Partnership works for young dairy herdsman


NASHVILLE, Ohio – Every Monday, Cormac Irwin is reminded of the unusual turns his life has taken.

Weekly meetings with his four business partners at Hyland Acres Jerseys Ltd. keep the 33-year-old updated on the farm’s workings and give him time to reflect on where he’s going and where he’s been.

And he’s been a lot of places.

Travels half-way around the world have landed the city boy on a rapidly expanding dairy farm in rural Holmes County.

New world. Growing up in the seaside resort areas of Long Beach Island in New Jersey, Irwin was more accustomed to summertime vacationers than summertime farm chores.

But his parents, both high school teachers, took advantage of their summer vacations to take their children to visit family on farms in Kansas and Northern Ireland.

“Those experiences with poultry, beef and dairy cows were always the highlight of the year,” Irwin said.

But it wasn’t until he was a high school sophomore at a boarding school in Barnesville, Ohio, that he realized his true love for cows.

The Olney Friends School maintains a 50-cow Jersey herd as part of its academic program. When Irwin wasn’t in the classroom, he “hung out” with the cows.

As his senior year approached, reality set in and he was forced to decide what to do with his life. Agriculture was his first love and first career choice.

A friend from Olney had attended Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster, so Irwin decided to give it a try.

While he studied for an associate’s degree in dairy management, he worked part-time on several farms in Wayne County.

Though his class load and schedule often forced him to change farms each quarter, he credits that work with getting him where he’s at today.

“I’m so lucky I got in with the right people,” he admitted. “I jumped from farm to farm and made a lot of contacts.”

Reality hits. Soon after getting his degree, reality hit again.

There were no job prospects on the horizon, and joining the Peace Corps – a family tradition – was looking like a good option.

Along came Larry Alexander. The Holmes County dairyman – today one of Irwin’s partners – was searching for a herdsman for his 125-cow Jersey herd.

Irwin had never heard of him, but agreed to visit the farm and talk with Alexander.

The aging herd owner offered Irwin options to buy in or buy out if things worked well, so the young man decided to give it a go.

“To get in as a herd manager on a farm with such a good reputation, in a situation like this, is the kind of job opportunity you only hear about,” Irwin said.

“I would have been a fool to pass it up.”

Clicking along. That was more than 10 years ago.

In that time, Irwin has worked himself into a unique arrangement.

About five years ago, Alexander approached him with the idea to form a partnership. The pursuit now links Alexander, Irwin, and three others: Alexander’s son-in-law, Ron Kandel; Dave Halloran; and Jerry Schonauer.

Each brings his own specialty to the operation, including knowledge of crops, machinery, feeding and nutrition. Irwin’s specialty is herd management.

“It was really great of Larry to give opportunities to us. He’s done a lot that people don’t even dream about,” Irwin said.

Expansion. Today Hyland Acres Jerseys maintains a milking herd of nearly 300, and it’s expanding to make the partnership work, Irwin said.

“It takes more than a few cows to pay the bills for five families,” he said.

Included in the mix is approximately 800 acres of pasture and crop ground for corn, hay and soybeans.

The farm’s original parlor, a double-three side-opener, is still used to get the herd through the twice-daily milkings. The herd’s milk production averages 16,500 pounds yearly .

The closed herd was growing slowly internally, but still created a need for new facilities, including a recently constructed parlor.

“We’ve grown by 20, 40 cows at a time. The old stuff just wasn’t going to work anymore,” Irwin said.

The five men’s combined visions led to the design of the new facilities, including new freestall barns and double-12 herringbone parlor. The parlor, which they will soon be using, has room to expand to a double-16.

First of its kind. A unique feature of the parlor is its basement and entrance design, which makes it the first of its kind in Ohio, Irwin said.

Milkers will never cross through cow traffic to move in and out of the pit, but instead will enter from steps underneath the milking floor.

In addition, all hoses and milker accessories will be run in casings from the basement, which will help keep the parlor quieter and equipment protected from moisture and dirt.

“It’s definitely not conventional. It’s going to have all the bells and whistles, too,” Irwin said.

The new milk house features an office as well as a 3,000-gallon tank, with enough room to add another tank of the same size.

The freestall barn is built on two slopes to aid in drainage and cow comfort; at a total of 440 feet long, both 220-foot sections slope toward each other, rising 6 feet from center to end.

The sloped layout allows complete visibility of all areas from either end of the barn.

Each section has an automatic scraper and, by design, is conducive to flushing should the partners decide to choose that option.

Ease into it. The buildings are a part of the ongoing, stage-by-stage expansion.

As each barn is finished, the farm makes short-term adjustments to make the cows more comfortable, and to ease them into the new arrangement.

The farm has the capabilities to handle a goal of 500 milkers, Irwin said, but could easily go to 1,000 with the addition of another barn if enough land for forages and manure disposal is available.

The partnership setup also allows Irwin and the others to farm full-time and keep somewhat of a normal family life.

“The responsibility and money issues would be a pretty big undertaking for just one person,” he said.

Alexander owns the facilities but the partners are on a rolling herd lease program. In addition, the partners own two-thirds of the farm’s machinery.

Farm interests. Each partner attends different seminars and reads different industry magazines and newspapers to bring the latest news and research to the farm’s meeting table.

While concerned about governmental involvement in agriculture, Irwin admits that he doesn’t keep up with politics.

“I’m more interested in learning how to make this farm better and worrying about the cows,” he said, noting that he uses computer applications to select sires and does all artificial insemination himself.

Family time. Also in the mix is Irwin’s expanding family.

He and his wife of three years, Jody, are parents to 2-year-old twins, Anna and Laura, and are in the process of building a new house.

“Between building the parlor and the new house, it’s hard to juggle it all. You can’t keep everybody happy all the time,” he lamented.

“It’s kind of an understanding around here that I’m married twice – once to my family and once to the farm,” he joked.

But his deep love for the job keeps him going back each day.

“It’s good honest work. I feel like I actually get things done each day. There’s nothing better than working with and living off the land,” he said.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!