'Seeing less privileged places makes you grateful for what you have at home'
Published 22/06/2016 | 02:30
One of the criticisms thrown at farmers and their successors is that they are always in too much of a panic to get back home.
And while no-one can accuse the Teagasc Student of the Year Damien McGrath of not having a strong desire to get home to start farming full-time, he certainly got a flavour of the outside world on the way.
"When I finished the green cert in Mountbellew, I went to work for Bord Bia as a beef quality assurance inspector," says the 29-year-old from just one mile outside Tuam in north Galway.
While the plan was always to return home to the 160ac farm, the Galwegian also had a burning ambition to serve his time in the Army.
"I knew that I had to do it when I was young, or never at all, so I signed up to be a recruit based out of Galway," says McGrath.
Two years later he found himself stationed in the war-torn central African country of Chad, where he served with the UN troops for six months.
"It was tough because you had no technology out there to communicate with home. All you could do was read a book.
"But it was a great life experience. Seeing less privileged parts of the world really makes you grateful for what you have back home," he says of his time there.
However, it was during the four weeks he had off back at home after that posting that made him realise that he was ready to come back home full-time.
Indeed, Damien was able to put money saved from his eight-year stint in the Army towards the purchase of 30ac of land that was adjoining the existing holding.
"I doubt if I would have been able to buy that if I'd stayed at home so it all worked out very well for me," he notes.
He also feels that the time spent working off the farm has allowed him to develop communication skills that will stand to him on the farm.
"I probably find it easier to work with people than if I had gone straight from education back to work by myself on the farm," he comments.
Until 2004, Damien's father, Francis, had milked 60 cows, so much of the infrastructure was still there when his son arrived home to farm full time.
However, rather than diving headlong into milking cows, McGrath signed up for a level six course in Mountbellew again.
"Teachers like Vincent Flynn were great mentors there. By the time I qualified, quotas were abolished and I was ready for a partnership with my father to start milking 75 cows."
Despite being a self-confessed fitness freak, Damien reckons the rigours of a compact spring calving system still took at least a stone out of him during his first season.
"The weather was the most challenging part of the job this year, and it was tough going, but I think that growing up on a dairy farm really stood to me in that everything wasn't brand new," he says.
Despite his time in third-level education, McGrath can see himself doing another stint on a Teagasc course.
"I'd like to do the dairy herd management course, but it depends on how well I get set up at home," he says.
The farm itself consists of 75ac grazable acres around the parlour, along with another 85ac on an outfarm.
"The goal is to milk about 95 cows on the home farm, because that's what we have facilities for, and I think that would be the limit of what a labour unit could handle.
"Any developments after that will depend on milk price, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of putting a second herd on the outfarm," he says.
Despite the pressures to make ends meet in a new start-up during a year when milk prices are at historic lows, McGrath is still careful not to become a slave to the enterprise.
"I don't feel the necessity to be there 24-7, so I try to be out of the yard by six in the evening," he says.