Wednesday 28 September 2016

'I was doing well to be able to employ myself when I set up in the old shed'

Published 08/06/2016 | 02:30

TJ Gormley with his Lamb Carousel invention that eases the workload for sheep farmers.
TJ Gormley with his Lamb Carousel invention that eases the workload for sheep farmers.
TJ Gormleychecking on his pedigree Beltex flock at the family farm near Tuam, Co Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan.
TJ Gormley with the sheep tags sold through Cormac Tagging.

TJ Gormley (65) isn't a stranger to inventions after decades of creation, but the furore over his latest machine caught even him by surprise.

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His Late Late Show appearance with Dynamo the lamb and the prototype lamb carousel designed to take the backbreaking work out of tagging, vaccinating, castrating and injecting lambs - and turn it into a one man-job - caused an internet sensation.

"There was a lot of interest both negative and positive after my appearance. I was taken aback by the negative as we set out to design something helpful and labour-saving.

"I appreciate the people who were negative knew little about farming. They were looking at it as cruel and frightening," he said. "But it is a terrible job to have to do all that on your own and that is where the idea sprang from."

As they say, all publicity is good publicity, and the phones were hopping with orders and queries about the new invention after TJ's TV appearance.

"We also got new orders for sheep tags as they saw we were trying to do something to alleviate the work on the farm.

"It had more of an effect than just the carousel," TJ says from his home farm at Queensfort, Tuam in Co Galway.

Ruefully, he says they got some advice off John Concannon who went on to build up the successful JFC business after first appearing on the same show with a multi-bucket calf feeder.

"He told me 'don't ever go on the Late Late Show unless you had a stock of them made'.

Some put in their orders directly after the show," he says, but they didn't have enough machines made up to immediately meet all the demand this year.

"He learnt that from experience and you're never too old to learn."

In his early years, TJ, who was born on a sheep farm in the west of Ireland, worked in Carlow and surrounding counties as a beet agent and nutrient advisor for the Sugar Factory, which he feels, like many others, should never have been decommissioned.

"We've been involved in the sheep industry all our lives and 30 years ago there was little equipment in Ireland. What was available was coming in from England and you wouldn't know the difference between the telephone number and the price," he says.

In 1985, alongside his wife Kitty, they first set up Cormac Sheep Equipment and Tuam Farm Supplies.

"In the early days I was lucky to be able to employ myself and my wife Kitty after setting up in an old shed with a small welder and for the last 20 years we've employed 20 people on a regular basis and 10 people on contract basis.

"There were a few hungry days but we were lucky that in '84-'85 there was no one else at it. Then came the recession and everyone who had a welder and angle grinder called himself a firm and went making equipment.

"The first product was the sitting weighing scales, sheep gates, races, scanning equipment and rollover cribs and electronic weighing scales.

"We went to Sheep Athenry in '96 with our sitting weighing scales and we sold 1,700 units in the next three years.

"Then we entered the awards at the RDS Spring Show and we held the record for awards for 10 major inventions.

"We came up with everything from a scanning trailer to a ram head harness to a mobile race. They were all practical things," he says.

"We also came up with a sheep shower, which to me was the handiest yoke of all times," he says, adding that unfortunately it didn't come in for grant aid schemes for farmers.

"Last year alone we sold 18 shower units to the UK as the sterling was right - they sold for £7,500 whereas here we had to get €10,000 for it. It can put 250 sheep through in an hour.

"What you could do 32 years ago was different, the regulations today are a nightmare. Touch wood in 32 years we've never had any product that caused an accident or were liable to any claim."

He said the TAMS schemes were a good help in driving sales.

"A standard sheep race with 50m of penning that was a basic popular one. If you have 40 sheep and no equipment it is harder than if you are operating with 400 sheep and equipment," he says.

Now TJ and one of his daughters Ursula run Cormac Tagging, while Cormac Sheep Equipment and Tuam Farm Supplies are now run separately after he sold it in recent years.

However, he still keeps an advisory role in it.

"Sheep farmers are reasonably happy as they are looking at friends in tillage, beef and dairying and are reasonably happy that they are not one of them.

"It is a reasonable income and you have an income right throughout the summer.

"The boys with tillage are waiting for one cheque, the beef lads might as well have racehorses such is the gamble and the dairy lads fear the cheques might never come again."

TJ travelled to marts throughout the country to promote his inventions and tags over the years.

He laments the closure of marts in some parts of the country.

"I'd often go to Maam Cross on a Saturday, many people might be there for a social event for the interaction," he says, with their community protected from the worst of emigration by the closeness of Galway city.

"There is most certainly isolation out there."

'Lamb burgers will definitely sell'

Ensuring there is more lamb on Irish menus from high-end restaurants to fast food businesses is something that TJ Gormley feels passionately about.

"My big argument is that there is not enough sheep meat sold here," he says, adding they should be targeting more major events such as the Galway Races.

"I think a lot more could be done - how many restaurants do you go into and you don't see lamb on the menus?

"I recently spoke with Pat McDonagh from Supermac's, saying it was about time we put a lamb burger on the market. It would use up the cheaper cuts of lamb."

TJ said the fast food boss told him to come back to him with a few burger options, which he is now looking into through the Texel group.

He admits that many younger shoppers don't always opt for a leg of lamb or stick to the traditional Sunday dinners any more.

"Lamb burgers and processed lamb will definitely sell. That is where I see the growing market with meals such as lamb and mushroom pie," he says.

However, when it comes to ram lambs he feels taste is an issue and they should only be consumed early in the season rather than towards the back end of the year.

He says the €25m funding for the sheep sector, which could amount to €10 a lamb, would be very welcome.

"If you take the hours put in on a sheep farm, particularly in the springtime, it is slave labour," he says.

"I heard an option for the €10 payment could include electronic tagging. It is in a big enough mess without tying us into another grant scheme."

Beltex bluebloods beginning to pay dividends

IT'S 20 years since TJ Gormley made the move to import quality pedigree sheep from Belgium.

"I looked at the Blue cattle and saw what they'd done to the cattle, breeding the Belgian Blues from the shorthorn cow," he says.

He went on to set up the Irish Beltex Sheep Society after importing some animals and now runs a 100 strong Beltex pedigree herd.

"I was always fascinated with what they did. We bought a few Beltex in '95 and all of a sudden we (the society) had 15-20 members."

But while the society members have consistently produced super conformation animals, they weren't getting due recognition on price.

However, recently Kepak in Athleague approached them about a buyer in Belgium looking for quality produce from Beltex or Texel registered rams. They set up the QualEUtex producer group which is offering 30c extra on U2 or U3 grade Beltex or Texel lambs up to 23kg.

The E grade lambs fetch 35c on top, which is worth an extra €7 above the R grade for 20kg.

A neighbour went down with 13 lambs and 11 qualified for the bonus. Two achieved the 35c top-up and nine the 30c.

"He arrived home that evening and told me to keep the best Beltex ram I had as he was looking to buy it," says TJ.

Now I get €500-600 for a good quality hogget ram, or €400-500 for a ram lamb. "They'd be the top ones. I concentrate on that. Rather than have 200 to 300 ewes as I still have enough work in 100."

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