Keith Agnew is a fourth-generation dairy farmer who runs a family business on the outskirts of Newry in partnership with his wife Ruth and sons Josh and Jonny. Irish Tractor & Agri visited Drummondmore Dairy Farm to find out more about this dairy enterprise, which currently hosts 600 Holstein Friesian cows, supplying milk to Lakeland Dairies.
The fourth generation of the Agnew family to hold the reins of the highly-regarded dairy enterprise at Drummondmore, Keith Agnew sees himself first and foremost as the custodian of the land that sustains a long-established family business. This position comes with huge responsibility and Keith admits that he has to be extremely conscientious with how he oversees things, with a great deal of thought going into every decision taken:
“My family has been farming here since the early 1890s,” he confirms. “My great grandfather started out with a horse and cart bringing milk to the local towns. Four generations of hard work have brought us to where we are today and that’s why what’s happening here is by no means entirely down to me.
“My great grandfather came here when his father bought him this farm … he started out with twelve acres, one cow and one horse. It just goes to show what can be achieved with four generations of hard work. My role is to maintain that tradition and pass the farm on to the next generation.”
The cows on the farm – which are on a 50/50 diet of grass and maize silage – average 9,500 litres at 4.2% butterfat and 3.5% protein, with all-year calving and subsequently all-year breeding (courtesy of Cogent, predominantly using sexed semen to ensure a steady flow of heifers coming into the parlour). A busy system but manageable once everything is organised.
The bull calves are kept for rosé veal, with bulls finished at around 10 months through Linden Foods, Dungannon.
Keith has worked full time on the family farm since 1986, working alongside his late father up until his passing three years ago before starting a partnership with his wife and sons. “When I came home in the mid-80s we had about 100 cows and we built it up gradually,” he reflects. “We had started using Holstein sires in the early 1980s.
“We’re not at the extreme end of that breed. I make an effort to have a slightly more robust cow as opposed to a purebreed. I don’t necessarily go for maximum milk yields; instead, there’s an emphasis on milk solids. Our No.1 breeding priority is legs and feet; No.2 is the percentage of fat and protein; milk yield would come after that – still important but not our priority.”
As well as the family members, employment is generated for a team of ten – three full-time staff and seven part-time, who help out with milking at weekends and nights. The Agnews milk three times a day, which is not uncommon in the area.
The milk goes to Lakeland Dairies and Keith serves on the co-op’s board, having previously been on the LacPatrick Dairies board prior to its merger with Lakeland. The merger between Lakeland and LacPatrick was completed in April, 2019 and Keith is pleased to report that it has been a resounding success thus far: “The performance of the Lakeland business and the price they are paying relative to their competitors proves that it has been a success,” he notes.
For more than three decades and counting, Keith has been committed to improving the quality of both animal welfare and output on the farm through investment – of both time and money – in new ideas, new systems, improved efficiencies, increased sustainability.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he says. “You are always investing money in the farm and there has been substantial investment over the past seven or eight years. We’ve constructed new silos with rooves and have rooved over all our existing silo pits because water quality is a big issue. I have a lot of conserved forage and I find it invaluable to separate dirty water from clean water. We also have a couple of bore wells on the farm – again separating dirty water from clean water.”
In recent years, the Agnews have also invested in cow facilities, finding that improved calf facilities in particular are beneficial once you are calving all year around. Keith has also started to bring in external specialists to train and upskill his workers on specific issues – an undertaking which he has found to be worth the outlay:
“I see it as a very good investment because I have an excellent team of people working on the farm and, as well as introducing improved best practices, it also works very well from a motivational point of view.
“People are very important to me and they are key to this business because if nobody came in tomorrow morning we couldn’t get the work done. We have to make the effort, once we’ve found good people, to retain them. We’re good at that, but it does require investment.”
Every effort is made to promote biodiversity on Drummondmore Dairy Farm and, as the custodian of a piece of land that has played such a vital role in his family’s history, Keith also places massive emphasis on the environment and protecting it at all costs. To this end, 80 solar panels were put up on the farm a couple of years ago … a small but worthwhile step towards reducing the farm’s carbon footprint.
Work is also ongoing towards developing vaccines that are specific to the farm. “In an effort to reduce antibiotic use, that’s where we are going to have to focus. We do make every effort around animal husbandry, which I feel is very important. The use of sexed semen has enabled us to cut down on the amount of Holstein male calves on the farm and move towards something that the market wants.
“Because of the fact that there are ten people coming onto the farm to work – and they are no different to the family members – we are very conscious of the fact that safe working practices are paramount. To this end, we never keep bulls in our dairy herd because they are a big risk; all the cows are AI’d.”
From that initial twelve acres purchased almost 130 years ago, the farm now comprises some 800 acres, about 50% of which is owned. Wallace Contracts handle all the farm work. “I have a great working relationship with them and the farm wouldn’t function without that relationship,” Keith stresses. “We cut 400-450 acres of grass silage three or four times a year as well as 200 acres of winter cereal and 150 acres of forage maize. They do all that for me and the service they give is second to none.”
As with any family-run agricultural enterprise, the long-term aim is to maintain a profitable and sustainable, commercially-viable operation and then hopefully pass it on to the next generation, which could be a seamless transition as Keith and Ruth’s sons Josh and Jonny are already part of the team.
“That’s what you would be hoping for in an ideal world,” Keith concludes. “It’s a high-input and high-output system at present and margins are very tight – it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that – but we’re producing quality milk in a sustainable way and we’ll continue to seek improvements in everything we are doing.”
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 8 No 2, Summer 2020