'I had a crack at engineering but hated every minute of it'
Corkman Andrew Cronin is one of the new breed of dairy farmers transforming the sector
Published 08/07/2015 | 02:30
The biggest tent at Moorepark'15 open day was a forum where eight people at various stages of their careers in dairy farming outlined how they had progressed. One of them was Andrew Cronin, a 26-year-old who owns 200 cows in a 400 cow sharemilking operation.
"I grew up in Crookstown which is about 20 minutes west of Cork city. It's a really, really competitive area for dairying, chock-a-block with farmers milking 70 cows. You couldn't throw a stone without hitting a farmer," says Andrew.
"My parents milk 80 cows, and always looked to Moorepark for the latest research and information on how to run a low-cost operation.
"When I was doing the Leaving Cert, the boom was just about to end, even though we didn't know it at the time. All the ag colleges were empty, and I thought I'd have a crack at engineering up in DIT.
"But I hated every minute of it, and I knew I was going against the grain when I failed the exams at the end of second year. That's when I became 100pc sure that I wanted to go farming.
"So I did two years in Clonakilty ag college, and in the second year I did my placement in the Greenfield demonstration farm. Nobody believed I had a chance of getting in there, but I just got into my car and went up to meet the farm manager, Michael Long. He said I could start away, and that's how I did four months there.
"I suppose the idea to get into Greenfield was planted in my head after a conversation with my parents when I was exploring the idea of coming home after college. They said that they were happy working away, and that I should really be looking to opportunities outside the home farm. Their idea was that there are big tracts of land available for leasing in Leinster - up in counties like Meath and Westmeath. So getting into Greenfields in Kilkenny was the first step towards that for me.
"That exposed me to great people and I loved every minute of it, but I thought that I should just be aiming for any old job with another good dairy farmer when I was due to finish up. When I mentioned that to Michael, he told me to aim higher, more at a herd manager job.
"Next thing I found myself talking to Kevin Twomey. 'Do you want a job?' he asked me, and away we went. He ended up being a real mentor to me.
"The first year I was working on his home farm, but the second year I found myself managing a herd for him on a new farm that he took on.
"But Kevin was a little short of stock at the time, and when we arrived at the farm it had tonnes of grass. Kevin joked that he'd have to get a contract rearer in to use up the grass. I wasn't long suggesting that I could do that with 30 heifer calves from my parents' farm.
"So I brought 30 calves from home to this farm, and got on so well with them that my folks sent up another 45 before the year was out.
"That was a period that taught me some good lessons, along with the value of hard work, since I was managing Kevin's new herd and contract rearing 80 calves.
"But that really stood to me in the years since. I told Kevin from day one that I wanted to set up my own farm, and he was really supportive of that, really open with all the details of the business in an effort to teach me as much as possible.
"All the time I was promoting the fact that I wanted to get started on a farm in my own right, by placing ads in the classifieds in the paper saying something like 'Young farmer with cows looking for opportunity'. A Teagasc advisor heard about me and put me in touch with Pat and Mary Smith. They were tillage farmers near the racecourse in Mallow that wanted to convert their farm into a dairy unit, and needed somebody to manage the operation for them.
"They had a lot of questions for me, as I did too - I suppose we both wanted to make sure that we were in this for the long-haul. I had no real concerns though, since the Smiths had a great reputation, and the farm had plenty of scale and ticked all the boxes for me.
"That was three years ago. This year we are milking 400, 200 of which are my own. My parents got me started with those 30 calves that I first took on in Twomeys. I kept rearing 80 replacements every year on contract for my parents, and they took back whatever they needed. I got to keep the rest in payment for the cost of rearing the stock. It actually works out pretty even.
"It's a 36-unit herringbone parlour, and the cows are on track to produce 380kg of milk solids each this year. They have an average EBI of €183 and are 100pc spring calving. The aim is to get them up to about 430kg/cow with maybe a few extra cows before this farm will be maxed out.
"I am also involved with three discussion groups. Crookstown is a quite mature group, where the farmers are all well established. Green Shoots is a very exciting group of young people from all over the country.
They nearly all own their own businesses and have a similar outlook to myself. Matt Ryan is the facilitator, and he's a class act. The last group - Shared Vision - is one that I set up myself to get in touch with like-minded people that are also on the dairy career ladder.
"I work all the hours available, which is probably something that I have to address. I worked every single day of the first four months of this year, so it was savage altogether. There is only about 2.5 labour units on the farm, so there is no deadweight.
"But I'm lucky in that I've a great girlfriend who has been a great support. I still get time to play with the local hurling team too, which helps give me a break.
"I need to build on my relationship with the Smiths because I see that as critical. I also can't wait to get to New Zealand - I really think I could learn a lot out there because they've got the management systems for people sorted. That's something that I need to get right to keep progressing."