Stone walls and the grass is green
Young Farmer of the Year, Kevin Moran, has defied the odds to go from zero to milking 220 cows in four short years
Published 14/09/2016 | 02:30
You're the youngest of 11, with five older brothers, and the family farm well spoken for. Think you've no chance of getting started in farming? Think again.
That appears to be the motto of a young Mayo farmer who has just added another prestigious agriculture award to his already burgeoning resumé.
Kevin Moran was crowned the Macra FBD Young Farmer of the Year last week, after battling his way through several rounds of gruelling interviews that whittled 33 of the country's finest emerging farming talent down to just one.
"This is my All Ireland medal" he told his fellow competitors, family and friends as he accepted the award. "I've worked my whole life to get to this."
While the 23-year-old may not have been working full-time that long, he has made every one of his four short years to date, count.
In 2013 he was awarded Teagasc's student of the year title, but the young Claremorris man was already in the process of taking his first steps to go out farming on his own.
Moran is quick to acknowledge that none of his farming endeavours would have been possible without the support of his wider family, especially his uncle Joe who was prepared to lease the 19-year-old his 36ha dairy farm.
The farm, which is 40km from Moran's home in neighbouring Galway, had been let out for a few years, and needed investment.
However, a bigger challenge was getting access to finance, with Kevin having nine loan applications turned down before he finally succeeded in getting the finance to buy cows.
In the end, it didn't really matter what Kevin had in his loan application - from the banks' point of view, he wasn't bankable because he owned no land.
That's when uncle Joe stepped up again with collateral to guarantee loans of close to €250,000 on the new 105 cow herd. It was this firsthand experience of the blinkered approach of Irish banks to collateral that spurred Moran on to apply for a €10,000 Nuffield scholarship - to look at alternative financing arrangements around the world.
While the glitter of awards and figures like a 15pc annual return on investment make Moran look invincible, he is the first to admit that he also made plenty of mistakes along the way.
"I didn't invest in high enough genetic merit cows initially, and that affected things like fertility," he says.
But his focus on measuring and benchmarking himself against the best - he's a member no less than three discussion groups - is paying off.
Already the key performance indicators in his business are approaching optimal levels, with his six-week pregnancy rate increasing from 50pc in 2013 to 83pc now, and grass utilisation increasing by 50pc to 12tDM/ha last year.
"I probably also took on too much, but I suppose that I was lucky in that even during the worst week in the spring when the weather and everything was going against me, I was able to stay focused on what it would be like when it turned... and it did," he adds.
The ability to think outside the box is also evident in the details of Moran's set-up near Tuam. To maintain some work-life balance, he lives 14 miles away on the outskirts of Galway where he shares a house with other young professionals.
Kevin isn't hung up about needing machinery either, nevermind shiney new editions.
"My old Case tractor broke down 10 months ago, and I still haven't bothered to get it fixed!" he laughed, knowing the prospect would horrify many farmers.
With maturity beyond his years, ambition, and an appetite for risk, it's understandable that Moran is already milking 220 cows, continues to grow his farm area, and has just bought his first 8ha of land.
"I didn't really want to invest in land, but that's the collateral for the next loan application," he grins.
Tillage winner works 900ac
Just like the eventual winner, Stephen Robb who won the tillage section, is also 23.
Despite undertaking a masters in agricultural innovation based out of Oakpark Carlow, the Donegal man still makes the four hour drive home to Newtowncunningham every weekend. “It’s crazy at the moment, but in the long run [the study] will benefit both me and the farm,” he claims.
The 900ac home farm of cereals and potatoes has been hammered by constant rainfall this autumn, with only two unbroken days for harvesting so far.
However, Robb remains convinced that growing crops in more marginal regions still makes sense.
“There’s still a margin in it, and we just have to look for niches like rolling, treating or storing grain, or growing other niche cereal crops,” he says.
Mattie John Kelly (24), is another man determined to build a full-time career in farming. He is already well on his way to his target of 600 ewes on owned and rented land in south Roscommon, with 550 due to lamb next spring.
“I started out with 210 ewes, and was able to grow by increasing the stocking rate to 10 ewes per hectare. So the sheep are generating a lot more profit than the 20 sucklers at the moment,” he says.
Macra is the common thread in all the finalists, with the likes of Kelly travelling all over Europe with Macra in official and unofficial roles.
Michael Kenny (22), is another young man who has seen his farming career transformed by the opportunity to go to ag college.
“The best thing I ever did was go away to college. It gave me a different mindset, and I see everything differently now,” he says, highlighting his ability to double stocking rates when he switched to paddock grazing systems.