In this week’s dairy segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Rebecca King of Loughpark Farms, Ireland, about carrying on a family tradition, branching into raw milk production and growing a business during the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Loughpark Farms is a family-run enterprise, producing fresh raw milk from their 120-cow herd on the shores of Lough Lene.
Mairead and Richard King, Collinstown, Co Westmeath and their children, Rebecca, and Edward, a sustainable farm management and agri-business student at Carlow IT, are involved in the operation.
The land the King family farms was once part of the Pollard Estate before it was divided in the early 1960s.
“My grandparents, Michael, and Peggy, moved here, making Edward and I the third generation to farm here. It was not until my uncle, Philip, passed away that we started dairy farming full-time.” Rebecca told That’s Farming.
“Previous to that, dad did a lot of contract work, and mam was a social care worker. It wasn’t until last year that I returned to the farm.”
“I studied sustainable agriculture in DkIT and worked in the horse racing industry for several years in the UK and Ireland. It is true what they say that home is where the heart is, and the farm is home,” she added.
From 40 to 120 cows
Since taking the farm’s reins, they have “gradually” tripled cow numbers from an initial forty. The main farm consists of 60-acres, while the dairy farmers also lease out-farms to rear their own replacements and zero-graze grass when required.
“We have mostly Jersey crossbred cows that the majority calf in the spring. To keep supplying milk, we began milking all year round. Crossbreds suit the farm very well as they can be stocked higher, lower maintenance and better milk solids.”
“We milk cows twice-a-day in an 8-unit herringbone. Morning milkings can take up to 3 hours everything completed, while evening milkings are a little shorter.”
Switching to 100% AI and herd performance
This year, the Kings are switching to 100% AI breeding, having previously used Aberdeen-Angus and Friesian stock bulls.
They are making the transition “because of the great selection of high-EBI bulls to choose from, and we want to breed our own replacements” and have invested in EFS Efficient Farm System SenseHub monitoring collars to aid with heat and health detection.
“We aim to start calving the start of February, hoping the heifers will calf a little earlier than the cows. To note, we keep all heifer calves and retain these as replacements on the out-farm, as alluded to earlier. Besides, we sell all our bull calves at local livestock marts.”
“Next spring, we may have some surplus heifers that we will sell at the point of calving. The heifers will calf down when they are two-years-old.
“Our breeding season has already started, and we plan to AI them by the end of the month. We spend a lot of time with them, and all that time is worth it when one person can move them or do anything with them in a stress-free manner. We have 80% of the cows and heifers calved down in 6 weeks and are hoping that AI will tighten this up.”
“Currently, cows are milking well. The last collection showed they produced just under 5,000 litres with butterfat at 4.36% and 3.62% protein.”
Grassland management and technology
According to Rebecca, grassland management is one of the farm’s most important aspects, with an aim to “get cows out as soon as they calf, weather-dependent”.
“One of the daily questions is, did they eat out the paddock? We walk the farm once a week, measuring grass with a Grasshopper.”
“Also, we have a zero-grazer that we use when grass is tight on the main farm. Therefore, we can put cows back indoors, but they still can access fresh grass daily. At the start, the cows might get out for a couple of hours. It was not until the end of March that they were out day and night.”
“Technology is playing a more prominent role every day on the farm by measuring grass with the GrassHopper, and that goes through Pasture Base, recording births, moves and medicine on the HerdApp and looking at the herd’s heat and health status with SenseHub. However, the pen and paper are never too far away.”
To further develop the farm, the family plan to extend the parlour in the future and are in the process of setting up a drafting gate system that will pair up with collars to enhance herd management.
“Our goal is to keep up-to-date with technology. It plays a huge role in agriculture, so it will be important not to fall behind.” commented the local discussion group member and Grass10 participant.
Raw milk venture
What makes the farm family different is that they supply local shops with their raw milk and attend some farmer markets which have “throve” during Covid-19.
They supply the bulk of their milk to Glanbia (approximately 500,000 litres) and branched into the sale of raw milk in 2019 at their local farmers’ markets.
“The milk comes in a glass bottle and can be bought for €2.50. We encourage people to reuse their glass bottle to get their next bottle at a reduced price when they return the original bottle. You can buy our milk in several shops around Mullingar, Co Westmeath and Oldcastle, Co Meath.”
“Raw milk is completely natural; it has nothing added or taken away. It contains more amino acids and vitamins and minerals.”
“I think Covid-19 has almost helped our business as it allows people to look at the foods they are eating, and a lot have decided to return to more natural foods. It has encouraged us to keep growing the business.”
Future goals and message to the public
Rebecca revealed that securing their raw milk licence required time, effort, and assistance from friends along the way, but it was a worthwhile venture as they are now “one of the few fully licensed raw milk producers in Ireland”.
In the past year, they have constructed a purpose-built bottling plant and washroom which allows them to “bottle milk in the safest environment”.
“We receive so many messages and letters about our milk that makes us very proud of what we do. We deliver the milk three days a week to shops, so it is always fresh.”
“The long-term plan for the farm is to keep improving the type of cow we have as this will always be something we focus on. In the not-so-distant future, it would be great to extend the parlour, but with milking all year round, timing will be key.”
“The plan with the raw milk would be to keep introducing shops to the route. The shops we have now vary from supermarkets, local grocery shops, butchers, farm shops and online, NeighbourFood. Farmers’ markets have also been great to get our milk out there. We currently attend Collinstown, Clonmellon and Ballinacree.”
“The whole journey has been incredible. Everything has progressed naturally, and we are very grateful for everyone’s support. We are so lucky to do what we do, especially during Covid.”
“If there was something to ask people, they are shopping to make a conscious decision to buy something new that is local because the support means more than they know!” Rebecca concluded.