In this week’s Dairy Focus, That’s Farming, speaks to Emma Mc Cormack, a farm manager at Stokestown Dairies. She discusses the enterprise they run successfully, breeding programmes, focusing on nutrition, her home farm and taking care of you and your mental health.
Emma Mc Cormack is a 25-year-old farmer who works full-time as a farm manager in Stokestown Dairies, near Mullingar, in Co. Westmeath.
Stokestown Dairies is a spring calving herd, which calf within a 12-week block. They breed all heifers through AI, using sires from Progressive Genetics.
The dairy enterprise is a grass-based system; cows graze from as early as February or before if possible. Cows have the opportunity to graze right up until late November or early December, depending on ground conditions, as well as grass growth.
It was in spring 2020 that the farm became involved in dairying. Furthermore, Emma talks passionately about her ideal cow-type.
“Cross-bred cows are a hardy animal, with great feet, excellent milk quality and do not require much intervention at calving time,” she explained to That’s Farming.
The farm manager aims to have over 80% of the cows calved as we head into March. Predominantly, the herd comprises cows that are entering their third lactation.
John Payne, a well-established dairy farmer based in Co. Longford runs the farm in partnership with the farm owner, Ken Gibson.
In previous years, Ken ran a sheep and tillage enterprise. However, in more recent years, he became involved in dairy heifer contract rearing.
“This is now my third season here on the farm, having been there since the beginning.”
Emma reflects on last year’s production figures. “We produced around 470kgs of milk solids per cow and peaked at about 26.5 litres per cow. We feed cows 600kgs of concentrates per head.”
In November 2021, milk recording showed figures of 4.52% for protein, with yields around 13 litres at the time.
Labour on the farm can be a demanding element. “During our busy season, we have three full-time labour units, with several part-time staff at the weekends. We have an extra hand completing tractor work when we are under pressure.”
Getting the right start
They rear heifer calves on the farm until they have been weaned off milk. At this point, they send the heifers to an excellent contract rearer, who is based locally.
“They are usually 12 weeks at this stage. We push to get calves eating concentrates as early as possible, then turn them out to grass.”
“The heifers thrive well outside. We offer animals quality hay, in combination with milk, nuts and some old pasture grass.”
When analysing the health impacts of heifer calves grazing, Emma tells That’s Farming, “Too lush of grass can cause calves to fall behind, as their diet has not been transitioned properly. Resultantly, they can suffer from diarrhoea.”
In terms of vaccination programmes, they protect calves against pneumonia and IBR and pregnant cows are vaccinated to further protect the calf from Rotavirus.
Prioritising nutrition through change
They fed calves milk replacer; however, this will change this spring.
“We have fed milk replacer in the past, but we are making the change to whole milk this spring.”
“Providing calves with whole milk will provide an improved weight gain, as well as allowing the calves to endure an easier digestion process,” she tells That’s Farming.
Balancing labour, and consistency of feeding is also a challenge the young farmer identified.
“With a large team of people, there may be a few people feeding calves through the week. When feeding powder milk, you have to work hard to make sure everything is consistent.”
Elements such as milk temperature, the amount of water, grams of powder per calf and the time of feeding are all key factors that influence calf wellbeing.
“When everything is simple and done right, consistently – calves thrive, with shiny coats and plenty of energy.”
Breeding with purpose
They retain replacements to improve the overall genetics of the herd.
“We breed enough dairy calves from the herd’s top-performing cows, to have a good selection of replacements.
This is done to ensure that we do not have too many dairy calves on the ground, for no good reason.”
They sell heifers that are surplus to requirements. “Surplus heifers sell well, but there is no need to produce more dairy bulls.”
Following St. Patrick’s Day, all dairy calves will be on the ground, with only beef progeny left to arrive.
Aiming for a genetic balance
The herd expects to see breeds such as Angus, Hereford, Speckle Park, Limousin and Simmental this spring.
“The demand for the calves produced in Stokestown Dairies is plentiful”.
When selecting cows for breeding, the dairy farmers chose bigger, stronger cows to carry breeds such as Limousin.
“This year, I expect about 300 dairy calves, and the remaining 150 will be beef-crosses.”
Well-known agri-media star, Farmer Phil, based in Co Longford, has purchased dairy and been bulls from the dairy producers.
“Having established a good genetic balance, we do not need to use very many Jersey straws anymore, so calves are well suited to dairy calf-to-beef systems.”
Emma describes her ambition during calving to That’s Farming, “Our main aim is getting good quality colostrum into all calves, and maintaining excellent hygiene standards across all calf sheds.”
Emma, who works full-time at Stokestown Dairies, is also a keen dairy enthusiast at home.
“At home, I am rearing 40 dairy replacement heifers myself to sell in-calf. They were all bred at Stokestown Dairies and are close to one year old.”
At present, she is out-wintering heifers on a crop of a redstart.
With the family farm involved in suckler and sheep production, Emma spends her spare time helping her father.
“We calf throughout the year, mostly Limousin-Charolais-crosses, as well as a few beef cows out of dairy cows. At most, we would have 100 cows calving down.”
Several parameters influence the number of cows on the farm. Most recently, this number has been fluctuated due to a Tuberculosis (TB) issue.
“Bovine TB is rampant across the country with the current eradication programme in place, seeing no improvements in getting rid of the problem.”
Food for thought
Emma looks to the future, as well as the agri-industry in general, with an open mind.
“I think the most important thing for anyone entering the farming sector s to note that there are far more opportunities than people are looking for them.”
“In particular, within the dairy sector, the opportunities are plentiful. In addition, a huge market is available at the moment for quality breeding and in-calf heifers.”
With this in mind, there are many dairy farms that also struggle with labour.
“It can make sense for them to sell all calves as early as possible to reduce the workload and purchase their replacements later on, as needed.”
“Like a lot of jobs, farming is tough. The hours are long, and we can not predict what the weather or the animals are thinking of doing next, so you have to be flexible and learn to work well under pressure.”
Although the days are unpredictable and the hours are long, it is a rewarding industry to get involved in.
“It is a tough job, farming, so you have to make sure you are enjoying it!”
With the industry’s difficulties, a strong emphasis should be placed on mental health throughout the agricultural community.
This is a particular topic that resonates with Emma on a personal level, following the recent loss of her beloved brother Michael, in September 2021.
“Things can be tough, so it is very important to know that there are a lot of us on the same boat. We need to talk to people when things are getting heavy on our shoulders.”
The pain and trauma of losing a family member are indescribable. Consequently, this pain has influenced Emma to encourage others to reach out if you need help.
“You cannot pour from an empty cup, so mind yourself, physically and mentally on the farm,” she concluded.
To share your story like this dairy farmer, email – [email protected]