A day at an award-winning Cork dairy farm: “Bonus figures are not enough to keep people in winter milk”


Last week, the O’Sullivan family opened the doors of their Cork dairy farm to the European Dairy Farmers Congress, which took place in Ireland.

More than 300 farm visitors heard how the family farm has grown from 140 cows to 500 today and also how restrictions may reduce the number of cows the farm will have in the future.

Over the years, the O’Sullivan farm has won at the Spring Show in Dublin in 1977 and 1984 and last year they were runners-up in the National Dairy Council’s Milk Quality Awards.

The farm, originally purchased in 1953, started with 40ha. Today, John and Teresa farm with two of their sons, John and Victor, and the farm manager, David McGrath.


All heavy machinery work on the farm is done through contractors and additional hands are available through a few nephews.

But John Snr says the reality is that they could use a fifth worker.

The milking operation is divided into two farms and investments have been made in new milking facilities, upgraded buildings and land purchases.

The 288ha farmed by the family includes 210ha of silage and corn is grown on 18ha.


Cows walk on the O’Sullivan farm

The O’Sullivans milk 365 days a year, with a minimum of 28% of total production to be produced in November, December, January and February.

maximize output

The goal of the farm is to maximize the production of milk solids per hectare and to produce young female cattle that sell well.

“The goal is to produce the maximum amount of milk solids from the milking platform and ensure costs are kept reasonable,” according to John Snr.

The winter milk aspect of the farm also means spring calving isn’t the ordeal it could be.

Farm manager David McGrath is integral to the smooth running of the farm, according to John Snr, and a split calving pattern on the farm means fall calves are gone before spring calving occurs. 30% of the herd will give birth between September 1 and November 30, while the other 70% will give birth between January 5 and April 30.

While there are Dairygold winter milk rebates of 5.6c/L and 7.6c/L, the rebates have eroded with rising input costs in recent months.

“These figures will not be enough in the future with the cost of concentrates. I don’t know how much it will cost this winter and I will campaign for the cooperative to review these figures,” said John Snr.

“The bonus numbers are not enough to keep people in the winter milk.”

They feed around 5kg of concentrate during the summer months, approximately 5kg per cow through the parlor in a performance feeding system.


Estate Manager David McGrath with John Snr. Photo: Dora Kazmierak and NDC & Kerrygold Quality Milk Awards

Spring calved heifers begin breeding on April 5, using sexed semen until the end of June, when they switch to conventional semen for the last three weeks.

On-farm conception rates are very good, around 65-70% for virgin heifers. Cows as they age is a little less. Internal delivery is 398 days.

In previous years the herd was a complete liquid milk herd, where the focus was not on fertility, but over the years work has been done to improve solids.

“We continually work to improve fat and protein and I think the combination of using sexed semen in heifers allows us to improve genetic gain and we are using genomic testing.”


According to the family, the biggest challenges facing the farm are limits on herd rates, which will be a big challenge starting next year for the O’Sullivans and may lead to a reduction in cow numbers.

The farm, with 496 cows, has a stocking rate of 2.7 ULG/ha.

Increased environmental regulations under the new Nitrate Action Plan mean that high-yielding cows from farms (over 6,500kg milk/cow) will fall within the new band limits, 89kg/cows will pass N/cow to 106 kg/N/cow, making it harder to tell under the maximum limit of 250kg/N/ha.

“The implications of that on this farm would be that we find another 50 hectares of land or we will have to reduce the number of cows by as much as 100.


John O’Sullivan Jr. on the farm. Photo: Dora Kazmierak and NDC & Kerrygold Quality Milk Awards

“The way I see it, that’s the biggest challenge here and here we are on July 1 and I still don’t know what’s going to happen. I would be reluctant to lease more land.”

Renting five different blocks of land isn’t ideal for the O’Sullivans, they told the group, but the availability of land near the farm, which is just a few miles from Cork city, isn’t simple, with a competition significantly by land, even from other dairies. farmers.

