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Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a fifth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the company in 2015.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

‘At 21, I can say I have  milked 1,000 cows on the other side of the world’

In this week’s Student Focus, Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming, speaks to 21-year-old Liam O’Brien, a dairy farmer and student at Munster Technological University, CIT campus and Clonakilty Agricultural College.  

“I come from a family where farming is a major tradition.

My parents came from farming backgrounds, and their parents before them. Mam came from a dairy farm, and Dad hailed from a dairy, beef and pig farm.

I have been in the parlour since I can remember. I used to be put in the rock-a-tot and put near the milk pump when I was right small.

My dad, Pat, and my mam, Liz, are the bosses, but the whole family is involved and work on the farm in Currabeha, Crookstown Co. Cork.

Some evenings when there is no training, the six of us could be in the parlour. That is my two sisters Kitty (20) and Annie (14), and my younger brother, Patrick (17).

Dairy farming

Currently, there are 90 Holsteins going through the parlour.

When I was younger, we were always milking around 70 cows. The milk quota being abolished was a major factor in the increase in numbers. In 2016, we were going to break the 100 mark, but TB struck and took all of the in-calf heifers and a few cows.

This halted our expansion fairly fast, but we are on the way back up now, thankfully.

The farm comprises 200-acres in one block. There are mostly Holstein Friesians on the farm, but we also have a few Angus calves every year. We run a spring-calving herd on the grass-based system.

The reason we go for Holsteins is because of their high milk yield. The cows are currently doing 27 litres a day.

We use AI on the heifers and cows. Dad AIs until we remove the bull from the cows and heifers. It is mostly Holstein straws we use, but we give smaller heifers and cows an Angus straw for easy calving.

Also, we use Angus on any under-performing cows. We use a Holstein bull for both cows and heifers. Furthermore, we AI heifers for a month before we introduce the bull. He spends a month with heifers before joining cows.

Calving takes place from the last week of January to the end of March. We calf down at this time so cows can make the most use out of the early grass.

My ideal cow is tall with a good udder, correct teat placement and 500+kgs.

Udder health and low maintenance are also favourable traits. And a cow that calves early in the spring every year. Personally, I prefer a mostly black cow.

We keep all calves, male and female and also buy about 50 bull calves every year as well for the enterprise’s beef unit.

They remain on-farm and are fattened and are factory ready at 2-years-old. This year, we had 100 bullocks for the factory.

We keep all heifers born before St Patrick’s Day for breeding and fatten the rest. Our heifers calve down at 2-years-old.

We supply DairyGold. The cows are currently doing 27 litres a day at 3.70% fat and 3.40% protein. That is 2 kg milk solids. We have a low SCC of 63k. Currently, cows are getting 2kg of ration a day, with the higher-yielding cows getting 4 kg. We had a 75% 6-week calving rate this year.

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Grassland management

We started grass measuring this spring using Pasture Base and are currently eyeball it but are thinking of investing in a plate metre.

We find it useful as you always know if a surplus or shortage of grass is approaching.

Strong paddocks are mowed together and put in the silage pit. The fields are topped after grazing to keep an even cover.

Milking parlour and infrastructure

We have a 14-unit DeLaval parlour with jars and automatic cluster removers. To note, we milk cows twice a day, every day in the morning at 7:45 and in the evening at 5:30. We can milk cows and wash the parlour and machine in 95 minutes in the morning.

In 2016, we added two units to the parlour. I would like to upgrade to a 20-unit swing-over DeLaval parlour with ACRs to allow for future herd expansion.

There are 95 cubicles for the dairy side of the farm. There are scrapers in the cow house to keep the passages clean.

The beef cattle are in slatted sheds; there is room for 100 fat cattle in one shed and 110 yearlings in the lower shed. The big silage slab can hold 140 acres of silage, and the shed can hold the bones of-90 acres.

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Farming life

I love every part of farming bar covering silage pits! In springtime, you have calving season, and then in summer, you have silage and reseeding.

Besides, in autumn and winter, you have the feeding the different lots of animals. I like how you could be at anything, and the change in jobs over the seasons is good as you have something to look forward to.

I find grass measuring the most challenging, but I will get the hang of it with a bit more practice.

Honestly, I am most passionate about the cows and the machinery work. I take fierce pride in doing jobs right, or there is no point in doing them at all. People know I take good care of my Massey and almost think of it as my child.

