‘We were doing a lot right with beef but it still wasn’t working’
Why veteran IFA official James Murphy is switching to milk after a lifetime in beef and mixed farming
When James Murphy's son Tom said he wanted to come home and farm, the IFA stalwart was thrilled.
"I was delighted," he says. "I was quite busy with IFA at the time and it was becoming harder and harder to source casual labour, and myself and Chrissy are not getting any younger."
Farming 110ha his father bought in the 1950s, James and his wife Chrissy had raised their six children on the drystock farm outside Inistoge, Kilkenny.
But about a year after Tom returned, the family realised that the figures were just not adding up; the farm was not making enough to give two incomes.
It had been in drystock, with the level of suckling, sheep and tillage enterprises varying over the years depending on the returns.
"We have always ebbed and flowed - when tillage was most profitable, 50-60pc of the farm was in corn, and when it became less and less profitable, we drifted more towards suckling; there was a time that was returning quite well and you could make a living out it," says James.
"And we always had a flock of ewes - we peaked with 450 - mainly because I like working with sheep."
But now the Murphys are exiting beef production, but it hasn't been an easy decision.
"We put all six through college here, on that system," says James. "We had a fairly decent farm payment, but not extravagant and it is being hard hit with convergence.
"When we looked at it, we realised we're lucky the last ones were going through college; we were struggling.
"It was always a challenge, but we were starting to realise that if we were back again now with six to go through college, we could not offer them that opportunity. That challenged our thinking.
"This mixed system, when you grow up with it, it's hard to come around to the idea of monoculture, with just one enterprise on the farm. Maybe that's why I'm determined I'm going to hold onto some sheep."
But the farm's profit monitor showed they were struggling.
"We were farming in a pretty good way, we were in discussion groups, a good paddock system in place," says James. "We were doing a lot right and it still wasn't working.
"Tom had been saying we had to look at something else. I was saying 'what else?' and he was saying that all his friends in dairying say they have a margin, an income, a life."
But no one on the Murphy farm had ever milked cows, and James had one message for his son.
"If you're serious about dairying you may go milk cows for a while."
After a season in Cumbria, on a grass-based farm, Tom came home full of enthusiasm for dairying, although James admits he was still resistant to the idea.
"There is no point in saying anything else," he says. "Drystock is a way of life and system of farming that I had gotten from my dad, and skill-sets from him that I valued. But it came down to the economics, and the more facts and figures we got, it was chalk and cheese."
James is keeping his pedigree Charollais flock, with 270 ewes scanned this year.
"I get a lot of fun out of that, I like breeding stock and really enjoyed breeding good-quality stock, doing the research around bulls and AI and sourcing the right lineage. I'm not going to walk away from that," he explains.
But the sucklers are being phased out.
"There is a part of me that is still holding on to them to a degree," he says. "But there is no point in having two sets of bovines on the farm, one of which is struggling to generate an income."
At the end of this week, the Murphys will be milking 94 cows, some British Friesian, the majority cross-bred.
Building a dairy needed financing.
"AIB backed the family. There was no surplus cash here. We never got road money, or pipeline money or sold sites," James says.
"This is financed by going to the bank, who came out and sat down in the kitchen and talked to us and said they have confidence in dairying."
The family has installed a 14-unit Dairymaster parlour that has room for expansion out to 30. There is a one million-gallon lagoon built, and the outdoor slatted area can be converted to take a roof if needed at a later stage.
According to James, the set-up allows Tom 10 years to get the debt under control and leave him still young enough to "drive on".
"Tom has the benefit of youth and is fearless. He's confident to be able to handle whatever comes," he says.
"This is Tom's choice. We never said to him to come home, we're going dairying and you'll run it. Tom is the one who said he wanted to come home after college and didn't want to go travelling. This is his choice, but we're with him all the way.
"Tom had a real interest in the sucklers, did an AI course, was part of a discussion group, but when he did his figures he kept making the point there really isn't two incomes here.
"I believe that if there was a good income to be generated from sucklers, Tom would stay at it."
Facing up to the hard facts on drystock
The drystock and tillage sectors have to make economic sense for young people coming out of agricultural college, warns James Murphy.
"They are well educated and they know what the workplace can return to them; and rightly, they are not tolerant of the idea of coming home to a farm that can't generate a decent income for them," the Kilkenny man says.
The IFA man feels that it is imperative that solutions are found for the Irish beef sector.
"That has to start with a little bit of honesty. What is the government's plan for Ireland's suckler herd?" he asks.
"There is no money out of suckling at 370-380c/kg, you need to get nicely over 400c/kg - can we do that? Is that likely at a time when we hear rumours coming from Brussels of global price convergence?"
The IFA's beef review, which James says is long overdue, will at least provide farmers with facts, even if they don't like them.
"Farmers might like us to do more, but they're not fools. Right now it's not easy to find solutions on the beef price," he says.
James says the industry must look at real alternatives for drystock farmers who maybe might not like the story that comes out of the review.
Switching to dairy, he says, is not an option for the vast majority of farmers, particularly those with small fragmented holdings and difficult land to work. Paying farmers to exit suckling is not something he's a fan of, but he knows suckler farmers are very disillusioned and are saying "if they don't want my cows, pay me to get out".
He points out that other countries have offered alternatives to farmers - particularly the drystock sector - by investing in schemes and incentives that encourage them to get involved in farm-scale renewable energy production.
This would be a better strategy n Ireland, James says, than paying farmers to exit - and it would help the country hit climate change targets.
"From 2020 on we may well end up having to pay €500-600m a year in fines because we have failed to reach targets," he says.
"Would it not have made a lot more sense to spend even a fraction of that on schemes that would encourage farmers, in general, to take up side enterprises that would automatically lead to a scaling back of drystock farms?" he asks.
"That level of outside-the-box thinking is needed… but so far, our Government has looked at big-scale, multinational operations - giant wind farms which are not popular with the people of Ireland.
"Why not support farmers to play their role, encourage and facilitate them to become 'prosumers' not just consumers on fossil fuel - and produce renewable electricity for their own house and farm use and trickle extra back into the grid?"
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