In my lifetime, farming has utterly changed. And I’m still far from an old fellow.
When I was a youngster, physical strength was everything, from hoisting fertiliser bags, to piking bales of hay, to dosing cattle, and driving tractors that generally lacked power steering.
Today’s farmer is a different species, he needs a different set of skills. The need for physical strength has decreased, but the need for mental agility and a positive approach to business has never been greater.
These days, one farmer on his own can calve and milk 100 cows and not have a broken back at the end of it.
By using a smartphone app, a farmer can save a fortune in time, money and labour.
It’s a new age in farming, and dairy farmer Maurice Walsh is happy to be part of it.
Last year’s RTÉ’s TV Farmer in Charge show brought Maurice Walsh to wide attention. His straight forward, practical and upbeat approach to business helped solve problems in an enterprise far removed from his life on the land, a hairdressing salon in Tallaght!
Spring calving was well under way when I visited his farm in Kilbehenny, near Mitchelstown, Co Cork.
“The early calvers are in calf to British Friesian. I like the British Friesian, I like the good strong animal. The later cows are in-calf to Aberdeen Angus.”
Maurice Walsh is married to Lorraine, and they have three sons, Aaron, Darragh and Cian. Maurice took over the farm from his father Edward Walsh in 2003, and since then, he has built up the cow herd from 55 to today’s 100 cows.
The Walsh family farm is 135 acres, and the 500,000 litres of milk produced yearly is supplied to Dairygold Co-Op.
“Last year, I milked 104 cows but I capped it at 104, I won’t expand beyond that,” Maurice tells me.
“And why not?” I ask.
“Because I’m a one man operation. I do it on my own, and I feel if I was to expand anymore, I’d have to employ someone, and I just don’t think the books would add up.
“Aaron my son is fantastic, and he will milk the cows when I need time off. So I arrange it with him, and it works out very well.”
To make milking all the more comfortable on the farm, two years ago, Maurice installed a Dairymaster milking parlour.
“I went for a 14-unit parlour with Swiftflo bailing. Which amongst other things means the cows come in and are locked in individually. It was more expensive than the ordinary one, but I believe it makes the task of milking a whole lot quicker. I’ve cluster removers and all the bells and whistles that go with such a parlour.
“One thing about the new parlour that I would highly recommend is the auto wash. The machine washes itself on a programme. It picks out its own programme, so it will boil-wash one time, and perhaps acid-wash another.
“Put into basic language, it’s like a glorified washing machine. It was quite expensive but I believe it will pay for itself over time because it removes any doubts you might have about the washing process, and is one less job to worry about.
“I also put in a new bulk tank with a system called cool control. The bulk tank can be controlled by mobile phone. Let’s say for instance the bulk tank driver forgets to wash the tank. Well, in that case the tank will send a text to my phone and I can send a text back to the tank picking a hot-wash, rinse or whatever.
“Also if there’s a power failure, I will receive a text warning me that the tank is not cooling properly. You are constantly on your game with such technology.
“It’s all about making life easer and more enjoyable on the farm. Farming can be a very rewarding occupation, especially when you look out at your cows or the green fields of your land. All this can give a person a feel good factor, and this is what I like about farming,” Maurice explains.
On the subject of positive outlook in farming, I bring up the 2016 Irish Examiner ICMSA farming poll which revealed 60% of farmers remained optimistic. However, optimism fell 25% from 2015, when four out of five farmers saw good prospects ahead.
I asked Maurice, recently appointed to the ICMSA National Council, for his view on the survey findings. “I can absolutely understand why optimism in farming is back. We had a dreadful year in 2016, as far as milk and grain prices were concerned. But having said that, farmers are brilliant at bouncing back. Farmers have a good positive outlook generally. “I feel it’s very important to be able to take a step back, instead of rushing around all the time. Take a step back and appreciate what you have. Look at what you have achieved. Every farmer underestimates themselves. But they are the CEO of the company, the managing director of their own farm. I feel many just don’t give themselves enough credit.”
Maurice has been a member of the ICMSA for many years and was recently appointed to the National Council of the organisation. He believes it’s important that farmers are involved with such groups.
“Getting involved with organisations like the ICMSA or IFA is very important for farmers, not only when fighting to get better grain, milk or beef prices, but also for the farmers’ general wellbeing.”
And as to the future, I ask Maurice what aims does he have? “Well, I’m happy where I am right now. I have undertaken a lot of expansion work over the past couple of years and now all I’d really want to do is enjoy it.
“Beyond that, my dream would be to go to New Zealand sometime. I’d love to see how farming operations are run there. I’ve read a lot about farm life in New Zealand over the years. At the moment it wouldn’t be possible to go away for a month long trip. But I’m hoping in years to come to make the journey.”