Owen Cashman is a fourth year Agricultural Science student at UCD. Owen was the recipient of the Irish Farmers Journal/ASA travel bursary. He did his work placement with Emerald Dairies in Missouri last spring.
Emerald Dairies is an Irish owned dairy farming business in south west Missouri in the United States. Located in the grain belt – the scale of farming in this region is enormous. Land is parcelled in square miles of 640 acres each. Some tillage farms in the area own single blocks of land up to 1,500 acres all in one parcel.
Corn (maize) and soya are the main crops. In the middle of all this cropping area is Emerald Dairies, who are running three grass based dairy farms. The Emerald model is a low-cost grass based system, very similar to New Zealand which is totally different to most confinement based dairy farms in the US.
Focussing on cost rather than production, the jersey cross bred cows and Kiwi genetics are the base for the herds. Poor prices for milk and grain in the US has created opportunity for low input dairying in Missouri. Land and feed can be purchased relatively cheaply so low-cost production systems like that operated by Emerald are able to make money, despite low milk price. The farms are all spring calving with cows outdoors 365 days of the year.
Kenoma Dairy is one of the four farms owned by Emerald Dairies – the company formed by Niall Murphy and Gary Nolan in 2009. Gary has since left the company to set up his own farm in Ireland. The Kenoma farm has 227 hectares carrying 600 cows and is managed by farm manager Rory Sheridan who is originally from Cavan.
Two and a half people can run the farm for most of the year with two students providing extra help in spring. All the cows are calved outdoors, and grass is grazed all year round when possible. The cows weigh 425 kgs and produce around 340-360 kgMS/cow. In the US, milk is measured in hundredweight. Average cost of production on the Kenoma farm is $11.50 per hundred weight (cwt) or 21c/l in euro/litre equivalent. In the context of American dairy production, this is $5.50/cwt (9c/l) lower than the average confinement system which has costs of $17/cwt or 30c/l. The most efficient of US producers has a cost of production of $14/cwt (25c/l).
The weather is the biggest challenge in Missouri with freezing winters (-16 degrees Celsius) and summer droughts (36 degrees Celsius.) Cows are comfortable with the extremes once the weather remains dry and the diet is enough to maintain body condition. A wet year will cause the system and cows to come under more pressure as grazing conditions deteriorate very quickly.
Kenoma’s heavy clay soils make drainage very poor. Wet springs seldom happen in Missouri but the Spring of 2019 was an exception. Heavy rainfall from mid-March to May ensured grazing conditions were very difficult for long periods. This affected the amount of fresh grass in the cows’ diet. Average annual rainfall of 42’ had fallen by June.
The flat topography and small creeks were often overwhelmed with deluges of rain, the heaviest of which brought six inches in eight hours. The system must be flexible because of the inconsistency of the weather, so having cheap alternative feed cushions the cost when the weather is challenging. Spring grass is still the most cost-efficient feed for the farm, so the focus is on maximising the window for good growth.
Outlook and opportunity
Milk price has hovered around $17/cwt (30c/l) for the year the best milk price in five years. Growth and ground conditions recovered well, meaning a good summer for grazing. Despite the cost of bought in feed in spring the farms profitability will stay well above it’s five-year average.
Emerald Dairies is continuing to expand. What started out as a sharemilking venture is now a large landowner, with over 2,000 acres owned and rented and over 2000 cows being milked. Future success largely depends on the availability of skilled workers who can manage grass well. Farm managers like Rory as well as Michael Cox, James Doherty and Hoyt Hines who operate the other farms are buying into the herds that they are managing and effectively starting their own businesses. For the people running Emerald Dairies, America is still the land of opportunity.