'We try to do the simple things well' - Beef Farmer of the Year on finishing cattle in Kilkenny

Beef and Safety Farmer of the Year John Phelan talks to Ann Fitzgerald about how there are always challenges on his Kilkenny farm - but there are always opportunities too

John Phelan on his farm at Blanchville House in Kilkenny. Picture: Alf Harvey.
John Phelan on his farm at Blanchville House in Kilkenny. Picture: Alf Harvey.
The green silage matts that are replacing the tyres on John Phelan's farm are called "Maxseal Mats" from Monaghan. Photo: Alf Harvey
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I am an hour into my walk around the farm at Blanchville House, a few miles from Kilkenny city, when my host John Phelan says something that stops me in my tracks: "You have to make the most of your opportunities," he says.

It sounds obvious - but how many of us really do so.

"Everyone has opportunities, we just need to recognise them and work with them," said 35-year-old John, who won the Beef and Safety categories at the Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year awards.

In the Phelans' case, three years ago they decided that there was an opportunity for them to lift output from their beef enterprise, finishing Continental heifers, through increased scale and efficiency.

The green silage matts that are replacing the tyres on John Phelan's farm are called
The green silage matts that are replacing the tyres on John Phelan's farm are called "Maxseal Mats" from Monaghan. Photo: Alf Harvey

They had 15ha under grassland at home but increased this to 25ha by taking ground out of their tillage enterprise. Over half their grassland (35ha) is 30km away in Freshford, on his mother Monica's home farm. They also built another slatted shed (covering all the slats with Easyfix rubber mats).

This has allowed them to increase their stocking rate to 3LU per ha and increase heifer numbers from 160 head up to 300, resulting in a near doubling of gross margin, to €1,500/ha.

The tillage enterprise is on the other side of the busy Kilkenny-to-Rosslare railway line. All the grain and straw produced on the farm is fed to the stock.

But the key to their system is grass utilisation.

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So there is a focus on early spring turnout. They operate a rotational grazing system over 45 paddocks. They soil sample every year and also reseed approximately 10pc a year.

Applying the motto, you can't utilise what you don't measure, they walk the entire farm at least once a week during the grazing season.

They also aim to produce high quality silage, 76-78 DMD, as it makes up the bulk of their winter feed. "Key to this is being able to cut the silage when we want to," says John.

So they have teamed up with a neighbour in terms of sharing machinery, for silage, as well as tillage, which also helps them to keep costs down on these fronts.

Good farm infrastructure is critical, so there is a central farm roadway, fenced paddocks and well-placed water troughs.

"We can learn a lot from dairy farmers," says John. "They can see performance every day in the tank, beef farmers have to rely on weighing stock," which is done 3-4 times in their time on the farm.

A lot of farmers locally have gone dairying, or are servicing it, by raising replacements, etc.

The threat of dairying

John acknowledges that it's not a popular thing to say but he believes a big threat to traditional beef finishing is dairying. "We need to have the better stock with the better growth rates to make our system work."

Their heifers are Charolais or Limousin and the aim is to source them as locally as possible, at 14-16 months. However, a lot of them now come from the west and, even from there, they are becoming harder to get.

John is not convinced that the new Dairy Beef index will make inroads on this front.

John refuses to be lured by dairying. His father and uncle milked cows in the 1980s (the structure of a 20-unit herringbone parlour is still there) until illness necessitated a change of system.

"Lifestyle is important to me, it should be important to every farmer," says John, who tries to ensure that both himself and his brother Tadhg get one day a week away from the farm.

"If I think I can make a good living from what I'm doing, why should I change? I don't want to be weighed down by debt. I want to have time for my family and do the things I enjoy." (He plays a lot of hurling and rugby.)

John always intended to farm but he was also interested in trying something different.

After completing his degree in Ag Science at Waterford Institute of Technology, John was heading to do a masters until he was accepted into Dawn Meats' trainee graduate programme. He spent 18 months in Waterford and a further four-and-a-half years in Wales.

This helped him to build up contacts in the beef business and also gave him an insight into the other end of the supply chain. This explains why the Phelans finish heifers.

"They are more saleable, due to their lighter carcase weights and because they can be sold year round," he says. "There is no point in supplying something that your customer doesn't want. We also aim to sell into the market when supplies are relatively tight."

The heifers are sold to Dawn, in batches, all under 30 months, average weight of 375-380kg, grading R+, with a 55pc kill out.


"We don't do anything exceptional," says John, "rather we try to do the simple things well."

Technology plays an increasingly important role. So they use Keenan Intouch for their diets, the Herd Watch app to aid with weight records, veterinary treatments etc, and PastureBase for grass measuring.

John also believes strongly in the importance of farmers sharing knowledge and is a member (the youngest, probably) of the local KT beef finisher group.

He also pays tribute to his Teagasc adviser, Terry Carroll, who nominated him for the FOTY competition.

John acknowledges that the big challenge coming down the road for the beef sector is the environment. However, rather than getting bogged down by its politics, the Phelans are focusing on reducing their own carbon footprint.

They maximise the use of home-grown feed and organic fertilisers, while any external feed and fertilisers required are sourced as locally as possible.

They are looking at the potential for rainwater harvesting in the farmyard, while, in a more general sense, they have installed solar panels on the house, which has allowed the removal of four immersion heaters.

"We keep trying to do something new or a little bit better," says John. "There are always challenges… but there are also always opportunities."

Phelan family focus on farm safety passed down through generations

"We have always been used to having lots of people around the place, so that probably makes us a little more conscious of farm safety," says John Phelan, who won the Safety category at the Farmer of the Year awards.

There were always people around because John's mother, Monica, whom he describes as "a guiding light in my life", has long run a successful guesthouse business in their Blanchville House (www.blanchville.ie) home.

An idea of the proximity of the two businesses is that John can remember cattle and hens being kept in two old coachhouses (they were part of the farmyard) which, 15 years ago, were converted into luxury self-catering accommodation.

Farm safety is of paramount importance for John Phelan. Photo: Alf Harvey

John's dad Tim grew up on the adjoining farm and bought Blanchville and 30ha some 50 years ago. Since then, as well as running the farm, he has led the way in restoring and maintaining the integrity of the old property, which includes several stretches of high old stone walls.

While labour is now a major issue on many farms, John points out that theirs is very much a team effort, as he works alongside his brother Tadhg and dad Tim. Other siblings, Niamh, Brian and twin brother Conor have all helped out on the farm along the way.

"We are very much a small cog in a big wheel and are trying to do our best to generate an income to support our family and hopefully leave the land in better condition for the next generation," says John.

A sense of pride of place is palpable from the moment I swung into the tree-lined farm entrance.

The gates into the farm and into the farmyard are electronic, which John explains is to restrict access - for safety reasons, as well as security.

The farmyard is very smart and neat - in a wholesome, working, kind of way - and it is not hard to see that they operate to the motto of, 'everything in its place and a place for everything'.

Given the large number of stock being handled, John points to the importance of good handling facilities, designed for easy and safe movement of man and animals.

So, for example, all sheeted doors are sliding and there is a head scoop on the crush. Also the water troughs in their sheds have been adapted so they can be flipped over to empty without entering the pen.

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