Farmers’ experiences: 3 very different routes of entering dairy farming

The face of the Irish dairy industry has changed; the loosening of milk-quota shackles in 2015 gave many farmers the opportunity to expand and grow their dairy businesses.

However, the average age of Irish dairy farmers – which currently stands at 58 years-of-age – is a worry going forward. For the industry to continue to grow and perform, it needs new blood in the form of young, trained farmers.

At last week’s Positive Farmers Conference, three farmers shared their experiences of entering into dairy farming and the varying pathways taking to develop a career in the industry.

Family partnership: ‘Working nine-to-five was always my aim’

Growing up on his family’s farm in Macroom, Co. Cork, Jerry Murphy (30) had no intentions of coming home to farm.

He explained: “When I completed my Leaving Certificate, I had no desire to go farming. I felt there were insufficient opportunities in the farm at home; it was already highly stocked and quotas were restricting further expansion.

I also desired to see more of the world and I wanted to have a 9:00am to 5:00pm job.

Given this, Jerry trained as a chartered accountant with KPMG. However, he soon found that those living the office life “worked every bit as hard as farmers”.

The journey back to Macroom

Whilst on a year out and travelling in Australia, Jerry was approached by his father to establish a second dairy unit on an out farm in 2013.

At the time, the family’s herd were predominately ‘black and white’ cows and the total area farmed stood at 78ha; 34ha of which was the home farm and a 44ha outside block.

“After spending time working nine-to-five, the advantages and motivation to work as a self-employed person grew on me.

“The opportunity to expand the home farm was put forward by my father and together we are making the business big enough to support two family incomes,” he explained.

Growing the business

In 2013, the father-and-son team milked a herd of 115 cows; all of the young stock were reared and silage was cut from the outside block.

In the following year, the herd grew to 128 cows. The outside platform was still being used for young stock; cows were also grazed here during the shoulders of the year.

In 2016, an additional 80 cows were brought into the herd and the rearing of replacements was contracted out. With the addition of a mobile milking parlour, the father-and-son team were able to utilise both parcels as milking platforms.

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Last year, Jerry explained, an additional milking platform of 42ha was leased; allowing them to develop their third milking platform under a family-partnership arrangement.

All-in-all, along with the addition of 10ha to the original 78ha of owned land, the Murphys milked 325 cows across three milking platforms last year; producing over 1.75 million litres of milk.

Leasing: ‘I wanted to be a beef farmer’

Hailing from a small (50ac) drystock farm in Trabolgan, Co. Cork, Joe Deane (29) will calve 160 cows this spring on a leased milking platform.

Joe explained: “I always loved and wanted to go farming and, when I started agricultural college in 2006, I wanted to be a beef farmer.”

After completing a Level 7 in Agriculture and Business in Clonakility Agricultural College and a Level 8 in Aberystwyth University, Wales, Joe had learned that dairy was the most profitable sector.

I started from there and I hadn’t milked a cow until I was 19-years-old. After college, I decided I would go to New Zealand to get some experience and I worked on some very good farms; one farm had 1,100 cows and the other had 700. I learned a lot about the basics of cows and grass.

The career path

In 2011, Joe returned home from New Zealand and started managing a multiple-unit farm in east Cork. Looking after a herd of crossbred cows, he stayed in this role for 42 months.

During this time, he took the herd from 120 cows to 330 cows. At the same time, he was also growing his own stock numbers.

In 2015, I had 15 cows to lease. In 2016, I managed a farm where I had 50 cows leased out to. This herd consisted of 240 cows in total.

After coming across an opportunity to lease another farm in Carrigaline, Joe knew he was ready to take the step forward and develop his own business. The earlier mentioned owned cows proved crucial to access the necessary funds to make the venture possible.

“I leased a 54ha farm on a seven-year lease. I’m starting into year two now and I milked 125 cows last year; I’ll go to 160 this year – all going well.”

Future goals

Joe currently has 85 bulling heifers on hand also. In the next year or two, he hopes to develop a second dairy unit.

“I want to build up a big enough business where I don’t have to be milking the cows and, in terms of progression, I have plans to take on a second unit in the next year or two.”

Joe’s advice to someone starting out in dairy farming:
  • Don’t let money be the determining factor when choosing a farm to work on when starting out in your career;
  • Work with the best – someone that will teach you and give you invaluable experience;
  • Have patience when looking for the right opportunity for you. Don’t rush into something that might end up slowing or halting your progression;
  • Surround yourself with positive people and avoid negative people as much as possible;
  • Joining progressive discussion groups and general networking with like-minded people will steer you in the right direction;
  • Set goals and revisit them regularly to monitor progress.

Share milking: ‘I decided I wanted to be a dairy farmer’

Diarmuid Scannell grew up on a 29ha farm in Coolea on the Cork/Kerry border; this holding had been used to lamb 120 ewes and calve 25 suckler cows.

Diarmuid, along with his wife Briege, is now a lower order share milker on Michael Bateman’s 600-cow unit in Cookstown, Co. Cork.

Telling his story, Diarmuid said: “I didn’t want to be a dairy farmer growing up and it wasn’t really on the radar.”

After completing his Leaving Certificate, and a number of courses, he worked as a welder from 2003 to 2007 – a career which he really enjoyed. After a period of travel, he took up a job as a landscaper.

However, in 2009, his career headed in a different direction – the dairy direction. In January 2009, he milked his first cow on a 400-cow unit in Shepperton, Australia.

Continuing, he said: “We moved on to New Zealand and, through a friend at home, we got a job on a 420-cow farm in Te Kauwhata, New Zealand. I learned how to work. It was tough for five or six weeks, but I really enjoyed the way they did it.”

In 2012, Diarmuid and Briege returned home to Ireland. At this stage, Diarmuid’s mind was galvanised that a career in dairy farming was for him.

I decided I wanted to go dairy farming after that. I looked at a few job opportunities and didn’t like what I saw. However, through the same mutual friend that got me the job in New Zealand, I began working for Michael Bateman in January 2011 as spring help.

“I worked away there and I didn’t expect to be where I am now. At the time, there was quotas and I didn’t see the bigger picture.

“In 2013, the man managing the farm went back to New Zealand and I fell into his role. I got to know grass and budgets and – in 2016 – Michael offered me a lower order share milking position.”

Last spring, Diarmuid and Briege brought 56 heifers to the share-farming agreement – 50 of which had been purchased from Michael. This, Diarmuid said, is one of his biggest achievements to date.

The agreement and future plans

As it stands, the husband-and-wife team currently has a 27.33% share or stake of the existing dairy business. This means that they must cover 27.33% of the variable costs on the farm and will receive 27.33% of the milk cheque. All of the capital expenditure is covered by Michael.

In the last couple of years, Diarmuid has also started to purchase dairy heifer calves and these are being reared on the home farm.

I can’t milk cows off that land, but it’s adding to my business and I’m growing stock.

Ultimately, this venture will help Diarmuid achieve his goal of owning 200 cows by 2021.

The next generation

Gerry, Joe and Diarmuid are all members of the Shared Vision discussion group. The group has 16 members, including: three farmers leasing land from landowners; two share milkers; three are in family partnerships; three are in non-farming partnerships; four are becoming farm managers; and one is a owner-operator.

Eight of the members are from dairy-farming backgrounds, while the others are either from non-farming or beef-farming backgrounds.

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Over the coming weeks, the members of the group will be visiting agricultural colleges throughout Ireland to share their experiences and to offer advice to students who see dairy farming as their future career.