A car accident left this farmer paralysed at the age of 20, but hasn't let that stop him carrying on the family tradition
A car accident left Kevin Downing paralysed at the age of 20, but hasn't let that stop him carrying on the family tradition of award-winning dairy excellence
Producing quality milk has become a tradition on the Downings’ dairy farm in Whitechurch, Co Cork but this tradition hasn’t happened without overcoming adversity.
In 1990, at the age of 20 and while in the middle of his farm apprenticeship course, Kevin’s life — and his role on the farm — changed forever when he was in a car accident that left him paralysed.
Kevin had already completed an agricultural course in the now closed Rockwell Agricultural College in Co Tipperary, and he says it had been his dream to be a full-time farmer before the accident.
“I would’ve loved to have been able to farm full-time. It was a huge blow and very difficult to come to terms with, but my family were a huge support to me at the time,” says Kevin.
Aware that he wouldn’t be able to do the physical work that’s necessary to work on the farm full-time, Kevin went back to the books and completed a BA in economics and computer science in UCC.
He has been working with the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) in Bandon since 2002 and looks after the administration side of the farm, while Tom Carr, his trusted farm manager, does the day-to-day farm management.
“I still help out on the farm and am very much involved in the paperwork and management side of things,” Kevin adds. “I’d always be watching out for the cows calving on the camera as well — technology really is a great thing.
“Tom has been with us for 35 years and knows every aspect of the farm. It’s really reassuring for us, and we’ve been lucky to get another man working for us, too.
“We’ve been lucky that finding labour hasn’t been too difficult for us but I know that’s not the case for every farmer and I know lots who are struggling to find labour.”
Kevin, his wife Bernie and Tom have worked hard to continue the tradition of consistently producing high-quality milk and undertaking excellent grassland management that his late father Michael instilled on the farm.
In 1999, Michael won the prestigious Protein 350 award having achieved a successful protein target of 3.5pc. Eleven years later, the farm also took home the overall award at the Dairygold Milk Quality Awards.
Recently history repeated itself when Kevin was presented with the overall accolade at the Dairygold Milk Quality Awards.
“We weren’t expecting the win, especially when we had already won the award a few years ago, but I suppose when you’re in, there’s always a chance,” says Kevin.
“It’s also a sentimental achievement for us. My father had a very strong ethos for quality and was an absolute perfectionist. I’m proud that we have been able to continue that tradition and to maintain those same high standards in every aspect of our on-farm operations.”
These high standards include cows producing more than 560kg of milk solids at 4.3pc fat, more than 3.6pc protein and a low average somatic cell count.
The Downings currently milk 150 Holstein Friesians but this wasn’t always the cases.
“We increased by 20 cows in the last four or five years. We’re limited in the expansion we can do due to cubicle space and land space but we’re leasing 20 hectares nearby and have 65 hectares of land,” says Kevin.
“It was always a natural expansion for us. We finished cattle in the past but now we sell them as calves so we use that land for dairy purposes instead.”
Kevin added that the abolition of quotas aided the farm’s expansion; he also puts money in case there are harder times ahead. “Expansion was a natural progression for us when the quotas left and was positive for us overall,” he says.
“Volatility is something that’s there and you have to be aware of it and put money away for a rainy day. It’s part and parcel of the non-quota era we live in.”
Kevin feels his job with the ICBF has improved the performance of his farm greatly.
“Breeding and the EBI play a big part in the success of our farm. It’s something that we put a lot of time into and I’m constantly trying to convey this message to farmers in my daily work because breeding helps them to become more financially sustainable.”
'Being as good as the Downings doesn't happen overnight'
PRODUCING exceptional milk isn't something that can happen overnight. That's the verdict from Dairygold advisor Maeve O'Connor, who has been working with the Downing farm for 10 years.
Maeve told the Farming Independent that the farm's breeding system has been key to their success and that this is something that Kevin's late father Michael instilled in the farm from early on.
"Many farmers aspire to be like the Downings and to be as good as them but it isn't something that can happen overnight," she said.
"They achieved 560kg milk solids last year whereas most farmers are aspiring to achieve 480-500kg milk solids. They use the top AI sires and gene Ireland bulls and that's one of the reasons they are doing so well.
"Going back to Kevin's father's time, there was always that tradition of milk quality.
"The farm is an excellent example of how a good management system helps boost quality.
"They have excellent calving, breeding and fertility. It's not all about the milking; it's how you care for the cow, too."
According to Maeve, the working relationship between Kevin and farm manager Tom Carr has been key to the overall success of the farm.
"Tom plays a very active role on the farm and knows the whole system inside out. Having a man like that is key," she said.
"Tom and Kevin get on like a house on fire and teach other things.
"Tom has been there for over 30 years and has trained many students in agricultural colleges and has a vast history of achievement."
Maeve noted that the Downing family are a reflection of the hard-working and innovative Dairygold suppliers all over Munster.
"All our suppliers have a proud history of high standards and are conscious that once the milk leaves their farm, it is turned into ingredients or a product that is sold on the shelf," she said.
"€4.3m in bonuses were paid out in 2017 and this is increasing each year. Farmers are dedicated and take pride in their products."
For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App