In April 2021, Agriland made the trip to meet Robert Tobin at his dairy farm in Wicklow to see how the farm grew from eight ewes and five male calves to 120 crossbreed dairy cows.
Robert operates a farm in Arklow alongside his father Paul and mother Elaine through a registered farming partnership.
The family farm comprises a total of 145 acres, with 120 crossbreed cows being milked; keep 50 replacement units.
Wicklow dairy farm background
Speaking to Robert about his background and part of the history of the farm, he said, “I don’t come from a farming background; in 2011 my mother inherited the farm from her father.
“Back then my dad worked as a mechanic and my mom worked as a teacher. I was still in school and had no idea what I wanted to do.
“The farm had a total of 50 acres, most of which was coarse pasture and only about 20 acres was grass and cultivable.
“The only building was an old hay shed with two bays and a manure, but my parents decided to try farming and put their own money into the farm.
“There was no right to the farm, so the farm had no income. They started with eight Friesian ewes and five calves that my father received as payment for work he did on a tractor.
“I started to get interested in agriculture so I planned to go to UCD (University College Dublin) but didn’t get the points and instead went to WIT (Waterford Institute of Technology) and graduated in agriculture there.
“I found it to be great, very practical and probably suited me better than going to UCD would have done.
“In 2017, my parents lambed 100 ewes and fattened 60 Frisian bulls per year. Also in 2017, the Harden family gave my father a piece of land next to us.
“At the time, he wasn’t sure about my plans, but he took the farm and said he would do something with it.”
Reflecting on how he got started in dairy farming and discovered his love for cows, Robert said: “I had never milked a cow before, but I found a job milking cows in a farm. local farm owned by the Donnelly family on weekends.
“When I applied for the weekend cow milking job, it was more for the money. I had no way of paying for my nights out in Waterford.
“I ended up loving it and caught the cow milking virus as part of my internship at university. I went to New Zealand for six months and worked on a farm with 1,500 cows.
“I had to go home and finish my last year of college; if I didn’t have to, I would still be there. I would recommend anyone who is interested in cows, or who is considering getting into cows, to go there.
“When I finished college, I went home to cultivate alongside my father. We ended up raising heifers on contract on that block of land he had rented.
“Contract breeding was our first step towards dairy production on this farm. ”
Conversion to dairy products
Regarding the conversion of the farm to a dairy, Robert said: “We made the decision to try dairy farming. We started building in 2018 on a very tight budget and the plan was to borrow as little money as possible.
“The whole farm had to be fenced, the roads had to be upgraded and we had to install a water supply system. Most of the farm also needs to be reseeded.
“For the design of the hangar, we called on Grasstec and they offered us four arrangements adapted to the yard. We wanted to use the existing hangars to reduce costs. We did not choose the best options that Grasstec offered us; we chose the one that suited us best, and the budget.
“The old sheds have been converted into cubicles, with a straw area at the top for calving and the milking parlor below.
“Dad is very good at metalworking so we were able to do a lot of the work ourselves with the help of a local builder.
“For the milking parlor, I knew exactly what I wanted – we had a budget of € 2,000 per unit – a basic 12 unit parlor with no bells or whistles.
“The sales people were trying to add pieces or sell me a unit of 16, thinking I wouldn’t know what I was talking about because we were new entrants; they were a little shocked when they realized I had done it.
“I have met a number of manufacturers, [but then] I met Shane Doran of the Pearson Milking Systems.
“Shane was able to give me the living room we wanted, with a few small changes, for the price we wanted.
“In 2018 we bought 70 heifers crossed in calves all from a farm in Cork and calved them in spring 2019.”
“When we started, the plan was a 500 kg liveweight cow producing 500 kg milk solids (dm) from 500 kg flour.
“In 2018 we milked 70 heifers – that was a good idea and a bad idea. You don’t buy other people’s problems, but their production is poor. In their first year, they produced 380 kg / ms from 700 kg of flour. We still had quite a bit of reseeding to do, so the quality of the weed was pretty poor.
“The second year, we milked 105 cows and we made 430 kg / ms from 600 kg of flour. This year, the goal is to reach 480kg / ms from 600kg of meal from 120 cows.
“The type of soil here is extremely heavy. Although we are in the southeast, we are on a small vein of heavy earth; shoulder grazing of the year is difficult and because of this we will feed these additional 100 kg of flour.
“We generally graze full time from March. Last year we grew 16 tonnes of grass from 200 kg / N spread; the heavier soil retains moisture, which means it is ideal for growing grass in the summer.
“We are currently reaching a 94% calf rate at six weeks, with the intention of continuing with this high level of fertility, ”continued Robert.
“The current average livestock economic index (EBI) for the herd is € 170 for dairy cows with an average of € 210 for young people.
“We only use bulls proven by LIC daughters. The risk with genomic bulls is dropping their EBI, so I prefer to use proven daughters. We operate six weeks of dairy AI, after which we do six weeks of beef AI and hire breeding bulls.
“Using a genomically proven daughter means we can use a smaller team of sires; we are using a team of four sires to get our replacements.
“What’s important to us is that we want easy calving bulls. We have strict time limits on how long a cow has to intervene. We only have two cows left to calve and we haven’t used the jack yet this year.
Three-year plan for the Wicklow dairy farm
Regarding the future of this Wicklow dairy farm, Robert said: “The plan for the next three years is to stick with the number we are at. We want to improve cow production and improve our grassland management.
“We want to get better at what we do before we consider increasing the number of cows. The farm is not 100% there yet, we still have roads and fences to complete and a little bit of reseeding.
“Our long-term plan is on hold. We are providing Glanbia and with the restrictions they advertised, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
“The good news is that the objection was dismissed, but I think what happened shows very poor planning by Glanbia, which is concerning.”
Ten years ago the Tobin family were not farmers and did not intend to go into farming, but in those 10 years they have gone from sheep and oxen ranchers to milking 120 cows.
Robert had a few tips for anyone interested in dairy farming or considering getting started: “I recently created an Instagram page for the farm and posted a ‘before and after’ photo of the yard and grounds. .
“I have received a lot of messages from people with small blocks of land like us asking how we got into the cows and should they? My advice is that you have to be careful, but it definitely can be done. We have made massive changes to the farm in 10 years.
“We started with nothing and are now processing 120 cows, but sacrificing is important. You need to know what you want first, set your goals higher than what you are comfortable with.
“I think you need to talk to the farmers and get advice from the people and have a business plan in place. Having someone on the phone to ask questions is a great thing.
“Finally, we were prepared to take no farm pay for the first few years; until last year I was working with a local contractor to get the money for myself.
“My dad has worked for nothing for the past three years, but this year we’re hoping we both get a salary from the farm. ”