This week, Agriland visited the Maher family farm in Co. Limerick for our Dairy Focus feature. The Killuragh herd, owned by Gearoid and Sarah Maher, hosted this year’s Pure Friesian open day. The return to milk production has been a triumph for the Maher family, as they were crowned the Dairygold milk quality award winner in 2021, a National Dairy Council (NDC) milk quality finalist in 2022, and NDC ambassador in 2023.
Gearoid, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, took over the farm in 2011. Prior to that, the farm had been leased out due to his father’s ill health. In 2018, Gearoid and Sarah entered into a farm partnership. Gearoid, who holds an honours degree in agricultural science, returned to the family farm to focus on dairy farming. However, the task ahead was not without its challenges. The farm’s infrastructure was outdated and not fit for purpose, and the quality of the grassland swards was poor. To modernise the farm, significant investment was required, along with the assembly of a herd of cows and the re-establishment of the Killuragh prefix with the Irish Holstein Friesian Association (IHFA). A new cubicle shed and milking parlour were installed, along with improved grazing infrastructure.
The farm is situated on heavy clay-type soil, resulting in an average grazing season of 200-240 days. Gearoid understood the importance of selecting the right cow type for this type of farm. He opted for pure Friesian cows, as he believed they would be well-suited to the farm. There was also a sense of tradition in this decision, as Gearoid’s father and grandfather had both bred pedigree Friesian cows. The foundation of the farm was laid with the purchase of 40 pedigree pure Friesian cows, the majority of which came from the Dunum herd, with a few from the Gortfadda herd. These cows formed the basis of the pedigree herd. Currently, the farm is milking 106 cows, with the heavy soil type necessitating a stocking rate of one cow per acre on the grazing platform.
When it comes to breeding, Gearoid places a strong emphasis on cow families and the performance of dams and grand-dams. Milk and protein production are top priorities. The herd of 106 cows is currently producing 6,160kg of milk, with an average fat content of 4.27% and protein content of 3.59%, resulting in 482kg of milk solids. The calving interval is approximately 369 days, and the empty rate generally ranges from 4-5%, with a submission rate to first service consistently over 90% and a 70% conception rate to first service. The milking herd includes eight cows that are on their eighth lactation or older, demonstrating the herd’s fertility, health, and longevity attributes.
One issue that has been highlighted on the farm is the lower economic breeding index (EBI) of pure Friesian cows. However, since the introduction of the carbon sub-index, the EBI of many pure Friesian herds has increased. Comparing the Killuragh herd to the national average EBI, the national average is €140, while the Killuragh herd has an EBI of €192. For fertility, the national average is €66, compared to €118 for the Killuragh herd, and the carbon figure is €7 nationally, compared to €21 for the Killuragh herd. The pure Friesian breed falls behind in the milk sub-index, with the national average at €43 and the Killuragh herd at €9. However, given the high production figures mentioned earlier, many breeders question the accuracy of these figures. They argue that the longevity of the cows leads to higher lifetime milk production.
Sustainability plays a significant role on the Maher family farm, with various measures being implemented. The farm uses a total of 100kg/ha of chemical nitrogen (N), all of which is spread in the form of protected urea. Low emission slurry spreading (LESS) is used for spreading all slurry on the farm. Additionally, 50% of the farm has a clover content of between 20-30%, and 15% of the silage fields contain red clover. Furthermore, 10% of the grazing platform consists of multi-species swards. Concentrate feeding has been reduced from 1,200kg/cow to 700kg/cow, and the protein percentage has been lowered from 18% to 15% in spring and from 16% to 12% in summer. The herd receives selective dry cow therapy, with only 10% of the herd receiving antibiotics at drying off in 2022. Weeds are no longer sprayed on the farm; instead, they are allowed to grow on the edges of paddocks and topped in the paddocks. All water courses are fenced 1.5m from the edge of the drain, and there are 20 acres of commercial forestry and 4 acres of natural forestry on the farm.
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