‘You can make a good living milking 80 cows; expansion isn’t always necessary’

A farmer can make a good living milking 80 cows and expansion may not suit everybody, warned the deputy president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA), Lorcan McCabe.

McCabe, who milks approximately 75 cows on 100ac in Co. Cavan, took up the role of deputy president last December after he was elected unopposed.

Having joined the ICMSA in 2000, he has previously served as chairperson of the Farm Business Committee and chairperson of the Farm Services and Environment Committee.

Sitting down with AgriLand, McCabe voiced his concerns regarding the emphasis on dairy expansion.

He sees expansion as a positive, but is wary of how difficult it will be going forward with “all the environmental regulations that are coming down the tracks”.

On the topic of expansion, McCabe said: “I feel there’s not enough emphasis being put on the family farm – for a lot of different reasons. The first reason I would say is labour.

“It’s increasingly more difficult to source labour; this can pose more difficulties for larger herds rather than smaller ones.

I’ll state straight away that I’m not against huge farms, if people are fit to handle it; the 300 to 400-cow farms, there’s a place for them – no question about it. I’d be 100% behind them.

“But, the problem I see is that the media in general, and maybe farm organisations and consultants too, are pushing the 300 and 400-cow herds.

“The person that has 100ac and is milking 60 cows or 70 cows; they might feel like they are irrelevant. They may feel like they’re small and they shouldn’t, because they’re making a decent living out of it.

“I think Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture should promote that there is a living to be made off of anywhere from 40 to 100 cows. I do it and the ICMSA do it,” he said.

Managing a dairy herd

The deputy president strongly believes that one person is well capable of running a dairy farm with up to 100 cows, and possibly up to 120 – if facilities are right and the land block is in one unit.

Continuing, McCabe added: “After that, you’re chasing your tail; and you want to go then to 180 cows to pay for a person to work on the farm. Then you are into people management, employment law and a load of stuff.

While I would consider myself a good farmer, I wouldn’t like to have to manage people as well as the cows. If a cow is misbehaving or kicking, you can cull her. It’s not as simple to deal with human beings as that.

“When you go under the 40-cow mark, I think it is probably necessary to have a part-time job or it is absolutely necessary for one of the couple – male or female – to be working off-farm.

“You haven’t the scale. We need more profit in life now; under 40 cows won’t manage it alone. There are people that come to me and say that, ‘we can’t make a living now, my father made a living off 14 cows and I need 40 or 50 or 60 cows’.

“If you go back 30 years, there was only one income needed in any household. Any household now, to keep a modern house and modern cars, they nearly need two incomes. All parts of society have moved on.”

Work-life balance

McCabe urged farmers contemplating expansion to examine all aspects of their life before taking the plunge.

I have talked to dairy advisors in different co-ops. They tell me, when they call out to farmers, that the 80-cow person is happy and content. When they go to the 200 or 300-cow farmer, there’s pressure; they haven’t time to bring them in and give them a cup of tea.

“Some people are fit for that; but, there’s other people who are not. The impression out there is, among a lot of people, that New Zealand is the holy grail – 700 cows.

“There’s people thinking, ‘my God, my father is milking 70 cows; the most we could probably keep is 90 cows – it’s a waste of time; there’s no point in bothering’. But, there is.

“Maybe if that person has a part-time job until the father retires at 65. The Government has a role to play there,” he said.

‘I was the live-at-home parent if you like’

Milking 75 or so cows gave McCabe the flexibility to be more involved as he and his wife, Brid, reared four children – Laura (24), Sean (21), Andrea (18) and Shannon (16).

I was sort of – if you like – the live-at-home parent.

“I remember someone saying to me, ‘you’re a very busy man’,” McCabe remarked with a smile, as he recalled a time when his children were much smaller than they are today.

“I had to have the cows milked at 8:10am. I would get the two eldest up to the bus at the head of the road for national school; then the two youngest were going to creche at around 9:30am. I would collect them at around 12:00pm and I would collect the older ones at 3:00pm.

“I would have two or three hours completely free to tuck into my work in the morning. Then I would be able to do odd bits like look at cattle with the small ones. Brid would be home at around 5:00pm and I could tear into another bit of work then.

If we were paying child minders, one of our wages would have been gone; that shouldn’t be forgotten. Personally, it worked for us; but, I’m not saying it was all easy.

“I bonded well with the kids and knew what they were at. I did homework with them from time-to-time and I can cook too.

“I think we should use farming as an advantage, that we are able to cut down on the creche or child-minding fees; we should make use of the advantages that we have,” he said.

Lorcan McCabe on his Bailieboro farm

McCabe is of the opinion that if he was running a larger herd – or if we was working in a full-time job – he wouldn’t have been able to be as involved in the formative years of his children’s lives as he was.

The ICMSA’s deputy president encourages farmers that are considering expansion to examine how it would affect their family life. He advises them to consider whether or not it would leave sufficient time for them to spend time with their children or partner before they make any commitments.

‘You can take more chances at 24 than 44’

When asked about key messages he would give to a young farmer considering expansion, McCabe explained: “You can take more chances at 24 than you can at 44, because you’ll have time to smooth them out.

I have been business chairman at ICMSA for the last six years and the one thing that has put farmers under serious stress – and it’s not the price of milk – is borrowings. Don’t over-borrow; leave yourself a bit of room for error.

“If you can get land at reasonable money, take it. Don’t wake up at night sweating that you have huge borrowings.

“If you have to go to a bank and put your cards on the table and the bank says to you, ‘right, we’ll give you that loan for €100,000 or €200,000’; that’s good.

“But, if the bank says, ‘we’ll have to go out and assess this, we’ll have to look at that, we’ll have to go out and count your cows’ – you’re pushing it too far.

“You have to be able to get the money off the bank reasonably handy,” he said.

On a side note, he added: “The other thing I would say is start a pension before you’re 30. That will allow you, when you are maybe 62 or 63, to let your son or daughter in a little bit earlier.”

McCabe also underlined that it is important for farmers – whether they are expanding or not – to keep a positive outlook.

“You will get an odd run of bad luck. Things are never as bad as they seem in bad times and they’re never as good as they seem to be in good times either.

As a lad told me before, ‘never lose your nerve in bad times; but never lose your head in good times’.

ICMSA’s deputy president believes farmers who have decided to expand, should do so gradually.

“I admire people who have the courage to expand and who maybe have to borrow larger amounts of money. But, at the end of the day, you can only eat one dinner. You have to enjoy life too,” he concluded.