21-year-old Shane Dolan is running a powerful show in Ballinahown, Athlone, Co. Westmeath.
The third-generation farmer of the Dolan family has had the reins of the family-run farm since November 2016 and he is now at the helm of the enterprise, milking 220 cows.
“My father got sick and I decided to run the family farm. It’s a family affair, My Mother, Father, my sister Aoife and her boyfriend Aaron Daly and my brother Cathal all help out. I have a number of students that lend a helping hand too.” Shane told Catherina of That’s Farming.
Living the dairy dream in New Zealand
Shane proves himself as no stranger to the farming circles, which is backed by the tradition that is now spanning generations combined with his impressive educational portfolio. Shane didn’t take a major leap into the farming circles, without learning more about the trade at third-level.
Shane studied a Level-Six in Dairy Herd Management in Gurteen Agricultural College, Co. Tipperary and he secured the Second Runner-Up award in the 2016 Teagasc/ FBD Student of the Year.
“I would definitely consider this as my biggest achievement to date. I was honoured to receive such a major award and all the other competitors were of such a high standard.” Shane said.
Like many young farmers finding their feet in the industry, Shane was also eager to explore Dairy Farming on a grander scale. Nineteen months ago after college, Shane travelled the hop and jump of the Irish sea to New Zealand for the calving and breeding season.
“I went over there to learn more about the industry, while being hopeful that some of the information I obtained could be made applicable to my own farm. It broadened my experience further when it came to handling people and a large number of cattle.” Shane explained.
The first-hand experience that he has attained from working on farms in New Zealand has transformed the enterprise that he is now running on Westmeath soil.
Running a profitable enterprise – Performance is key
The herd has increased rapidly over the last seven years, with 60 cows back in 2010 and 220 now, with performance being the main aim of the game. The Dolan family own 40 hectares and are leasing 132 hectares, with 110 hectares on the milking platform.
Traditionally, Holstein Friesian cows have always dominated the pastures on their holding in Ballinahown, however, the family have expanded their horizons down through the years, by branching into cross-breeding through the use of Norwegian Red genetics. Keen to pursue a new sense of direction, the family have returned to the drawing board and are now running a herd of grass-based low-maintenance Holstein-Cross Jersey cows, in the region of 500kg live-weight.
“This year we are on target with 475kg of milk solids off 752kg of meal. We grew about thirteen tonnes of grass. We are very impressed with those figures.” Shane explained.
Using the best available A.I. genetics is a key element of the farm’s breeding philosophy, with an emphasis placed on the selection of high-EBI Black and white. Shane’s top picks for the breeding season were Jersey bulls including JE4155, JE2019, ZCD and JPS. In terms of Friesian sires, Shane has a push on for selecting FR4021 and FR4124.
The herd had a thirteen-week breeding season this year, which is behind recent years, due to an infertile bull.
“20% of the cows were empty and 23% of the heifers were empty. We had to purchase thirty in-calf heifers to overcome this pitfall.” Shane explained.
“The heifers are AI’ed once and they run with the stock-bull then. That would help to explain the notable empty rate.” Shane added.
While pumping cows with quality genetics is a major area of focus, Shane places an equal amount of emphasis on grassland management, which is at the heart of his farm practices.
“Last year, we measured the grass forty-five times on the farm. We measure the grass every five days during the summer and then, we managed the farm accordingly. For example, mapping out paddocks.” Shane explained.
When asked about challenges that Shane and his family have faced since he entered into the dairy farming circles, Mr. Dolan draws attention to 2014, the year prior the abolishment of the milk quotas.
“We had a super levy bill of €60,000 and that would have knocked us back a lot in 2015. Then with my father getting sick, we have had faced a number of roadblocks along the way.” Shane explained.
Advice – Wise Words of Wisdom
Shane is farming with a difference, and at just 21 years of age being one of Ireland’s most active and successful farmers, he proves himself as an ideal candidate to give advice to those who want to follow in his footsteps.
“A work-life balance is so important. You need to be organised and to get good help also when it comes to running the farm. Find an interest outside of farming life.” Shane said.
“You can get sucked in really quickly and it could get to a stage whereby it is too late before you realise,” Shane said.
In terms of his interests that lie the other side of the farm gate, Shane plays Gaelic with his local club in Castledaly and he is also a member of the Moate Macra na Feirme.
“They are good outlets to get away from the farm. It’s great to socialise and meet people your own age, with similar interests.” Shane said.
The Bright Future
With a structured plan in place and targets to hit, Shane’s dairy herd continues to climb the ranks. He intends to increase cow numbers to 250-260 in 2018 with a maximum long-term target to milk 270 cows, which he believes is achievable through management.
“Over the next five years, I wouldn’t mind trying to get a cow that would do 500kg of milk solids off 500kg meal. A compact Spring-calving herd is my main aim.” Shane said.
“Long-term, I plan to look at infrastructure and facilities and to grow more grass, so that will allow for us to push numbers up further,” Shane concluded.
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