David and Kirsty Leathem

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Moving from suckler farming to dairying

Flexibility, a steady cash flow, and an improved family lifestyle were all key factors which influenced the husband and wife to favour a future in dairying.

“We talked about switching to dairy farming for ten years,” explained David, who originally owned a 60-cow suckler herd. “I worked on a dairy farm for 14 years, so I’ve got the knowledge and experience of working with dairy cows.

“Dairying is more labour intensive compared to suckler farming, but there is more routine and the monthly milk cheque provides a regular income. Recent returns for milk and beef off-farm have been extremely good, but in previous years the tightest margins in dairying have been better than the most optimistic returns from suckler and beef enterprises.”

The couple who farm 80 acres, started their dairy enterprise just over fourteen-months ago, and are managing a herd of 70 cows which are milked through a Lely Astronaut A5 robot. Their milk is sold to Lakeland Dairies.

David and Kirsty were able to convert their existing suckler shed to accommodate the dairy herd. “Initially we planned to install a conventional parlour, but that was going to require an additional shed. We wanted the project to be as economical as possible, and after meeting with the Lely design team, we realised that our existing buildings could be easily converted.

“The shed originally featured a bedded area and four slatted pens. For a modest investment we were able to redesign the shed to accommodate the robot, 72 cubicles and calving pens. An adjacent building was modified for an office/robot room.”

David added:”The conversion project required minimal building work. It started in October and within months the cubicles, robot and bulk tank were installed.”

“The transition was very smooth, and we were guided every step of the way by the team from Lely Center Eglish. We love milking cows, and are glad we went for the robot. Even our young daughters are taking an interest and getting involved in the dairy enterprise,” added Kirsty.

“The herd comprises of pure and three-quarter bred Fleckvieh cows and heifers, and a number of Holstein Friesians,” added Kirsty. “The herd is relatively young, and the majority of the cows have been imported from Austria through David Clarke from Cows.ie.

“Sourcing cattle in a batch helps to reduce the risk of disease, and we really like working with the Fleckviehs. They are docile, have good feet and legs, excellent fertility, and longevity.”

The milking portion of the herd (60 cows) is housed and managed in one group. Heifers calve into the herd at around twenty-four-months of age.

“The herd is relatively young and we are averaging around 30 litres per head per day, and are on course for a 305-day average of over 9,000 litres per cow at 4.0% butterfat and 3.28% protein,” added David.

Kirsty continued: ”Our calving interval is 371 days, and we are averaging three milkings per day through the Lely robot. The Fleckviehs are milking exceptionally well, and we have individual cows producing up to 54 litres daily.”

The Lely Astronaut A5 is programmed to feed two rations, a 21% crude protein nut for cows in later lactation; and an 18% ration for fresher cows and heifers.

Feed efficiency is monitored carefully, with each individual cow fed according to yield. Animals producing over 40 litres are allocated 10 kilos per head per day through the robot. In addition, the cows receive a mix of baled and clamp silage at the feed fence.

Kirsty added: “AI straws are used across the herd. Semen is purchased from SQ Fleckvieh Genetics, and bulls currently in use include Ingmar, Netflix, Haribo and sexed Hertzpower. We also use some conventional beef semen.”

“The system is farmer friendly and very reliable. Each animal is monitored on an individual basis, and the robot can detect heats and sickness before it is visually obvious. All data is easily accessed via the farm computer, or remotely on our mobile phones,” explained David.

In addition to the A5 robot, David and Kirsty invested in a Lely Discovery Collector. “Personally, I think it’s some job,” added David. “Our cubicle shed isn’t suitable for a tractor and scraper, and I scraped it manually for two months which was hard work!

“The Discovery Collector operates at regular pre-set intervals throughout the day, and keeps the solid passages clean. This also helps to keep the cubicle beds cleaner, which reduces mastitis and udder health problems.”