Michael McGuigan built his fortune in the pub trade in Scotland and in 2016 he spent almost €1m on a 60ac holding in Meath. ”The money I make in business is directed into this farm — that’s how much it means to me,” he explains.
Blackwater Farm in Co Meath is among one of the most picturesque holdings in the country. The yard and paddocks are faultless, with meticulous attention to detail apparent throughout.
This excellence is representative of the warm and ambitious character of the people who live and work here.
Farming alongside his wife Aisling and daughter Penny, Michael McGuigan keeps 34 sucklers on 60 acres of sandy gravel and clay soil. The land runs directly along the River Blackwater in Clonguiffin, marking the border between Meath and Kildare.
Michael’s route into farming may not be a conventional story, but it certainly is an interesting one.
“I’m originally from Louth and although I didn’t grow up on a farm, I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ and uncles’ farms in Cavan and Tyrone,” he says.
“This love for the land never left me throughout my life no matter where I went or what I did.”
After school, Michael studied agriculture in Ballyhaise, Greenmount and then in Edinburgh. It was during his time in Greenmount on college placement where Michael was first introduced to Scotland, where he worked on a 1,000ac farm.
“When I graduated from Edinburgh in 1998 at the age of 26, BSE was very bad in Ireland,” he says.
“During my time in college I ran club nights, hiring DJs and doormen for nightclubs, so I decided to stay in this line of work until things looked better at home.
“I spent two years post-graduation managing nightclubs and in 2000 I leased a pub. Then in 2003 I bought my first pub.”
By 2015, the McGuigans owned 10 pubs in Edinburgh under Michael’s company The Shilling Group, but the desire to return home never went away.
“I always knew if I wanted to farm I’d have to buy one for myself — and these other business ventures were my ticket to achieving this dream,” says Michael. “Farming was always something I had been working towards.
“We delisted from farm search sites in Scotland and turned our attention to the general Leinster area, with north Kildare and south Meath the target area.”
In 2016, the McGuigans sold seven pubs and bought Blackwater Farm for almost €1m. Formerly known as Blackwater Stud, the holding came with a 3,500 sq ft home.
“The money I make in business is directed into this farm — that’s how much it means to me,” Michael says. “How successful I am in future with business will dictate the future of my suckler enterprise here.”
In 2016, Michael kicked off his farming career with the purchase of 30 in-lamb ewes.
“After selling on the sheep I bought my first sucklers in October 2017,” he says. “Meath vet Sean Roche sold me 14 in-calf cows when he was converting his farm to go dairying.
“I always loved beef and suckler farming and knew that would be the road I’d go down.
“Dairying was on the cards also but the demands of my other businesses wouldn’t allow for it. You can’t afford to take your eye of the ball, and sucklers gives me the freedom to do this.
To cater for sucklers on the farm, Michael had to convert the existing sheds which were originally purposed for horse breeding.
“I built up the walls of the horse walker, added a feed barrier and straw-bedded the floor for the cows during their first winter on the farm,” he says.
“ In 2018 I dug a tank into the shed and installed padded slats. I have also divided the shed up into calving blocks and a creep area at the back for calves to run into.
“In total, shed conversion cost me €43,000.”
The cows are mainly continental cross-breds, with one pedigree Highland.
Calving is compact and takes place during October and November. Calves are weaned at 10 months, and the farm uses 100pc AI.
Last year, Michael grew 9.5ac of forage rape, so he could out-winter bullocks and heifers. The farm had been restricted following a positive TB test on a bought-in cow, with Michael unable to sell and lacking the housing to accommodate the extra stock.
“Through reseeds and greater focus on soil health and grass measuring I’ve been able to dramatically improve the amount of grass produced on the farm over the past couple of years,” he says.
“Some fields are producing 14t DM/ha and the farm average is 10.7t DM/ha.
“In 2021, I was able to grow 35pc more grass with a 10pc reduction in nitrogen compared to previous years.
“Grass measurement has been key. I completed 43 grass walks in 2021 and this year I’m moving from measuring every seven days to five days. It’s incredible the difference reducing the interval by two days can make.
“Pasturebase has been an excellent tool, allowing me to cater to every field’s needs and record all fertiliser and slurry application.
“With the levels of grass I’m growing, I sometimes have to restrict the cows, not to let them get over-heavy.”
Michael runs a leader-follower system, allowing the calves to constantly get the best pick of the sward and move along every couple of days. This also helps him to restrict the grass intake of his cows.
Blackwater Farm has recently been accepted in the Teagasc Signpost Programme, having already been involved in the Future Beef programme.
“The environment is at the forefront of everything we do today. Agriculture is getting an unfair rap at the moment, but one thing I know for certain is that farmers are early adapters of new technology when compared to other sectors and we will be able to meet our targets,” Michael says.
“I had my first meeting with Teagasc as part of the Signpost Programme in January.
“Things we have done so far include: grass measuring every five days, soil sampling, establishing a good dose use programme, dung sampling, and as ever a heavy focus on a 365-day calving interval.
“Soil, grass and calving interval are the three factors I spend the most of my time and effort on — the three factors which will have the biggest environmental and financial impact on any suckler farm.
“Protected urea will be spread on the farm this year. At €1,030/t it is very expensive but every farm should be considering it.
“Clover also has massive impact and is in all my reseeds. Water quality is also something we are strongly focusing on as part of the programme, with the River Blackwater running through the farm.”
Michael’s plan for the future is to increase cow numbers on the home grazing platform and then buy or rent ground for silage.
He is also considering building a new weanling shed to finish some of his own cattle or sell them on as older stores.
Once you’re able to visualise your goal it gives you great strength to then go on and achieve it
After almost two decades fully immersed in business Michael McGuigan now spends the majority of his time at home on the farm.
He is a shareholder in the Derry-based e-cigarette manufacturer Superior E-Liquid and has invested in rental properties with houses in Mayo, Belfast and Edinburgh.
“If the pandemic showed us anything it’s the importance of diversifying the business,” he says. “If I’d still had all 10 pubs during 2020 I would have been badly caught.
“Diversifying the portfolio is so important, and this lesson applies the same to agriculture.
“I have set the businesses up in a way that allows them to run autonomously from me. I only spend two hours per week focused on the pubs in Scotland.
“Staff aren’t your biggest asset in any business, it’s your system. You can have all the good people working for you but without the right system you won’t get the best from them.
“You need to have the right people on the bus and more importantly have everyone in a seat that suits them to keep the show on the road.
“Once you’re able to visualise your goal it gives you great strength to then go on and achieve it.
“As farmers, we don’t treat the farm as a pure business for many reasons. There’s no fat on the margins so we really need to be strategic.
“You need to know your figures inside out and back to front in the business world.
“We’re not good enough at this in farming and it’s something for most to improve on.
“Beef farmers in particular need to be more business-like. Unless you take the time to sit down and establish a plan, it’s hard to make a change. A goal without a plan is a pipe-dream.
“Time spent working on the business and not in it is time well spent. We all need to step back and reassess the situation regularly.
“Establishing these good habits will make a big difference.”