Why one of Ireland’s top cattle farmers switched to dairy
In 2015, Michael Murphy was crowned Ireland’s Cattle Farmer of the Year after gaining a reputation for doing the simple things right on his veal and beef farm.
At that time the farm outside of Nenagh in Co Tipperary had a stocking density of 2.22 LU/ha and was making a gross profit of €1,143/ha, double the national average of €572/ha.
Today the composition of the farm is very different, but the attention to detail and the eye-catching results remain the same.
“I raised 250 calves every spring and bought them when they were two weeks old. That was damn hard work. The first 12 weeks of a calf’s life are the most important,” says Michael.
“I felt I was just not being paid enough for the time and effort I put into the system. My last good year in dairy beef was 2015. It went downhill after that, although I did my job well.”
Michael had previously milked 90 cows on the farm until 1998, when the herd fell victim to a brucellosis outbreak.
He also has a rich history in slinging, having won a National League medal with Tipperary, along with a minor and two U21 All-Irelands.
“I retired from hurling at the age of 21,” he says. “My father died suddenly in 1982 at the age of 55. I went to Thurles five nights a week, I was a ‘pro’ at the time.
“One evening I said to the district secretary, any chance you could milk an evening for me at the farm detachment to relieve me a little. The answer I got was “Michael, we would be setting a very bad example if we did that”. That more or less decided me for the GAA.”
At the end of the 2010s, Michael began to think again about switching to dairy farming.
“At the time I was wondering if my son Odhrán would be interested in helping out if I went back to dairy farming,” he says.
“As he got older, I kept asking the question. He used to go milking for some of the neighbors, so that was a good start anyway. When he turned 18 and did his leaving cert, I asked him if he would be willing to support me and he said he would.
“I spoke at the Grange Beef Open Day in 2016 and was asked if I would ever consider going back into dairy farming and I said ‘No, I’m too old’. So now at the age of 63 they would give me a damn good laugh if I was in the thick of it again.”
Michael also farms with his wife Olivia who works full time at Tipperary ETB.
“We also have three daughters – Elaine, Eimear and Miriam,” he says. “They buy a calf every year and they are some of the best cared for calves on the farm. The girls help me milk when I need them.”
After deciding to return to dairy farming, Michael bought a herd of cows from Seamus Mescal in Aglish, County Waterford.
“I didn’t buy this herd because of EBI,” he says. “That was the last thing I asked him about. I would go and look at the cows to see the look of the herd, to see how good they were structurally.
“The farmer gave me his milk slips for the year, which few lads would give you. I was amazed at the production, fat and protein they produced.
“I liked the herd the first day I saw them. He wanted to keep the herd together – he was such a man, a lovely man.
“He had loads of interest from guys who wanted to buy 20 or 30 cows, but I would say I was the only one who would take the 77 cows. I was a lucky man to get my hands on it, he had done a brilliant job.
“They are 70 percent Holstein and 30 percent British Friesian and produce a decent calf for the beef company.”
The cows produce an average of 7,500 liters per lactation and milk solids in excess of 600 kg.
The replacement heifer calves calve at two years of age and the Hereford and Angus calves finish at 17-18 months under the ABP Advantage Beef program.
The old milking parlor on the 83ha (205ac) farm was still intact when Michael first started milking again in 2020.
“All I had to do was change the bulk tank. We’re milking 80 cows now and I’m no exception, I’m farming less than 170 kg N/ha,” he says.
“Those who say you have to milk 120 cows, that is nonsense – they are advised to claim grants and end up spending €150,000-250,000 on a new milking parlor and facilities.
“Ask any sales rep and they’ll tell you it’s a pleasure going to the smaller farmers. They have time to talk to you, give you money and are a pleasure to deal with.”
Although he has severely scaled back his veal-on-meat business, Michael still maintains the highest standards when it comes to raising calves.
“It’s all about the first 12 weeks of life, whether it’s a breeding hen or a meat animal,” he says. A lifelong vaccination program must be implemented for every animal born on the farm.
“I wouldn’t just reach the numbers I’m reaching for the vaccination program. I can’t afford to collapse with an illness or a virus at any point because if I do I struggle with the 170kg limit to keep me out of the exemption.
“I firmly believe in two bags of milk replacer for each calf. I use two Volac automatic feeders. You are brilliant. I would now find it very difficult to raise a calf without her.”
Michael says he and Odhrán are happy with their system and have no immediate plans for expansion.
“Odhran is in Australia right now, he wants to see how green the distant fields are,” says Michael. “He’s there for the winter. He has a Masters in Agricultural Sciences, so he can pretty much do whatever he wants.
“You find in many father-son relationships that the father is the mainstay or backbone because he’s always there while the younger generations are off to games and maybe a young family.
“I’ll be 64 in May. I play a little golf every Sunday and I’d like to do a little more of that. I’ll stick with it as long as I can. I’ve just had a keen interest in farming my whole life.”
“Farmers need to be able to see the AI bull they are using”
Michael Murphy is asking AI companies to show pictures of their bulls in catalogs and at farmers’ request.
“The dairy farmer has no say in what bull he uses,” he says. “Last year I picked out three or four AI Friesian bulls and couldn’t see a picture or anything and that’s on me now.
“I’ve had a lot of arguments between a few AI companies over the last 12 months about this. I got the most outrageous excuses from them that the department won’t let people in.
“I can understand that part of it from the point of view of the disease. But they use every excuse under the sun not to show you a picture of the bull.
“Any good rancher, especially a guy like me who finishes off the cattle, needs to be able to see the bull you’re using. Even a photo would put your mind at ease.
“Last year I looked into Progressive Genetics and Dovea Genetics. I wrote a letter to Dovea but never received a reply.
“You wouldn’t call and ask about a bull ad in the Farming Independent and say ‘I’ll take him’ without seeing him. In the AI catalog you only see the dam or granddam of the bull.
“This year I’m going to go through the catalog, pick a few bulls, and if I can’t get a picture of the bulls, I’ll go out and buy two or three stock bulls.
“I think I have a great herd with the calf I produce and I want to try to keep them there.
“My average EBI is around €170 and EBI has been dubbed by experts as the greatest since penicillin… and I would seriously question that.
“I guess the higher up you go in EBI with your herd, the more issues there will be in terms of strength and power within your herd.
“I’m 600 feet above sea level here and you might have some bloody tough days even during grazing season and you need a good, strong, sturdy cow to get through it all.
“My vet has heard that they are having more and more caesareans with high EBI heifers carrying only Friesian. They are realizing that this is going to be a big problem down the line.”
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/dairy/dairy-farm-profiles/why-one-of-irelands-best-beef-farmers-switched-to-dairy-42314056.html Why one of Ireland’s top cattle farmers switched to dairy