A young Carlow woman taking the family farm on a new path

Thursday 26.11.2020 , events , news

Ashleigh Fennell grew up on the family farm in Co. Carlow where sheep and suckler farming were the primary enterprises.

After her father passed away in 2008, the suckler enterprise was phased out and Ashleigh spent 10 years trying to perfect the sheep and calf to beef enterprises.

With a realisation that this just wasn’t viable, Ashleigh decided that her vision for the farm would take things in a different direction and she started the process of converting to dairy farming. Still a recent enough venture, having just completed year 2, Ashleigh’s frank and honest approach is admirable and her wisdom is inspiring for any young person looking to make a positive impact and build a future for themselves on a family farm.

Transitioning to dairy

Ashleigh made the transition to a spring calving dairy farm in 2019 and describes the building phase as challenging. It cannot be stressed enough how drought prone the Fennell’s farm is and the extremely dry conditions in 2018 exacerbated the problem, right at a time when Ashleigh was building her 90-acre grazing platform. Despite this, the venture progressed and Ashleigh calved 75 heifers in year 1 and milked 82 in year 2. Bearing in mind the constraints of the farm, Ashleigh’s business plan supports 96 cows for 2021, above which she has no desire to expand further, due to the challenges in sourcing additional labour and having a good work life balance. In 2020, Ashleigh’s younger brother took on the rearing of the young stock on a summer grazing arrangement which has also helped simplify the system and take some of the pressure off.

Research and planning key for herd development and effective grazing

Research and listening to advice from lots of different sources helped Ashleigh decipher what was right for her farm. This started with choosing the right type of cow for her farming system, again closely considering just how challenging farming on such dry land would be. Genetics played a key role in the development of her black and white Holstein Friesian herd, and Ashleigh describes how she was able to benefit from someone else’s hard work on that front. Before purchasing any stock, she closely considered EBI reports, Co-op reports and spoke to many people about where there were good herds of cows that would work for her system. Again, due to land issues, cows would need to respond to a supplementary feeding regime.

Ashleigh gets cows out to grass as early in spring as possible and benefits from having them still out well into November due to extremely dry conditions underfoot. This year, calved cows were out grazing on the 1st February and November 18th marked the last day at grass for this year.

Using the right varieties for difficult soils

Ashleigh is acutely aware of how her extremely dry land might be the envy of some but points out that it is very hard to grow anything on the farm in the summer period, so she needs to make the most of the early spring and autumn growth. As a result, a lot of thought goes into reseeding. By their nature, tetraploids give good early growth and their high palatability ensure good cleanouts, therefore the mixes sown on the Fennell’s farm contain 75% tetraploids such as AberGain and AberClyde along with diploid AberChoice.

Benefits of a reseeding plan

45 to 50% of the farm has been reseeded over the past 5 years; a task that is high on the agenda every autumn. For Ashleigh’s farm, autumn reseeding is really the only option as getting new reseeds established on such dry ground can be a challenge. However, the visible difference between the older swards and the new reseeds is so evident according to Ashleigh. Since closing, the older swards are doing nothing while the new reseeds are powering on and should have plenty of grass come next spring. The performance of Ashleigh’s cows in terms of milk yields is further evidence that her commitment to reseeding is worthwhile. Cows are on track to produce 500kgs of milk solids this year, 4.4% fat and 3.6% protein.

While grazed grass and general grassland management is important to Ashleigh, it is not without its shortcomings. An extremely dry May this year posed a huge challenge for Ashleigh where herd performance plummeted, and yields fell by over 4litres in a week. Cows had hit peak, it was mid breeding season, and it was clear that the cows were in an energy deficit. Strip grazing was only offering dry, crispy grass. Ashleigh described how she had some sleepless nights being faced with a farm that was bare in breeding season! Again talking, listening and getting external advice was the tactic adopted. A diet formulated by a qualified nutritionist fed through a Keenan wagon put things back on track and within a week to ten days things were back to how they should have been.

Striving for success through innovation

Describing the more emotive side of taking on a family farm and moving it in a completely different direction also comes with its own challenges. Ashleigh describes how family farms hold so many memories and can often lead to resistance to change; probably further exacerbated in Ashleigh’s case by the passing of her father at a young age and his love for sheep farming. Getting out of sheep and moving to dairy was considered a big change, alongside the land management practises that would go with it. Not doing something just because it wasn’t done before doesn’t sit well with Ashleigh and she is committed to carving out her own path to success on the Carlow farm with the support of her mother.

Ashleigh’s opened mindedness offers up some sound pointers for both young and old:

  • Start with the best stock – don’t waste time building to something that already exists
  • Don’t rush decisions when it comes to buying stock – hold fast to get what you really want
  • Be open minded to new ways of doing things
  • Talk and listen to lots of people but decipher the advice that will work for your circumstances

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