Why sustainability means 'profit' to one Tipperary farmer

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Origin Green dairy farmer Simon Breen milks a herd of 200 spring-calving cows in Emly, west Tipperary.  Supplying Tipperary Co-op, Breen operates off a land base of 107 ha.

Operating a grass-based system, he follows a very simple philosophy. “Every farmer needs to work out his own system.  If you can’t explain that system in less than five minutes, it’s too complicated - and I don’t have time for complications,” Simon says.

Key to Breen’s business is a focus on two things – grass and stock management.  “We held the cows back for a number of years because we were so restricted with quotas. But, then at one stage, we almost doubled our cow numbers,” he explains.

SUSTAINABILITY MEANS PROFIT

Recovering costs is very important to Simon. “I need my business to be highly efficient.  Sustainability means profit to me. It just so happens that the more sustainable you are, the more profitable your enterprise becomes.  There’s nothing new in it. Being sustainable is something we’ve always done,” he says.

Simon is just one of the many farmers who are certified members of Bord Bia’s Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme (SDAS). SDAS farmers who participate in a farm sustainability survey as part of their audit are members of Origin Green.   

By participating in SDAS, Origin Green farmers can measure and benchmark their sustainability practices, helping them to identify efficiencies which they can improve on their own farm, which can also improve profitability.

Key improvement measures include increased Economic Breeding Index (EBI), longer grazing season, improved nitrogen use efficiency, improved slurry management and energy efficiency.

According to Simon, participating in SDAS highlighted not only what they were doing right but also where they needed to up our game. “An example of this was when we scored poorly on slurry use. This is due to the fact that we spread very little slurry in the Spring. It can often be difficult to spread slurry here due to the soil type, but with renewed focus on it we have managed to increase its use in recent years,” he continues.

Tipperary Co-op's Paul Fortune with Simon on the farm at Gorteen.

GENERATING A PROFIT FROM MILK PRODUCTION

When asked what it takes to generate a profit from milk production, Simon says: “It is important to be absolutely clear on your system and what is the driver of profit in that system”.  

Simon’s system rotates around grass and stock management. These two focus areas can be further broken down to include grass measurement, calving at the right time of year, strategic feeding and selecting the right cow.

(1) Grass Management

Simon measures his grass every week. This practice allows him to know exactly what quantity of feed is available on the farm at all times. It means he can plan ahead and ensure that he has the correct quantity and quality of grass as the seasons progress. The farm typically grows 15-16 t/ha (dry matter) each year and this figure guides the stocking rate on the farm, limiting the need to buy in extra feed.

 (2) Calving at the Right Time

The breeding policy on Simon’s farm is based on his grass production.  He wants his cows calving close to the time when grass begins to grow rapidly. This maximises production from grazed grass -  by far the most profitable feedstuff.

If most of the herd calve within a compact period of six weeks, that gives cows a long lactation and a better chance to go back in calf. It also provides an opportunity to utilise a lot of grass early in the grazing season. When a cow calves late, Simon only milks them once a day to conserve their energy and hold body condition. That way he can get them back in calf quicker.

(3) Feeding strategically

Simon’s cows are grass fed as much as possible. Depending on the weather, they graze outside from February to mid November. During heavy rainfall, Simon uses on-off grazing method to reduce damage to soil and prevent his cows from ‘wrecking the paddock’. He also questions the economics of very high stocking rates, which rely on drawing silage/grass from other farms or large amounts bought in feeds. Simon believes this may overload the milking platform with slurry, not to mention the extra workload often involved in this.

When it comes to feeding, Simon follows a philosophy of John Roche – a New Zealand dairy consultant - who spoke at the Irish Grassland Association Dairy Conference three years ago.  On feeding, Roche said: ‘Be careful that you’re turning milk into money and not money into milk.’

(4) Selecting the Right Breed

Simon believes that selecting the right breed of cow is critical to any system. Farmers often mention that they want a grass cow, but what Simon often sees on farms is not what is required to graze grass in his opinion. He has a herd of Jersey/Friesian crossbreds on his farm and is very pleased with their performance within his system.  Breeding focuses on milk solids – and protein in particular – because that’s what he gets paid for.

ORIGIN GREEN – A VITAL MARKETING TOOL

Simon is one of 400 suppliers to Tipperary Co-op - an exporter of butter, milk powder, baby powder, and Emmental and Kilderry cheese. Simon believes that Origin Green is a vital marketing tool. “We have to have something different to everyone else and Origin Green is a way of doing that”.  

Simon is part of a dairy group (Dairymis) of about 20 farmers, which also provides him with invaluable support and insight.

“It’s a great way to benchmark your performance. We compare everything from productivity, production costs, labour efficiencies, grass production, fertility and more. They are a critical group but it is always in a constructive way,” he says.

For the last number of years, Simon and his wife Carol have worked in partnership with his parents Peter and Sheila. This year Simon’s parents made the decision to pass the remainder of the milking platform over to them. “I’ve taken the basics that I learned from my parents and I’ve added my own experience, research and ambition and moulded it into the farm we have now”.

Simon has the benefit of having spent some time working on farms in New Zealand as well as a stint on a farm in France as part of his course, returning home in 1997. “There wasn’t enough at home then for me to make a living, so I worked at everything from farm relief to welding, working on neighbours’ farms and as an AI technician with Eurogene AI Services for about 15 years”.

It was around that time that Simon joined the Macra club Sologhead.  This is where he met Carol, daughter of former IFA deputy president Michael Slattery, who was a member of Clonoulty/Rossmore club.  They married in 2007.  Two years later they built a home back on the family farm in Emly where they now live with their three children - Julia aged seven, Sarah aged six and Peter who is 18 months.

Simon is certainly someone who soaks up information on how to improve efficiencies on his farm. The farm needs to generate a large profit and Simon is making a good fist of it.   He makes no apologies for the fact that he has a family to support and a business to run.

“It’s all about measurement and analysis now. You need to know your figures and you need to accept that when it comes to dairy cows it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” he adds.

 

Simon Breen with his parents Sheila and Peter.