“If it was available (to buy) pretty close, you would probably have to do it,” said John Snr.

But land in the area is not cheap. Leased land in the area would cost around €750-900/ha per year. “To buy it would cost up to €50,000/ha. But the problem is that it doesn’t go on sale around here.”

stock rates

However, Son Victor is hopeful that while storage rates in the future will be a challenge, they are able to maintain the amount of stock they have.

“We are adopting practices that reduce emissions, such as reducing the amount of nitrogen we are spreading, the method of manure application, and we are producing a more efficient cow.”

Livestock sales are a large part of the farm and each year the O’Sullivans hold two sales, selling over 160 pregnant and calving heifers. While the abolition of quotas in recent years has boosted demand for young cattle, it has generally brought customers back to the O’Sullivans herd.

“We held a young cattle sale of 70 animals here last week and in the fall we will do a joint sale of 125 heifers, a mix of spring calved and calf heifers and fresh calf heifers,” Victor said.

“When we organize a sale like that, we are trying to choose animals that will make a good sale. You don’t put any animals in your fund at all, you try and put a good mix of animals that will make an attractive sale that will give you a good reputation so you can make a sale every year.


Victor O’Sullivan. Photo: Dora Kazmierak and NDC & Kerrygold Quality Milk Awards

“Within that, we will use data, like milk registration data from your mothers and grandmothers to influence our decisions and rankings also come into play.”

According to John Jnr, the farm sold 70 calves in recent weeks, with a top price of €5,300 in a complete clearance sale and an average of €1,200.

Decision to replant with mixed species in an effort to reduce the amount of nitrogen spread on the farm

A mixed-species turf paddock entered the farm seven weeks ago and it remains to be seen how it will perform.

The field was last reseeded in 1973, according to John Snr, who said the decision to reseed with mixed species was made because of a major campaign to reduce the amount of nitrogen spread on the farm.

“This is us trying to figure out if it works!

“It was planted for the last time in 1973, since it has not been cut for silage, only grazed. We need one or two years with him to see how the cows behave.”

The reseeding was done in the last few weeks and according to John Jnr, the best they know is that it “grew up”. Newly reseeded land will be grazed at 1,000 kg DM/ha and grazed again when it returns to 1,000 kg DM/ha.

“Normally what we would expect to do is graze it closer to 1,200 kg DM/ha and 1,500 kg DM/ha, but for clover to become established so that it is not muscled by grass, that is why I we will graze a little a little before


First reseeding since 1973: the mixed-species turf at O’Sullivan Farm

“After we grazed him, we could give him a run of 2,500 gallons per acre of slurry for those two grazings.

“Maybe towards the end of the year when we’re shutting down we could give it some nitrogen and certainly early next year. The plan is to fertilize it like a grass field until around April, after that you can start to reduce nitrogen production.”

John Jnr said that a grass-only pasture after grazing gets about 20-25 units of N as soon as the cows leave it.

Teagasc adviser William Burchall said some trials in Ireland have found that sheep grazing these types of grasses have much less burden of worms in their lungs and stomach.

The turf mix includes grasses and clover, as well as plantain and chicory, the latter known for its deep root system, which they hope will help during dry conditions.

The plantain, according to William, is a natural diuretic that will encourage the cows to urinate more often, and in turn help spread the urine and manure over more of the field.

John Snr told visitors that when he was his children’s age, “the norm was that you would go out with the fertilizer spreader in February with 40-50 units of nitrogen and then probably throw slurry on top of it, to get rid of the slurry.” . .

“Today there is no chemical nitrogen for the first grazing on the grazing platform here. We remove 3,000 gallons (approximately 7,500 L) of mud per acre. This is how the slurry grows throughout the first grazing rotation.

“The first chemical nitrogen turns off after the grazing rotation has started, so it’s March before it turns off. That is a very significant saving in nitrogen.

“The last time P and K were purchased from the home farm was in 1973. A slurry tank was built at that time and has supplied all the P and K ever since. The last application of artificial N on the farm is done before September 15”.