The decisions taken by a family dairy business in Co. Roscommon who have developed and expanded their farm over the past 12 years were highlighted at an open meeting of Fermanagh Grassland Club, sponsored by the Vaughan Trust.

The speaker was Ed Payne, who along with family members runs Hilltop Farm with more than 500 dairy cows on two farm units.

Ed – who received a Nuffield Scholarship in 2017 – serves on the council of the Irish Grassland Association.

Along with his wife, Jennifer, father Jimmy and mother, Dawn, Ed makes the decisions to develop the farm business at Ballybeg, Co. Roscommon even further.

He pointed out that the system of farm management works for them, but might not be suitable for every farm. There are multiple staff members involved in the business, with a critical time being spring when calving begins.

Some 90 per cent of the herd calve within six weeks, meaning on average around 20 calves are born each day with a peak of 36 calves born in a 24-hour period, which Ed said required someone in the yard for 24 hours a day.

In his presentation, Ed explained the development of the farm up to where it is today, with family members deciding on the way forward.

They decided to convert from beef to dairying in 2009, and began to develop the farm in 2010. A severe case of microplasma in 2013 resulted in them losing some cows.

The second unit was started in 2018, with a combined herd then of 450 cows.

Ed said their two parcels of land are of good quality land where they can grow a lot of grass in an area where they have 900-1,100mm of rain each year.

At the Tulsk farm, on-off grazing begins on February 5, with the first rotation finished by the beginning of April.

They have developed the dairy business where they have been breeding a slightly smaller herd of cows.

Ed said this was all possible by having good relationships within the family team members, local contractors who work for them, solicitors, banks and the Teagasc adviser and, of course, good relationships with their neighbours which built up in his father’s time.

He said they talk constantly about cashflow, budgets and realise they must work hard to be good at running the business. Ed said he was also aware he had to be a people manager as well as a cow manager.

However, Ed said each member of the family business brought something different to the table to help make them make those important business decisions.

He said one of the biggest challenges for dairy farmers is labour, and looking to the future, how they manage the environmental challenges that lie ahead.

In terms of work carried out on the farm, they have two tractors and a quad, and sow all their own fertiliser and tedd their own grass for silage, but all silage making and slurry spreading and cattle haulage is carried out by contractors.

In terms of cow breeding, he felt they have had too big a cow, and are gradually breeding slightly smaller cows, but regardless of their size, their biggest priority is output.

The herd averages 6,100 litres, and with the farm gate milk price up 21 cent a litre on 2021 to around 64 cent, this is helping to drive efficiency.

Around 80 per cent of their vet bill is from preventative medicines such as vaccinations, with Ed telling his audience to be able to control the controllables.

During his address, Ed spoke about his Nuffield Scholarship and about his views on work-life balances.

Ed said the Nuffield Scholarship was an opportunity of a lifetime and was one of the drivers to develop the farm. He looked at a topic of employment in farming, and recognised that many farmers had never worked for anyone else, and felt they need to be understanding of the priorities of employees.

Ed likes to delegate, which gives people responsibility and allows them to make decisions.

He calls his off-farm interest – ultra running – his ‘Top Paddock’, and confessed he was an overthinker and extremely competitive. In running solo, it was about running against himself.

Ed also said farming had created the opportunity to allow him to pursue his off-farm interests.

Looking to the future, Ed said the family have been looking at further expansion, with a possible farming partnership.