In this week’s Women in Ag segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Karen O’Connor about farming a 160-cow dairy farm, a love of the land and machinery and studying agricultural science at Munster Technology University, Kerry.
20-year-old Karen O’ Connor leads a busy life, assisting on her family-run 160-cow dairy farm and studying agricultural science at Munster Technology University, Tralee.
She resides in Kanturk with her father, John, mother, Kathleen, and three older brothers, who are also carrying on the long-standing family farming tradition, having studied agricultural degrees.
Her brother, Shane, graduated from IT Tralee in 2015 with a degree in agricultural engineering and now works with North Cork Dairy Services.
James studied electrical engineering at CIT and is employed by Liebherr. Keith completed a dairy herd management course at Pallaskenry Agricultural College and works full-time on the farm.
“Dairy farming has always been a family tradition in the family, with me being the fifth generation. The farm has a total of 110-acres of grass, which our cows graze, while we lease a further 150-acres.” Karen told That’s Farming.
“We cut our own silage with our own machinery on the rented ground and save hay on the rented ground too. Furthermore, we use rented for breeding heifers for the new year, and calves graze after the second cut of silage.”
The farm is home to 160 British Friesian cows, having expanded in recent years. In pre-milk quota times, her father farmed approximately 15 cows and was restricted by quota for 25 years. During that period, he leased and bought quota when it became available.
The dairy herd primarily consists of British Friesians, with Holsteins accounting for 20%. “We have British Friesians as they have a good milking yield and are easy to calf and maintain.”
“We use a combination of AI and Friesian stock bulls bred from AI. If we have enough Friesian heifer replacements, we use Hereford and Aberdeen Angus stock bulls.”
Calving begins during the first week in February, with the herd achieving a 75% 6-week calving rate. Meanwhile, the family calf the remaining 25% of cows by mid-April, maintaining their 365-day calving interval.
“The ideal cow type is a British Friesian with a small percentage of Holstein blood. Apart from replacement Friesian heifers, we keep 50% of beef calves and sell them at roughly 12-15-months-old. We sell the remaining calves at various livestock marts.”
They retain all Friesian heifers as part of a 24-month-old calving system, utilising these to improve their herd average and increase numbers.
Herd performance and nutrition
Karen highlighted that grassland management is a critical aspect of the O’Connor’s farm, as they continually strive to re-seed parts of their milking platform, a practice that is a driver of their success.
“Currently, the herd is performing well, and we hope to see its solids and yields increase in the coming weeks as they reach peak and weather improves. Hopefully, solids will rise gradually through the summer and autumn months.”
“According to co-op data, last year, our average yield was around 5,500 litres with 3.9% butterfat and 3.50% protein. Besides, average lactose varied from 4.70% down to 4.2% at the end of lactation. TBC averages for the year varied between 7-17. SCC after calving averaged about 130.”
“When cows were outdoors day and night, it averaged 100. At the end of lactation, it increased to 160 due to reduced volumes of milk. After calving, we start with about 3kgs of a 16% dairy nut. As cows approach grazing season, we increase this to 4kgs, containing at least two ounces of Cal/Mag, reducing the risk of grass tetany and milk fever.”
“In summer, when grass is plentiful, we reduce to 2kgs of a balanced summer grazed dairy nut, covering Cal/Mag requirements.”
Grassland management and parlour upgrade
Continuous improvement is the main aim of this dairy farm, with their most recent project taking the form of a parlour upgrade, spearheaded by John Cronin of North Cork Dairy Services, in spring 2021.
It now consists of a Fullwood parlour 16-unit herringbone ACR, cluster flush and milk metres, pneumatic gates and dribble feed stainless steel feeders manufactured by North Cork Dairy Services.
“We find cluster flush a big advantage as it reduces the SCC. Also, the dribble feed feeders are very good for heifers as they eat ration longer; they are more content. Overall, we are pleased with the new parlour.”
“We milk cows twice-a-day; milking is completed roughly in one hours and forty minutes, plus washing. I enjoy milking in the new milking parlour as it has ACRs. I find it interesting to watch the milk metres display cows’ yields.”
Furthermore, the family recently constructed new slurry tanks and expanded cubicles and sheds to pave the way for further expansion, with plans to embrace automation further.
Along with milking duties, Karen also takes pride in machinery-related tasks and can be found behind the wheel of a TM140 during the height of silage season.
“As summer approaches, I enjoy drawing silage with my dad and brother. The New Holland TM 140 is a 140 horsepower, 6-cylinder turbocharged power star engine. We draw silage for a 150-acre block which we have leased. My father has given me the responsibility and trust to draw through the town each summer.”
“We use a side filling system whereby I am beside the shoot of the harvester driven by my dad on the Tm 150.”
“I haul a load of silage to the farmyard where it is tipped. Shane pikes it up with the JCB 412S loader. James fills it with the New Holland Ford 8340, and Keith fills with a David Brown 1690.”
“Also, I drive the JCB 412S loader. This has an automatic transmission which makes it easier and faster changing direction. We use the machine for feeding cows and stock all winter.
“I also complete topping throughout the summer months. Besides, I drive the jeep for fencing materials around the farm and water hose connections and various tools. Our dogs, Pup and Rex, are always waiting to jump on board when driving the jeep.”
Along with juggling her farming commitments, Karen is currently attending Munster Technology University Tralee, previously known as IT Tralee.
She is studying a Bachelor of Science Honours in Agricultural Science, having enrolled in September 2020 after completing her Leaving Certificate in Colaiste Treasa.
Her decision to select this four-year course stemmed from her striking passion for farming and interest in agricultural science as a Leaving Certificate subject.
“My agricultural science teacher, Brid Anne O’ Donoghue, made it more interesting and fun, and I obtained good marks. I enjoyed the practical side of the subject. Tralee was my first option on my CAO as it is closest to home.”
Currently, Karen is based at Clonakilty Agricultural College, where she is completing her Green Certificate as part of the course. She explained that this aspect of the course allows her to gain hands-on farm experience around calves, beef cattle and sheep.
“My highlight of the course would be meeting new friends from all over the country. We all share the same interests and come from all different farming backgrounds.”
“The course so far has been challenging, but like anything, you need to put in the work to see results. As everyone says, ‘college life is the best few years of your life’. Covid-19 has greatly impacted our student life with no pubs or nightclubs in sight.”
“Thankfully, we enjoyed and lived our best life until March 2019 in first year and a few weeks at the beginning of second year. We will make sure to make up for all the missed nights out when Covid blows away.” she laughed.
Looking ahead, Karen is set to graduate in 2023 and intends to travel for a year with a group of classmates before “exploring endless career possibilities” in the agricultural industry.
“I hope to find a job in the agricultural sector, for example, with a state agency or a sales position. It is important to follow your dreams. Go with what you think is best and do not leave anyone tell you differently.”
“On my dairy farm, I would consider being treated the same as my three brother’s dad and mom. We carry out the same tasks daily: milking, feeding calves, machinery work looking after and caring for animals.”
“I would consider myself one of the lucky ones to be brought up in the countryside, surrounded bby animals. In times like these with Covid-19 restrictions, we are all kept busy on the farm.” Karen concluded.