Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Wednesday 7 December 2016

How to get ahead in dairying

Esther Walsh will join a panel of speakers at the open day in Moorepark this week to explain how study, overseas work and pure graft have paid off

Published 01/07/2015 | 02:30

Esther Walsh pictured on Lismore Farm in Waterford where she manages an 800-cow enterprise for Shane Maxwell. Photo: Sean O'Brien.
Esther Walsh pictured on Lismore Farm in Waterford where she manages an 800-cow enterprise for Shane Maxwell. Photo: Sean O'Brien.

How many 36-year-olds run 800 cow operations in Ireland? How many of them are women? Meet Esther Walsh.

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The diminutive Waterford woman has risen to the top ranks of the Irish dairy industry by dint of hard work, managerial ability, and a love of farming inherited from her late dad, Michael.

"I grew up on a 70ac suckler farm at Rathgormack near Carrick-on-Suir where I was always out with my father dosing, herding, bringing in the hay - whatever was going on really. I suppose that's the beauty of a smaller farm operation where there always seemed to be a role for me," recalls Esther.

When her dad passed away after an illness during her teens, Esther had already begun learning how to provide for herself, courtesy of local dairy farmer, John Flynn.

"I probably started just doing the lawns, but I must've drifted into doing relief milking for him when I was about 14, and I probably earned as much in a week as students would be expecting a day these days," she laughs. "But it was there that I first cut my teeth in dairying, and discovered that I had a liking for it."

The work also helped finance Esther's way through college in Kildalton and subsequently two years doing a diploma in Clonakilty.

"We were never wanting for anything at home, but there was nothing handed to us, which done us no harm," she notes.

During her time in Clonakilty, she spent six months on work placement with Jerome Desmond's 60-cow herd at Garryhesta, Ovens, followed by another placement in Millstreet with Tim Leader's 90 cow herd.

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"Those placements taught me the difference between wet and dry land - I don't think it stopped raining once during the six months that I was in Millstreet!"

Her final year of formal education involved a placement on Anthony O'Driscoll's farm near Youghal through the Farm Apprenticeship Scheme.

"It was one of the last years of the scheme. This was during the boom when you'd almost be embarrassed to admit that you were studying farming. It was a real shame that it ever ended because it gave you a really good practical experience that I think students that are now tied moreso to the classroom just don't get," she says.

Esther is also a firm believer in the benefits of getting out of Ireland to broaden people's horizons.

"New Zealand was a real eye-opener for me. It was the first time that I realised that this was a profession that outside of Ireland people took a lot of pride in. It was pretty exciting.

"Most people go to New Zealand, but it doesn't have to be New Zealand. There's good grazing systems in Missouri in the US, but it's kind of irrelevant - just the process of seeing how it's done elsewhere gives you a sense of perspective.

"I headed for there partly because I've cousins in New Plymouth. Basically, I looked up a website that has farm job vacancies called Fencepost, got a few phone numbers and started calling.

"I did a phone interview with the Fisken's in Rotorua and that was it. They were milking 700 cows and myself and a buddy headed out. We spent a year there before coming home again, but I couldn't settle here.

"Early morning starts at 4am or 5am were the norm, but we still managed to have a social life. I suppose it helps if you're young - I'd probably die if I was trying to do the same now.

"I ended up heading back to New Zealand to the South Island to a farm near Canterbury that was milking 1,200 cows. It was run by Trevor Hamilton, who I got on well with. There was enough staff there that it had a social scene within the farm itself."

However, after another season with the Hamiltons, Esther decided that it was 'make-your-mind-up-time' in relation to where she was going to spend the rest of her working life.

"I found milking 1,000 cows in New Zealand easier than milking 100 in Ireland, but my heart was still at home, so that was it for me, even though I was being offered great opportunities to set up new farms out there."

But Esther's timing was perfect. At the same time that she arrived home, a job for an assistant herd manager came up with Shane Maxwell's Lismore Farms.

"I was a bit worried initially, you know being a young woman coming into a set-up where there were men in their 50s and 60s that had worked there for decades. But in fairness to them, they treated me very fairly.

"In some ways being a woman on a dairy farm is an advantage, since I'm able to get [my arms] into tighter spots during a difficult calving," she says.

That was nearly 10 years ago, and a lot has changed at Lismore Farms since then.

"Back in 2008, we decided to start building up cow numbers because we believed that quota wasn't going to be an issue again.

"That back-fired on us in the sense that we ended up paying hefty superlevies during the majority of the last five years, even though we were doing all in our power to restrict output.

"We milked once-a-day last year, fed 1,000 litres of milk a day to calves, and even ended up selling 100 cows in the latter half of last year to try to minimise the exposure. That was even with the benefit of extra quota that we begged, borrowed and stole from everywhere we could."

But the pay-off for that financial pain is the fact that the farm now has two 400 cow herds. The second is run on an outfarm that was converted to grass from long-term tillage.

Tough

"It's taking a while to get the organic matter and fertility built up in the soils to the level that it can sustain grass growth as well as the home farm, but it continues to improve.

"The first six months of the year are proving pretty tough. Even though there are six full-time staff, with some part-time help during calving and all the AI contracted out, we still need a second-in-charge here to take some of the pressure.

"I suppose that long-term I'd like to get into a position where I am able to own my own cows, maybe as part of a bigger operation. That might give me a chance to step back slightly from the day-to-day tasks," she says.

And what of the current excitement that surrounds dairying in Ireland? "It's a bit like a building boom, isn't it? There's a lot of excitement, but young people coming into the sector should know that it's not for the faint-hearted.

"They should also be in no rush to get back home, doing things the same way that daddy always did them. One year in ag college just isn't enough - your education needs to be so much more than that. And don't be afraid to ask questions - lots of them, so that you can gain knowledge of the people that you are working with."

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