Best in grass

15 Mar , 2019  

The Heffernan Family Farm in Dunnamaggin, County Kilkenny was voted as Leinster Regional Winner at the 2017 Grassland Farmer of the Year Awards. We caught up with Mark Heffernan to find out more about this exceptional, progressive family-run dairy enterprise, which places a major emphasis on grass utilisation.

With 2017 designated as the year of sustainable grassland and a proven link established between grass utilisation and profitability, the Grassland Farmer of the Year competition was introduced by the

Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine in collaboration with numerous industry stakeholders including Teagasc as part of the Grass10 initiative.

The competition recognises farmers who are achieving high levels of grass utilisation in a sustainable manner, using a myriad of grass production and utilisation practises such as soil fertility management, sward renewal, grassland measurement and improving grazing infrastructure. Last November, it was a fitting finale to an excellent year all around for the Heffernan Family from Kilkenny when they claimed the inaugural Leinster title, reflecting a keen focus on using high-quality grass in a sustainable and economical manner.

“We are a grassland farm and have always put a huge effort into grassland management, so it was really nice to get that recognition” confirms Mark Heffernan. “We are blessed to be in a good, progressive area with a lot of other great dairy farmers around us. We are all involved in a Discussion Group which meets once a month and we have good, open discussions which are of enormous benefit to all of us.”

At present, the Heffernan Family Farm is milking a total of 450 cows. Grazed grass is, of course, the cheapest animal feed for milk production in Ireland, the land’s ability to produce grass offering our primary competitive advantage over other EU dairy farmers. Through a combination of climate and soil type, Ireland has the ability to grow large quantities of high-quality grass and convert it into high quality grass-based milk and meat products.

To optimise profitability, producers should maximise the proportion of grazed grass in their cows’ diet.

The Heffernans have been farming at their present location since 1983. Pre-expansion, in 2008, they were milking 70 cows and growing 12.6 tonnes of dry matter per hectare. In 2017, they had increased the herd to 350 cows and a massive concentration in grassland management saw them move up to a very impressive 19 tonnes of dry matter per hectare.

It was a truly exceptional year and the cows were grazing for 290 days. Needless to say, the freak weather conditions mean those levels have not been possible in 2018. “February and March were very wet and then we had the drought during the summer, so things have not been so straightforward,” Mark continues. “It all depends on the weather to a large degree and this is out of your hands. You have to work with what you are given. But, when the ground is dry, they will be out.”

Feeding the cows a predominantly grass-based diet is a no-brainer as it means high-quality output and a lower cost of production. “Grass is a high-energy feed, the cheapest we can produce. We’re blessed with good land here so we can maximise our profits through grass, if it’s managed right,” says Mark, who oversees the family dairy enterprise alongside father Billy, brother Liam and mother Mary. The milking platform comprises 132 hectares. In total, the family farm 200 hectares, 103 of which is owned. The home block is the milking ground. The outside blocks are used for grazing the replacements and for silage production.

Billy Heffernan started farming in Caherleske in 1983, having previously qualified as an FAB farm manager and spent eight years milking 180 cows on a dairy farm in North Kilkenny. For many years, the home block of 45 hectares was farmed as a mixed farm with typically 40 dairy cows, 300-400 breeding ewes, a cattle enterprise and tillage

The farm is now a full-blown dairy operation and is farmed in a family partnership, with steady expansion experienced over the past decade.

Liam – who returned home to work full time in 2004 – spent a year in Kildalton College, Piltown and subsequently completed a Diploma in Dairy Herd Management at Clonakilty Agricultural College. Mark, who returned home to farm full-time in 2011, holds a Degree in Construction Management & Engineering and has also completed an Advanced Certificate in Agriculture.

The farm was a monitor farm under the Glanbia joint programme for three years from 2008 to 2010. The Heffernans began measuring grass in 2008 and have continued to do so ever since, walking the farm weekly and twice a week in times of high growth.

Over the past five years, they have averaged 16.5 tonnes of dry matter per hectare, which is more than double the national average. This takes a lot of doing! “One of the things we address is soil fertility,” says Mark. “We’ve started testing the soil every second year and we treat the ground accordingly. Another thing is that early grazing invigorates the growth. If you can get them grazing early, in February / March, you could get an extra tonne-and-a-half per hectare.

“We feed them about 600kilos of meal on average per year and the rest is grazed grass or silage.” Mark adds that, while the herd might increase to around 470 next year, there is no intention to grow the operation much further beyond that.

Since going full time into dairy in 2008 and expanding from 70 cows to 450, there has been significant investment in both the infrastructure of the grazing platform as well as in cubicles, slurry storage and the addition of a new 36-unit rapid-exit Dairymaster milking parlour in 2014.

The performance of the herd is exceptional. Last year, 480kg of milk solids were produced per cow. The average production of milk was 5,950 litres, at 3.62% protein and 4.12% fat. All of the milk goes to Glanbia.

“There are constant challenges in any farming enterprise and the weather is a huge one. We’ve had to deal with severe drought conditions this year, which meant using up our winter feed. But we’ve also harvested a lot of surplus grass and have a bank of spare silage in the yard. You have to have that reserve of silage as a back-up. Dad has told us about how he was caught out in his very first year in 1983 and had to buy in a lot of silage and that’s something you need to be mindful of.

“It’s been a tough summer and it’s going to lead to severe problems for everybody going into the winter. Once you get into August, you aren’t going to grow the surplus silage and the winter stock will be depleted,” Mark concludes. “Since we had the late Spring a well, it’s been a perfect storm, in a way. You have to factor it into the business and make sure you have your reserve of fodder. I’m told we had drought years before in 1976, ’84 and ’95, so hopefully it’s only coming around in cycles and it’ll average itself out again in the coming summers.”

Heffernan Family Farm


County Kilkenny

Email: [email protected]

Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 6 No 7, November 2018