Rather than be put off a career in farming when his older brother Jimmy took over the family farm in Summerhill, Co Meath, Richard Austin took the road less travelled and moved to The Colony, Louisburgh, Co Mayo to work alongside his uncle at the age of 19.
Over 30 years later he is still there and is milking a herd of pedigree Montbéliarde with his Spanish wife Lorena, who works for pharmaceutical company Allergan. They have two children, Dara (8) and Liliana (7).
After struggling with fertility on his pedigree Holstein herd, Richard decided to change his cow type to suit his system.
“It wasn’t the cow’s fault; a lot of people lose sight of that,” he says. “Fertility is not just genetic, it’s how the cow functions in general in the conditions she’s in. I was having to buy replacements every other year.
“A friend of mine had ‘Monties’ and I had an interest in pedigrees, so I decided they were the way to go.
“I went to France and bought 13 and bought another five from France the next year, and I bought seven bulling heifers in Ireland as well and bred up from that. I’ve been selling the surplus stock for the last few years.”
Richard now sells all his calves from home, with the female calves from red Angus or Belgian Blue bulls sought-after for suckler cows and pedigree Montbéliarde bulls for breeding. He also has a herd of red pedigree Angus cows and sells bulls and pedigree heifers.
As well as having good fertility, Richard finds Montbéliarde to be a good all-round producer.
“Monties are a longer-lasting, high-production cow, with low cell count and high fertility. They’re strong and healthy with a good bonus on beef value,” he says.
“Every dairy-born animal, male or female, is a beef animal in the end, unless they die of natural causes. People lose sight of that.
“They might not produce as much at the peak as a Friesian, but they will produce more on a herd basis because there will be more mature cows in the herd. I have lots of cows in their 8+ lactation, with a 365-day calving interval — my empty rate last year was 3pc.
“There were trials done on Montbéliarde crossbreeds, but they weren’t done for long enough. When you mention crossbreeding nowadays it’s assumed you’re talking about Jersey crosses. But there are other options out there.”
Given his proximity to the Atlantic coast, Richard has to contend with difficult grazing conditions, especially in the shoulders of the year.
“My cows are well fed. I only have a six-month summer here, so I feed up to a tonne of meal every year,” he says. “I’m aspiring to be a good grass manager, doing it within the confines of a short summer and long winter with better rainfall. I’m trying to dodge the weather bullet the whole time.
“The land is very mixed; it’s reclaimed peat mostly. I’m trying to manage for the sake of the land, more so than production. I wouldn’t be getting strict 21-day rotations. I prefer for the paddocks to get a little bit stronger rather than to graze extremely lush grass all the time because it’s severe on the land and the cow in the long term.
“I’m very interested in mixed-species swards and plan to try them. They may have a big part to play in maintaining soil health and being more environmentally sustainable while not hurting production.
“It won’t be easily done but incorporating more mixed-species swards will allow us to use fewer chemical fertilisers and promote better soil bacteria and micro-organisms.
“It’s all monoculture at the minute in terms of systems, cows, grass type etc.
“We must look after what’s going on under the grass in the soil. It’s not sustainable to keep pumping the ground with artificial fertilisers. We’re killing the natural interactions between the soil and the plant.
“Trials are being done on it in Ireland. If they’re done right, then they’ll show the benefit of them.
“I have strong views on the direction farming is going. The very positive spin about dairying is not held by all farmers.
“My biggest problem is that farming is industry-led, not farmer-led, so it’s the industry that is benefiting, not the farmer. It’s a race to the bottom.
“More milk might seem great to the farmer at first, especially after 30 years of quotas, but it’s not more money for the farmer, it’s just more work.
“We need less product going out and a higher value on it. We don’t even have to reduce numbers; it can do it by continuing what we’re doing but being more in touch with the soil.
“We have great lads coming out of college but they’re all trained into one system. There are so many different situations and land types in Ireland. There’s no one size fits all. Every farm is different.”
Richard is particularly keen to see the beef and dairy sectors work more closely together.
“Beef and dairy shouldn’t be so separated,” he says. “The dairy sector has become so one-dimensional that it has become detached from the beef sector and has ruined it.
“There’s so much cheap carcass that the dairy farmer doesn’t give a damn about, be it cull cows or bull calves etc.
“If there was less focus on numbers and more focus on diversification and adding value to our product there could be more profit from less milk and more integrated sustainability for general agriculture.
“You have Teagasc advisers working in the same office and one goes to a dairy farm, one goes to the beef farmer and another one goes to a sheep farmer etc. You have no joined-up thinking between them on the advisory end.
“There are three or four industries that are integral to each other but are being treated as separate entities in competition with each other, to their detriment.
“The ethical sustainability of dairying depends on a healthy beef sector. The beef sector has a vital part to play in Irish farming, but it is being let die because of the volume from the dairy sector.
“There are a lot of people down here on mixed land. A lot of my friends are suckler or sheep farmers with a job in a factory or somewhere else, and those lads are on the verge of getting out of farming — and then the next generation will be lost to the parish.
“Farming is not a big part of their income, but it keeps them tied to the parish and the local culture.”
‘Sustainable prices will help the environment’
Richard Austin is passionate about farming’s role in combating climate change — and he feels that it all hinges on farmgate prices.
“Agriculture can be a big positive player in climate change correction,” he says. “Farm organisations and advisory sectors must take the lead on this.
“We have the highest-quality products in the world but because prices haven’t improved in over 40 years, we are forced to increase production and chase quantity. This is detrimental to future incomes and the environment.
“If we can learn more about the soil under our feet and not just how to get ‘more kilos of milk per hectare’ but how the soil can function better then our farms can become better carbon sinks and not carbon sources.
“For this, we need a sustainable price for food as well as direction and incentive to improve the relationship of our production with the soil and the environment.”