’ve added CAN to silage ground again at a reduced rate. It’s not doing a lot but I want to have it out so if there’s any rain at all it will respond.

“We’re back feeding; we’re reasonably highly stocked with 180 cows off 90 acres of a milking platform. So we generally buffer feed in the spring and summer. We’re feeding 6kg of maize and 2-5kg of concentrates, depending on the yield of the cow – 6kg of grass silage as bales and 5kg of maize. Our butterfat is 4.22pc and our protein is 3.66pc.”

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Brian Roche and his father Tommy

As well as having the help of his father Tommy, Brian employs a local man full-time from October to May.

“He finishes up with us when things calm down and goes away working for a contractor for the summer and comes back when things are picking up again,” he says. “Apart from that we just get a relief milker in.

“To ease the workload we have a heifer rearer who takes the heifer calves off of us when they’re a few weeks old and they don’t come back until almost calving time 20 months. While it adds more cost to the system, it allows us to free up a lot of ground both on the milking platform and silage ground.

“This is important in a post-quota environment, as it has allowed us to maximise our production per cow and hectare. It also takes up less time, which allows us to do other jobs better.”

Approximately 20pc of the ‘ cows calve in the autumn time. While it remains an important part of the enterprise, they have chosen to consolidate the spring herd going forward.

Cash flow

“As time has gone on, we’ve done all our expansion in the spring herd,” he says. “While the margin per litre is higher in the spring, winter milk is good from a cash-flow perspective but also spreads out the intensity of the calving season over a few months.

“We’re part of the Fresh Milk Producers group and they represent us very well. For the additional cost of producing milk all year round we should be getting more for our product.”

While being a school principal can add stress to Brian’s life, he finds it often complements farming well.

“Sometimes it can be a challenge to come home from school when you’re tired and get the cows in and milk them, but you feel better after milking,” he says.

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