How society, technology, genetics and ambition shaped the development of Elmgrove Farm
The advent of silage making was an unheralded revolution of sorts in Irish agriculture. The concept that you could pickle grass in its own acids suddenly opened up the prospect of a reliable source of quality feed for all farmers. This was a game-changer in that it allowed farmers to consider increasing their milk output by keeping more stock.
“I can remember our first attempts at making silage in the 1950s,” says Darragh’s dad, Eamon.
“There were all kinds of ideas floating about. One year we tried to wilt grass on tripods in the fields before bringing it in. I can also remember a machine designed somewhere in Scandinavia called a Green Crop Loader (pictured above). It was basically an elevator that lifted the cut grass off the ground up onto a trailer. This was then brought back to a concrete tower 15 foot high and wide. The grass was forked again, this time into the tower, where a horse walked around in circles tramping the crop to get the air out of it so that it would preserve properly.”
It was still a massively labour intensive process compared to today’s slick operations, but silage also led other fundamental changes in how farms operated. The ability to create ‘self-feeding’ systems where the stock ate at the face of the silage pit revolutionised the type of sheds and facilities that were required to accommodate stock.
Gone was the requirement for a tie-up cattle stall, where hay was wheel-barrowed into troughs in front of stock that could often be chained up in the same spot for months on end.
Instead, loose housing became the new norm, where the stock lounged in open straw-beds, and feed themselves at a barrier in front of the silage pit.
With this change, it also made sense to re-think the milking facilities. If cows were being hunted into a milking facility every day, it was more practical to design a stall that they could walk through, rather than have to reverse out of.
And so the concept of the milking parlour materialised, where the cows were lined up herring-bone style on a platform, while the milker moved along beside them in a sunken pit.
“We started building a milking parlour around the time that I was getting married, back in 1970,” recalls Eamon. “At that stage we were milking up to 100 cows. We installed a six-point plant, which was quite sizeable for the time, but we made sure to leave enough room to add another three units if we ever needed to expand further.”
That had been the key aim of both Darragh's dad and grandad - more cows.
“All through the 1950s and 1960s we kept on increasing the cow numbers, because it was what we were making the most money from,” Eamon explains. All the money was ploughed back into farming projects.
Gladiola were planted in the 1960s for supply to local markets, potato and onion stores were built in the 1970s. Some of the first Charolais and Holstein cattle in the country were purchased in a effort to ensure the pedigree herd was always at the cutting edge of progress and efficiency.
The expansion was mirroring the opportunities in local fresh milk markets. As Dublin’s population grew in size and wealth, the demand for milk increased. The licence to produce milk for the Dublin market was a tightly controlled by the Dublin District Milk Board - and these licences cost money to buy, in the same way as the old taxi-plate system operated in the capital.
Pat McCullough did invest in some of these licences, and Eamon doubled down on further contracts, even if it did cause arguments at the time.
“I can remember coming into the farmhouse in the 1970s wanting to spend £25,000 on 110,000 litres of quota to supply Bailieborough. The management there basically said that we could buy as much as we wanted, which I thought it was an unprecedented opportunity. At £1/gallon, I reckoned we could pay for it out of cash-flow at the time, but my dad was wary about investing such a large amount, and he took a lot of convincing. But money I invested in liquid quotas was some of the best money I spent over the years,” Eamon claims.
Smaller dairies like Bailieborough and Drogheda Dairies, that sprung up around the periphery of the Pale during the 1960s and 1970s allowed milk from Elmgrove to be sold at prices almost double that of milk from spring-calving, ‘creamery’ herds.
But these newer dairies didn’t come without a downside. They were more prone to boom and bust, and Bailieborough was one of the many that went bust in the late 1980s. Eamon can vividly remember queuing all day in the Ulster Bank branch in Bailieborough to cash his final cheque.
“There was no point bringing the cheque to the local branch in Drogheda because in the three days that it would take to clear, there would be no money left in the account to pay out,” he explains. He was one of the lucky ones - he got paid in full.
Farm accounts for 1970 show that the farm milked an average of 86 cows throughout the year, producing a total of over 373,000 litres of milk, or 4,337 litres per cow. Recorded milk sales were less than 3.5p per litre - which might sound like a terrible price now, but when inflation is factored in, this equates to over 57c/l in today’s terms.
The production per cow, while 20pc lower than the average per cow today, was also pretty impressive. In 1972, average output for the 1.3 million dairy cows in Ireland was closer to 2,425 litres of milk.
At this time, many farmers would still have been transitioning to the black and white Friesians. But Pat McCullough had been convinced of the merits of the Friesian when he first started recording his cows in his well-thumbed grey note-book in the 1950s.
He started registering pedigree cows and new calves with the British Friesian society in the 1960s, and, together with his brother-in-law Seamus Kelly, travelled to England and Holland looking to buy the best of Friesian stock-bulls to use on their herds.
The love-affair with Friesians evolved in the 1980s when Eamon started using more and more Holstein bloodlines on the cows. Holsteins were basically more extreme versions of Friesians - cows that were genetically programmed to produce vast quantities of milk.
At this stage Darragh was also taking a serious interest in the breeding policies of the herd.
“I remember spending hours pouring over magazines, such as Holstein International, and AI bull stud brochures dreaming of breeding EX97 cows producing over 10 tonnes of milk a year,” he said.
