Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Aiming high on and off the pitch

Westmeath football sharpshooter John Heslin is also making waves in his career as an agricultural researcher

Attention to detail: John Heslin at work in Teagasc's research centre at Grange, Co Meath
Attention to detail: John Heslin at work in Teagasc's research centre at Grange, Co Meath

Ronan Flanagan

To say John Heslin is a busy man is an understatement. But there's no complaint from the Westmeath star, since the combination of farming and football that is consuming him this summer are the two passions of this young man's life.

Heslin (23) was man of the match in his county's first ever championship win over Meath nine days ago, with the victory made all the sweeter after enduring some mild ribbing in the lead-up to the match at his workplace in Teagasc's Meath research centre at Grange.

Away from the cheering crowds of Croke Park, the Mullingar man is forging a career in agriculture having followed on his ag degree with a PhD on heifer puberty. A supremely talented Gaelic footballer he may be, but farming was his first love and he knows it will end up his career.

Born in Boston, Heslin's family moved home when he was six. They then bought a 50ac farm near Mullingar, which his father still works on a part-time basis finishing heifers.

"I remember years ago I used to really enjoy going over to my granny's dairy farm.

"Growing up I would help out at home when my dad was busy and it's something I really enjoyed. Coming up to the Leaving Cert I was thinking of becoming a quantity surveyor, but then when there was the downturn I said I may as well go for something I enjoy and that was Agricultural Science.

"I really know now it was the right choice," says the UCD graduate.

Belfield certainly suited the young Heslin as he lined out in the Sigerson Cup while still finishing his studies with a first class honours degree. That grade opened the door to further studies in a PhD.

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"The title of my research is 'The effect of breed type, genetic merit and diet on puberty and pregnancy rates.' The whole idea of my project is to have a blueprint to get heifers calving down at 24 months of age as opposed to the national average of 32 months.

"Only 11pc of animals currently calve at the 24 month old stage and if this was brought up it would make a significant difference to the farmer," explains John.

He claims that over the five or six years of calving it would mean an extra calf per cow, worth about €800, and multiplied up through the national herd this would be a serious boost for the sector.

When he arrived at Grange last October, he started work with a herd of 160 diverse genetic merit heifers.

During the store period they were on different diets where they were constantly monitored for heat detection and scanned for fat scores.

"They were put out to grass in April and it has really kicked off since then.

"You have to visually observe them around three or four times a day for at least 20 minutes each time to see if they are bulling. I take blood samples every Monday and Thursday since breeding season started on April 27.

"It's one thing to get them all bred, but it's another to collect and analyse all the data at the same time.

"I can really see the effect of the maternal index on heifer replacements, which I think will become more and more important in the coming years," says the agricultural scientist.

Fitting the research work around Heslin's 'hobby' makes the St Loman's Mullingar player reliant on back-up, and John says he could not do what he does without the farm staff at Grange.

"I live at home which is around an hour from Trim and I try to be there at eight. I bought a few calves myself as well so they have to fed before I go anywhere.

"For the heat detection you have to be there first thing and, even more importantly, last thing in the evening.

"With county football you tend to be tied down with gym sessions, training and then matches too.

"The farm manager Francis Collier and Christy Colgan in the yard are a great help because when the championship is on during the summer, the weekends are just impossible.

"With all the training you have to be there as much as you can be.

"I get great support here and I have a great working relationship with the boss Edward O'Riordan as well as my supervisors Mark McGee and David Kenny.

"They fully support me but just because you play football doesn't mean you get special treatment," notes the GAA star.

In the immediate future there is the small matter of a Leinster final this weekend against the Dubs but, as ever, John Heslin is keeping an eye on the farming world.

"I am only in my first year here with the PhD so I have another to go and then there is the thesis.

"After that I'd love to work for Teagasc or some role within UCD - as I said before, I'm striving to do something I enjoy," adds Heslin.

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