On Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018, Emyvale, County Monaghan based dairy farmer Darran McKenna was announced as the winner of the National Dairy Council / Kerrygold Quality Milk Award. We visited Derrygasson Farm, which has been in the McKenna family for at least five generations, and had a chat with a very proud Monaghan man.
At an awards ceremony in the capital on the first Wednesday of October, husband-and-wife team Darran and Denise McKenna recorded a notable first for County Monaghan when the Emyvale pair beat off strong competition from around the island to land the 2018 National Dairy Council (NDC) / Kerrygold Quality Milk Award.
To make it a night to remember for the McKenna family, in addition to the coveted NDC / Kerrygold Perpetual Cup, they also claimed the Healthy Herd Award, making it a memorable double for the Farney County!
The Quality Milk Award recognises standards of excellence in dairy farming, with dairy co-operatives throughout the country invited to nominate their top suppliers. Nominated by LacPatrick Dairies, Darran and Denise went head-to-head with eight other farms for the national title as the 19 original nominees were whittled down to a strong shortlist of nine.
As part of the judging process, judges carried out detailed assessments based on submitted nomination forms and technical reports spanning a full twelve-month period. From this process, the shortlist of finalists was compiled, with judges visiting each of the nine finalist farms to carry out inspections over the summer months.
Derrygasson is a traditional family farm in every sense of the term. Darren and Denise are joined in running the award-winning enterprise by their young children, Daithí, Caragh, Michveál and Annie, while their nieces and nephews also help out in times of need and neighbour, Cormac, makes himself available for relief milking.
“It was nice to win the award,” Darran reflects modestly. “To be honest, I didn’t think too much about it when we were nominated but, as time went on, I gathered a bit of momentum and it was a big shock to win it.
“We were the first farm from north of the Dublin / Meath border to win it, so there was a real sense of pride and achievement to that. Obviously, as dairy farmers, we never set out to win awards – our goal has always been to maximise our efficiencies and make as much money as we can from what we have and a natural part of this is instilling the highest standards.
“But it was nice to get the recognition. After we were named as winners, we had to attend a number of functions and ceremonies and the children got a big thrill out of that. I suppose, in a way, it was like we were local celebrities for a short time and they enjoyed that.”
Darran is very proud of where he’s from and he says the award is as much for the local region as for the farm at Derrygasson: “It drives you on and I’m sure it will drive on other people in the area,” he states. “Monaghan is the forgotten county in many respects and when we win something it just shows us that we can be as good as anyone else. As a community, we all stick together and support one another and that’s the way it has always been here since Town of Monaghan Co-op was first started.”
At least five generations of Darran’s family have farmed on Derrygasson Farm. It could actually be more than that but records don’t go back any further. “I’ve worked here myself since I was fit to walk,” the Emyvale man says. “I served my time as an electrician but went into partnership with my father, Seamus, when I was in my mid-20s and took over the farm when I was 25.
“My brother, Barry, is an agri contractor and also a New Holland dealer, and we have always worked together hand-in-hand, so I’ve done plenty of silage, baling and slurry myself since I was a young lad.
Going back through the decades, centuries even, dairy has always been the main focus of the farm. Seamus kept some pigs and also ran JCBs to provide plant hire services but the natural evolution was towards a dairy enterprise exclusively. Today, Darran and Denise oversee a year-round system based on 150 acres, with 100 cows (plus replacements) milked twice a day in a 16-unit DeLaval herringbone parlour, averaging some 6,300 litres with protein at 3.45% and 4.21% butterfat. Meanwhile, the 2018 figures also showed somatic cell count was 70 and TBC was nine (and even lower in 2017).
The standards of hygiene and quality set on the farm are above and beyond the norm, with the keenest attention to detail, commitment to excellence and a passion for success driving Darran to excel on a daily basis.
Maximising the use of grass is, of course, the golden rule… “It’s all about setting up the herd to maximise your production from grass,” Darran confirms. “Genetics and hygiene obviously come into it, too. It’s a matter of making sure you do everything right, get the basics right and take it from there. When you do it right, you only have to do it once.
“Grassland management is paramount today and I learned a lot about that from being involved in Teagasc discussion groups. Grassland management wouldn’t have been great in this area up until seven or eight years ago, but people are taking a real interest in it now and seeing the benefits of it.
“Grass is proven to be the cheapest way to produce milk and, at the end of the day, farmers want to be able to keep as much of their milk cheques as they can. The fundamentals of dairy farming are simple enough: you have to produce quality grass and then have the right animal to turn that into quality milk. We’re doing it well but we’re still working towards achieving even better results. You are always striving for better and learning all the time.”
Darran supplies all his milk to LacPatrick Dairies, having supplied its predecessor Town of Monaghan Co-op prior to that since its inception. He was a member of the Council that voted in the Board of both bodies. “We were always very happy with Town of Monaghan and had a very close relationship with them. That has continued with LakPatrick. Their headquarters are still in Monaghan it’s still local enough for us, although they will be a bit further away when the merger with Lakeland goes through.”
The herd has grown steadily from 60 when the quotas went to 100 today but no further expansion is on the cards for the time being, at least. “I’m probably at my maximum size for my time of life,” Darran reveals. “As the children get older, I might drive it on if they want to get involved in a serious way. But, for the time being, the aim is to maximise our returns from what we have.”
An inordinate amount of hours are invested into the farm but it’s made easier when you enjoy what you’re doing and don’t view it as work. “During the Spring, with calving thrown into the mix, there’s no starting or finishing time but I really enjoy the thrill of being involved,” the Monaghan man concludes. “As the year goes on, you like to take your occasional evenings and weekends off the same as everybody else, and this is where I’m very lucky to have help from Cormac, our relief milker, who will come and help out any time we need him, as well as our nieces and nephews.
“Barry looks after the silage, slurry and round baling and I look after the AI and fertiliser myself as well as a bit of the slurry. There’s always something to be done but, if you are happy in your job, it doesn’t seem like work and you always have something to drive you on.”
Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 7 No 2, April/May 2019