“I had also become heavily involved in the Young Members Association - basically a feeder club for the pedigree breeders of the future. I would spend days, weeks and even months training up calves to parade themselves in the ring, clipping their coats and grooming top-lines. It was all great fun, but I took it very seriously, investing in my first calf at a sale in Galway, and subsequently working on one of the top pedigree Holstein farms in the world in Illinois in the US. Payment for getting up at 4am six days-a-/week for five months was a couple of embryos from some of the mid-range cows on the farm. My dad also imported cows from Canada after a trip to the annual ‘Sale of the Stars’ there in 1990s.”
Three generations of McCulloughs following their passion for breeding and showing pedigree cattle
This move into Holsteins saw the Elmgrove herd average creep up towards 9,000 litres, and the cows become bigger and more ‘dairy’ looking. But Darragh can remember his grandad not being particularly impressed. He didn’t like how the Holstein was breeding the beefing potential out of the calves, making the bull calves almost worthless. Unbeknownst to both him and Eamon, the move to more extreme dairy genetics was also pushing the cow to her metabolic limits. They were becoming harder to get back in calf, as they channelled every ounce of energy into producing more milk.
New technology was harnessed in an effort to manage these F1 machines of the dairy world. Ultra-sound scanning, chelated minerals and fats added to the diet, mercury switches embedded in bracelets on their necks to monitor activity (and hence heat cycles) were all employed.
A switch to robotic milking machines in 1998 was a further step along this journey to a high-input, high-output system. The relentless focus on increasing milk yield and cow numbers -even within quota systems by availing of every opportunity to buy and lease quota locally- meant that milking 180 cows was taking close to six hours a day through the same nine-unit herringbone parlour that Eamon had built in the 1970s. The Dutch Lely robotic machines cost close to €100,000 each, and we needed three of them. But this was just before the opening up of the EU to an influx of eastern European labour. Good staff that were willing to milk cows were becoming rare, and robots were seen as the next step to providing the best possible working conditions. In theory, you could start your day at 8am by checking all the machines and computor reports, and finish up at whatever time suited you, while the machines continued milking the cows 24-7.
Eamon also believed that the robots would allow his high-yielding herd of pedigree Holsteins to more fully express their milk production potential because the cows could choose to milk themselves as often as they liked. Indeed, the average milkings per cow did increase to about 2.5 milkings per day, with the highest yielders sometimes choosing to be milked up to four times a day.
It also looked like total output was maxed-out, with the prospect of either additional quota, or an end to quotas, looking highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. So the focus switched to making the existing set-up as attractive to work in as possible. The fact that Elmgrove was one of the first farms in the country to install the units didn’t faze Eamon. After all, both he and his dad had always been among the early adopters of any step-change in technology, be it making silage, importing Friesian genetics, or building a milking parlour.
Ironically, it wasn’t attracting hired labour that materialised as the main challenge to the continuity of milk at Elmgrove as the herd entered the 21st Century. Having spent most of his childhood holidays working on the farm, and studying agriculture at third level, Darragh was the next in line to manage the enterprise. However, on graduation he found himself getting side-tracked into opportunities in the agricultural media, with less and less of his time being spent on the farm.
At the same time, Eamon was beginning to have enough of the 12 hour days. He needed an out. So in 2004 he took the decision to go into partnership with a cousin keen to get established in dairying. Eamon provided the cows and quota, while Paul provided the labour and management. It was a massive step-change for the farm, but especially my dad. Not only was it one of the first milk production partnerships in the country but, more significantly, it was the first time in 60 years that cows weren’t being milked in Elmgrove. All the cows were milked through a brand new parlour on Paul’s farm, and Eamon finally got the break from the milking treadmill that he deserved.
“It was strange initially, not having the soundtrack of the vaccuum pump in the farmyard every morning and evening, but my dad will always privately admit that he never misses the daily grind of milking cows,” said Darragh.
More recently, as it became apparent that milk quotas were going to cease, McCullough’s neighbour, Joe Leonard, began to enquire about renting land. With Paul well established, and still a belief that dairying was a sustainable business, Eamon and Darragh moved to form a new partnership with Joe.
In many ways, such a proposal was ironic given the type of systems that had co-existed on the two farms in the decades previously. While McCulloughs pursued high-yielding, high-maintenance pedigree Holstein cow, complete with robotic milking, Leonards had always focused on the other extreme - a low-yielding, low-cost spring calving system more dependent on milk from grass. Joe had spent time in New Zealand, where low-cost dairying has been perfected over the last 30 years, and applied the same principles to his own farm.
Rapidly changing global dairy markets had also shifted the relative profitability of seasonal, spring calving production compared to the liquid-milk, year-round set-up in Elmgrove.
Modern transport and refrigeration meant that cheaper milk from Northern Ireland or further afield could be sold into the honey-pot of the Dublin market. Meanwhile, demand for dairy products in regions such as Asia and Africa had driven the prices for creamery milk up to levels where it was almost on par with liquid milk. It is all a far cry from the days when Pat McCullough was able to sell milk at double the price that the spring-calving men ‘down the country’ were getting.
But in other ways, the Leonards set-up was a perfect marriage for the McCulloughs. Not only had they built up to a profitable scale with a 350 cow herd, Joe embodied the pioneering spirit that had always characterised major developments in Elmgrove Farm. He was one of the first in the country to abandon the notion that cows needed a shed to over-winter in Ireland. Instead, he accommodated his herd on a stand-off pad of wood-chip during the winter months when they were not milking. When wood-chip became too expensive, he installed some of the country’s first ‘topless cubicles’ - basically a cubicle shed without a roof.
So after re-investing in stock, roadways and soil fertility, Elmgrove Farm is once again a stakeholder in a 575 dairy herd. LIke many things in life, the wheel has come full circle.