After completing the National Certificate in Agriculture at CAFRE Enniskillen Campus, Ronan Donnelly returned home to farm on the family dairy farm, at Ballykeel, on the outskirts of Sixmilecross.

The farmland is primarily heavy clay, situated in a high rainfall area (59 inches/year). Over recent years, the dairy herd size has increased from 70 cows to the current 124 Holstein Friesian cows.

Ronan has been a member of a Dairy Business Development Group (BDG) in the Sixmilecross area for the past five years facilitated by Jane Sayers, local CAFRE Dairying Adviser.

Through attending meetings and visiting other farmers, Ronan has gained a greater knowledge of practices and technologies, which he has been able to adopt on his home farm to help him improve efficiencies and develop his own farm business.

Jane said: “Ronan’s herd is performing well, with last year’s benchmarking performance showing an average 7,588 litres milk per cow with protein content of 3.30 per cent, and butterfat content of 4.16 per cent.

"Concentrate usage was 2,807kg/cow, with 1,351 litres milk produced from forage.”

Jane added that due to land type, high rainfall and limited land available for grazing around the dairy, Ronan has opted for block autumn/winter calving, which eases cow management.

Furthermore, with cows calving during the closed slurry spreading period and a quieter time for field work, it allows Ronan to focus on the dairy herd and manage labour.

The other advantage Ronan sees with block calving is having one batch of replacement heifer calves to manage.

An excellent grazing infrastructure has been developed on the farm to maximise the utilisation of grazed grass.

Since early April, the low-yielding group of cows (84 cows) have been at grass during the day, housed at night and fed a total mixed ration of 25kg silage fresh-weight and 5kg blend. Cows are now on their third grazing rotation.

Graze outs have been good, however, some stem is appearing, and Ronan is having to top these paddocks.

Ronan will spread one bag of 27 per cent N/acre after each paddock is grazed. A smaller group (40 cows) of higher-yielding cows remain are housed full time. Current average milk yield is 28 litres/cow/day.

This year, grass has been difficult to manage. Ronan was tight for grass in May due to cold nights, poor grass growth and having silage ground closed up.

However, now with silage aftermaths introduced into the grazing platform, and some cows removed from the herd due to being dried off, this has extended the grazing rotation and allowed a grass wedge/surplus to build up.

Providing weather, grass and ground conditions are good, Ronan hopes to keep the cows out at grass during the day until early November.

Due to the inclement weather, first cut silage harvesting was delayed until late May. Ground for second cut silage has received 2,500 gallons/acre (28 m3/ha) of slurry and 2 bags/acre of 24.0.13. Ronan is aiming to harvest second cut silage towards the end of July.

Jane said: “Strong emphasis is placed on producing milk in an efficient, environmental and cow welfare-friendly farming system.

"Consequently, farm development work has focused on improving cow accommodation, handling and milking facilities.

"This has been positively reflected in the key performance indicators of milk yield/cow, milk from forage and concentrate feed efficiency.”

One of Ronan’s long-term goals is to improve labour efficiency on farm. Current labour saving technologies that have been adopted include a cow heat detection system, and a heifer synchronisation breeding programme.

Such technologies have enabled Ronan to have more time to spend with his wife and young family, and improve efficiency of milk production.

The Business Development Group's scheme is part-funded by the EU through the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020.