My main jobs are milking and a good share of machinery work, be it slurry with the dribble bar, topping, anything at silage bar raking, and reseeding!

Relief milking and silage

Besides, I relief milk on two farms about five minutes from home. I milk twice a week on one farm and then whenever the other farmer needs me to milk.

I draft my brother in if I need another pair of hands when there is silage or when I have double milkings.

We do all our own work in silage and reseeding. We do silage with my uncle, so we do not have to wait for the contractor. This year was a bit of a challenge as the rain delayed us cutting by nearly three weeks, so the crop was heavy.

We picked up 100-acres in a day at home, so, thankfully, things went very smoothly, and we headed to my uncle’s farm then and covered the pits the same day.

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Dairy farmer and student

I am studying a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture at Munster Technological University, CIT campus and Clonakilty Agricultural College.

I enrolled in the course in 2018, and I am heading into my fourth and final year.

To note, I have always had an interest in agriculture and business. This course combines the two, so it was the best of both worlds for me.

Work placement on 1,050 cow farm in New Zealand

I did my work placement in spring 2020 out in New Zealand on Shaun and Monica Mattusek’s farm, about an hour below Christchurch on the South Island. There were 1,050 cows, a mix of crossbreds and Friesians.

We milked them through a 60-bail rotary parlour. Milking in the morning started at about 5:15 am and took just over 3 hours. We started at 2:30 in the evening, and it took two-and-a-half hours.

Seven people were working on the farm. There was another Irish student from WIT on the farm with me, and we worked together very well. Between milkings, we would be getting fields ready for the coming days, weeding and spraying. The roster was six days on, one day off, then five days on, two days off, which gave me plenty of time to travel around.

Shaun and Monica had us involved in nearly everything going on, including bringing Dylan and I to their discussion group meetings, which was very interesting.

I love the course; it suits me down to the ground. It has everything – the business and accounting in CIT and the practical side down in Clonakilty is a great mix.

There are science modules too, and the best thing I find is that the lecturers relate their modules to the farm and give very good relevant examples on how it can benefit or affect you and farming.

It was my first choice on the CAO. The business and science modules are taught in CIT, and the practical side is down in Clonakilty.

In Clonakilty, we do grassland management, work with the livestock, do some machinery work, and learn the maintenance involved in the machinery that I really enjoyed.

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Covid-19

Student life was hard during Covid-19; I am not going to lie. I found myself putting the work at home before college work and putting assignments on the long finger but more so in the second semester with calving in the mix.

One of our lecturers held meetings once a week, which I found very helpful. You could tell him if you were struggling or not, which was a great relief.

Travel and a 150-cow herd

In the long run, I want to be farming at home. I hope to travel again after college, New Zealand again is a priority of mine, but I would also like to go to Australia or America at silage too.

My advice for younger people who are considering pursuing a career in agriculture is: Go for it; there is nothing stopping you. There is support all along the way.

Farmers are always looking for help, so if you think you might have an interest, there is plenty of work over the summer to give you a good taste of the job.

And listen to the older farmers. They have been around a while and have plenty of experience that does come in handy when you least expect it.

In the future, I hope to be milking about 150 cows so we would be self-sufficient in the beef side and would not need to buy in calves.

I would also like to get the herd to full pedigree Holsteins and raise the herd’s EBI.

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Another photo from placement
Farming journey to date 

I have always been on the farm at calves when I was small and sitting in the passenger seat of the tractor with dad. Then, I was promoted when I went to secondary school, drawing silage at home and at my uncles.

I started helping out milking in fifth class and eventually started doing the whole milking myself at 15 if mam and dad had to go somewhere.

It was when I finished my Leaving Cert I started relief milking, and now at 21, I can say I have milked 1,000 cows on the other side of the world.

I still think the outlook for agriculture in Ireland is promising. Some people say that there is no future in it for young people, but I do not see it that way.

Farmers have to adapt to the way things are changing, and I know some are very reluctant to do so, but that is how it is going.

It is becoming more modernised by introducing GPS and different heat detection methods, which all make the farmer’s life easier.

The only thing that could trouble us are the regulations that may come into play with climate change, but we will tackle it when that day comes.”

To share your story like this dairy farmer and student, email – catherina@thatsfarming.com

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