Young Farmer of the Year PJ O’Keeffe puts people first on his farm

Dairy farmer PJ O’Keeffe was recently named the 19th FBD/Macra na Feirme Young Farmer of the Year.

The 31-year-old from the Callan Macra club in Co Kilkenny had been farming with his parents for 10 years, before he took over the running of the farm in 2015, and has increased cow numbers from 72 to 430 in just three years.

Expansion has been driven with a focus of maximising grass-based output.

The crossbred herd has a six-week calving rate of 85%, and averaged 461kg of milk solids per cow in 2016.

PJ aims to produce 480kg of milk solids in 2017 from a concentrate input of 500 kg/cow.

A few days after winning the prestigious Young Farmer of the Year award, PJ O’Keeffe highlighted for me the challenges for dairy farming, as he sees them.

He said labour is first and foremost on everyone’s mind, and is something the industry has to learn to deal with very quickly, because we are the best in the world at growing grass and the most efficient from a climate point of view or an emissions point of view, but we are not the best with people.

“We are way down the pecking order as far as that’s concerned, and that is something we have to focus on, and all

industry leaders, whether they be co-ops or representative bodies such as Macra, IFA, ICMSA, the government, or farmers in general, everyone has to take a proactive approach to this.

“We need to get our replacement rate right, taking into consideration the average age of dairy farmers.”

“We need to start worrying about the next generation of farming.

Farming whether it be dairying, tillage, beef, it does not matter what enterprise you are involved in, it needs the cream of the crop running [it] on a daily basis, because it’s a great business, but it’s a business that gets a lot of challenges thrown at it on a daily, weekly, monthly bases.

“We need the best people out there running our farms, in charge of primary food production.”

“We just need the right people to deal with these challenges.

“We need industry, who have come on board through the Glanbia fixed price and fixed feed, but we all need to be doing our bit.

“People are calling this an excellent year in dairying, this is only where dairying is sustainable, anything else is not acceptable.

“There is nothing to be proud about being able to produce milk at 21 or 22 cent per litre and to run an industry on that basis, it’s not even worth talking about.

“Where it’s worth talking about is where it is sustainable, where people can get paid a proper wage for themselves and their family, and also for people that are working on farms as part of a team to drive on this industry.”

“If we are going to compete with other industries for the cream of the crop of talent coming out of secondary schools, we have to be able to remunerate and look after them far better than we are doing right now.”

PJ explained the cow breeding policy his parents pursued, which allowed him to hit the ground running.

“There was always quality on the farm, from a milk quality point of view or a breeding quality point of view.

“My father had always quite low empty rates, so I had a nice type of cow to breed off, a very good high-mark kind of cow that I was allowed breed from, along with stock brought in over the years.”

Would you have any preference for genetics or breed?

“Absolutely none whatsoever, I have seen some quite good results over the years from crossbred type cows, but there is no longer in my opinion a gap between a crossbred type of cow and a black and white.

“If I am looking to benchmark myself against the best in the business, some of the guys out there at the moment are doing equally as well with the black and white herds as with crossbred herds, so there is absolutely no difference whatsoever.”

We see in the Netherlands that increasing cow numbers does not necessarily translate into making profit. How do you make profit milking 430 cows?

“Quite simply, we have kept the template we had when milking 72 cows. I haven’t lost any of my efficiencies. We have been very strict and rigid about the way we have done things, about

expansion, controlling our costs, controlling our output, whether that be through stocking rate, grass growing.”

“We haven’t slipped in efficiencies in any manner, and that hasn’t been easy, but we kept our finger on the pulse.

You look at beef and the sheep guys, they are better than we [dairy farmers] are.

They have to deal with unsustainable prices on a constant basis, but yet they manage to have money to put bread on the table and for their families to prosper.

“They are resilient, and we have to be.

“Farming is a wonderful way of life, but we just need to ensure that, and there is a role for the media to keep focusing on the positives that are there, and to push the industry as a whole to make sure that there is sustainability.”

If we had a year of low milk prices like we did in 2016, how do you insulate yourself from low milk prices?

“I am quite fortunate to supply Callan Co-op, which in turn has a milk supply agreement with Glanbia.

“I had quite a percentage of my milk [price] fixed last year, and to me, it’s all about safety, there are not that many people in farming to be millionaires, we are in it for a beautiful way of life to enjoy what we do, to work with the land and to work with the cows.”

“Fixed [price] milk was one way to offset that, as regards the downturn in the price of milk last year, but also the type of cow we have is giving us a couple of cent per litre bonus on the base price.

“That’s not something that should never be taken into account but it helps insulate us.”

“If could [price] fix 100% of my milk, I would, to be quiet honest with you, because it helps me sleep easier at night, and I can forecast exactly where it’s going to be.

Forecast exactly where people are going to get paid, whether it be for land, for wages, for everything.

“I would much rather we were an industry where we were [price] fixed completely.

“It’s up to the people, if they want to get involved in the industry, that the gun isn’t being put to their head on a five-year cycle that they are being given a 21c or 22c per litre base milk price.”

“People can say that only the strong survive, but that is not an industry we want, I don’t want to promote people producing milk at a high cost, or anything like that, but we have a beautiful island, and the same cost of production does not exist all over this island.

“I want you to highlight that yes, it can be done, some people are producing milk at 20c/l, but they are on some of the driest areas of land.

“They do not know what it is to farm in certain parts of the country where it’s a far different playing field altogether, and that doesn’t for any second make them any better or worse farmers than the guy doing it on superb farms.

“It just shows vast differences in producing milk across this country.”

What are your plans for the

future, PJ?

“The greatest challenge that I am going to have going forward is to consolidate what I have got, and that is just not literally in cows, it’s to make sure that people are happy, it’s not all about PJ O’Keeffe, it’s all about whoever is working on the farm, to make sure that they are happy, because they are part of the next generation who maybe want to be dairy farmers.

“It is to give them an opportunity, and that’s my plan, to work on the future of the farm and the future of the people that are on it.

“Cow number wise, we are happy enough where we are, if opportunities come along, we will obviously will have a look at them, but I am pretty happy where we are at the moment.”

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