When a Lisavaird Co-op milk lorry arrived on the Buttimer family farm near Ballineen in west Cork on April 1, milk was collected from the farm for the first time.
Not the first time this year, not the first time this century. It was the first time ever.
In the 70 years that the farm has been in the Buttimer name, no cow had been milked. The Buttimers were beef and tillage farmers. However on April 1, 2015, all this changed.
With the ending of milk quotas, a new chapter opened for this farming family. The Buttimers are now dairy farmers.
When I visited Stephen Buttimer recently, he looked very much like a man relishing his new career, with work well under way on his new 52-cubicle slatted house. The house is a mirror imagine of one he constructed for his dairy cows last year.
But before we look at Stephen’s new life as a dairy farmer, let’s go back in time to view life on the farm before the arrival of the Lisavaird milk lorry.
For many years, the Buttimers ran an agricultural contracting business, with Stephen heavily involved in that business. In 2004, they decided to put the brakes on the contracting, with Stephen taking up a job with Lisavaird Co-Op in their fabrication unit. By 2010, he was driving a feed lorry for the co-op.
And during this time, back on the 200-acre farm, Stephen grew fodder beef, grain and had a weanling-to-bull-beef enterprise on the go.
“I enjoyed my time with Lisavaird Co-Op immensely,” Stephen told me. “I liked meeting people and delivering bulk ration to farms in the locality.”
But Stephen felt his time away from home was not without its cost.
“I really wanted to spend more time at home. My wife, Hillary, and I have two sons, Brian and Ethan, both aged 11 now, and because of my job, I felt I had missed out on our boys growing up.”
“We have family members involved in dairy farming, some in a fairly large scale. And whenever Brian and Ethan visited these farms, they loved helping out with the cows in any small way that they could.”
“Getting into dairy farming was something we considered off and on. We have a nice stretch of land here, and I felt really the way we were going, the farm would eventually be let. This wasn’t the route I wanted to take.
“So we discussed the option of going into milk, and got great support from our family. I also received a lot of help from Lisavaird Co-Op advisors, like Eleanor Hayes. So in the end, we decided to go for it. And with the abolition of milk quotas, we really got our opportunity.”
The Buttimers started by focusing on stock. Stephen purchased 40 weanling heifers, and in 2014 had them running with a bull.
“We took a chance, I suppose, in using Friesian bulls. But we had it in mind that we wanted to build up the herd.”
“The two bulls were purchased from a local farmer, he has very good pedigree stock. We were told that they were easy calving bulls, and in fairness they were. In fact I have a new jack on the farm that has never been used.”
In early 2014, Stephen also applied for planning permission for the parlour and cubicle houses. And later in 2014, he bought 10 in-calf heifers.
The building started in June 2014, and it was here that the Buttimers really came into their own. They hired a building contractor to do the concrete work for the parlour, putting in two tanks, one for the dairy and one for the cubicle house.
And after that Stephen and his father Richard did all the building work themselves, with the assistance of two relatives. Building comes naturally to the Buttimers.
And of course, during his time with Lisavaird, Stephen got to see many different types of farm layouts, so when it came to designing his own, he had a good idea of what he wanted. He sourced a well-maintained 16-unit DeLaval parlour.
The building materials were purchased at Lisavaird Co-Op, including Easyfix cubicles and single foam mattresses, and automatic scrapers were installed by Dairypower.
Calving began on the farm this year, on January 14, with the last heifer calving on St Patrick’s Day.
So how was the calving? And how about the first few milkings in the parlour? “It was all very interesting,” Stephen says with a laugh.
It was not without its problems. But having bought in 16 calved cows earlier this year, these cows, according to Stephen, “put a bit of law and order into our heifers, as they were used to a parlour.”
“I suppose if I was to give anyone advice when getting into dairying, it would be to source your stock from the least number of herds possible. I felt this reduced the risk of bringing in diseases.
"An issue we came across which put us under a bit of pressure was not having the housing fully completed while calving. Calving cows need your full attention. There was one week after we starting calving that there was five cases of mastitis and three cases of ketosis, that’s when I thought to myself, ‘what have I done?’.
They turned out to be only teething problems down to lack of experience. We soon got over that, and things have been running smoothly since”.
“We run the farm as a family unit, my wife Hilary and I, and sons Brian and Ethan. Also, both sets of parents have all contributed immensely to getting the enterprise up and running.
"My two boys, while still young, are very keen and enthusiastic about farming, and this undertaking is as much for their future as well as my own.
“Now of course, what they do in later life is up to them. It’s their decision and we will back them in every way we can. But I’d like to think that we have something here for them, should they choose it.
“Right now, we are thoroughly enjoying the experience. When I was working off-farm, I was away from my family and the farm business. Now I am working at something I really enjoy, and there is more family time, and I think it’s a better lifestyle.”
The Buttimers now milk 64 cows, with plans to increase to 100 cows next year. And with the aim of milking 100 on the horizon, and being a bit of a devil, I ask will 100 cows be enough, looking to the future?”
“I think it will,” Stephen replies, “if you keep an eye on your cost, and if it’s run well as a family unit.”
In a time when many in farming are looking beyond the boundary ditch to find employment, Stephen Buttimer is boldly going the other way, forsaking his job with Lisavaird Co-Op and focusing on a new life as a dairy farmer.
* The Buttimer family host an open day on their farm today, Thursday, August 6, from 12 noon to 4pm.
Representatives from Lisavaird, Dairypower and Easyfix will be on hand to offer advice throughout the day. All are welcome to attend.
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