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Farming in the blood - Farmer of the Year award winner Fiachra Liston is carrying on a family tradition of progressive farming

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Spic and span: Fiachra Liston in the 32-unit milking parlour. Photo: Don Moloney

Spic and span: Fiachra Liston in the 32-unit milking parlour. Photo: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

Farm safety it a top priority on the farm as evidenced by their spotless yard. Photo: Don Moloney

Farm safety it a top priority on the farm as evidenced by their spotless yard. Photo: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

The Liston's high tech drafting facilities. Photo: Don Moloney

The Liston's high tech drafting facilities. Photo: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

Family farming: Fiachra Liston pictured on the farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick with his wife Mary; children Matthew, Caitlin, Aidan and Edward, and his parents Aidan and Mary. Pic: Don Moloney

Family farming: Fiachra Liston pictured on the farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick with his wife Mary; children Matthew, Caitlin, Aidan and Edward, and his parents Aidan and Mary. Pic: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

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Spic and span: Fiachra Liston in the 32-unit milking parlour. Photo: Don Moloney

Progressive farming runs deep in Fiachra Liston's veins .

His grandfather, the late Ned Liston, was a pioneer of good farming and a keen co-op man who was a founder member and chairman of the GVM Marts Group, the second largest livestock marketing group in the country.

His son, Aidan, has in turn handed down the same deep interest in the land around Ballyculleen, near Croom to the next generation.

Continuing the family tradition came natural to Fiachra, third in Aidan and Mary Liston's family of seven, and he is now in partnership with his father on their dairy and livestock farm.

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Farm safety it a top priority on the farm as evidenced by their spotless yard. Photo: Don Moloney

Farm safety it a top priority on the farm as evidenced by their spotless yard. Photo: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

Farm safety it a top priority on the farm as evidenced by their spotless yard. Photo: Don Moloney

Fiachra and his wife, Mary have a family of four aged from three to eight. They live on the farm where the family home has been renovated to also accommodate his parents, Aidan and Mary.

The 250 acre home farm has been expanded with the addition of an adjoining 130 acres of leased land .

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The Liston's high tech drafting facilities. Photo: Don Moloney

The Liston's high tech drafting facilities. Photo: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

The Liston's high tech drafting facilities. Photo: Don Moloney

This has seen the Liston dairy herd increase from 120 cows to 320 high EBI cows, with replacements also being reared on the farm.

Fiachra was named as the 2019 Zurich-Farming Independent Farm Safety Farmer of the Year and was also a shortlisted finalist in the dairy category.

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Family farming: Fiachra Liston pictured on the farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick with his wife Mary; children Matthew, Caitlin, Aidan and Edward, and his parents Aidan and Mary. Pic: Don Moloney

Family farming: Fiachra Liston pictured on the farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick with his wife Mary; children Matthew, Caitlin, Aidan and Edward, and his parents Aidan and Mary. Pic: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

Family farming: Fiachra Liston pictured on the farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick with his wife Mary; children Matthew, Caitlin, Aidan and Edward, and his parents Aidan and Mary. Pic: Don Moloney

"I never showed interest in much other than farming," he says. "From an early age I was always driving tractors and interested in machinery on the farm. Farming just came naturally to me.".

"After the Leaving Cert, I went to college in the UK where I did agricultural science and dairy herd management in Cheshire.

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20/02/2020
Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick.
Pic: Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

"I just thought that the Green Cert course was very basic and getting out of Ireland I would see more of the world and the way that things are done," he says.

Another learning experience was taking on the role of vice-president of the students union.

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20/02/2020
Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick.
Pic: Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

From Cheshire it was on to United States in 2002 for a stint working on the harvest in Texas before moving to a 5,000 cow dairy farm at Arizona where he was assigned to a different job every day of the week.

"I was doing the calf feeding one day, in the farm hospital doing veterinary another day, in the calving area in the next - it was a different job each day on a rotational basis, including the boring job of pushing in silage to the 5,000 cows all day," he recalls.

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20/02/2020
Fiachra Liston pictured on his farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick.
Pic: Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston pictured on his farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston pictured on his farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

"There were 400 cows in each group with a 50-unit herringbone parlour operating round the clock, and a 20-unit back up parlour in the hospital area. With calving all year round, the second parlour was used for freshly calved and sick cows."

He came home in 2003 and the following year started to build up the herd after going in to partnership with his father.

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20/02/2020
Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick.
Pic: Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

Expansion at that time had to be balanced with milk quota restrictions. Some quota was obtained from his uncle, Sean, when he ceased dairy farming and stock for expansion were reared on the farm.

Leased land was added to the farm in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015 and within the end of the first year post-quota the herd was at 280 cows. After a further lease in 2019, the herd has expanded to the current 320 cows.

"All the leased land is closer than the furthest away paddock on my own farm and all we had to do was break a gateway in the ditch, put in roadways and fence and water it. It is all in one block now and very workable because it joined up some of our own land as well," says Fiachra.

The herd is averaging 6,000L at 3.78pc protein and 4.70pc fat. Expansion is being built around replacing and increasing with cows of higher EBI than the herd average as a priority. Any progeny at lower level are diverted to beef.

Half of the herd is mated each year to Holstein sires, with Hereford and Angus used on the balance for ease of calving - the calves are sold aged three to four weeks. Five Gene Ireland bulls are used with those giving difficult calvings being filtered out after each season.

Grazing

"They are all high EBI, geonomically tested young bulls with the results being fed back into the system which is what Gene Ireland is all about," says Fiachra.

There is a high concentration on maximum use of grass as a diet through a grazing season from early February to late November. The target is about two months winter and 10 grazings per paddock.

Concentrates topped 1.3 tonne/cow in 2018 because of the long dry summer weather, dropping back to 850kg in 2019 and the target is to minimise concentrates with maximum use of pasture.

The cows were out the beginning of February this year, but had to be brought back in again after the heavy rainfall which has made managing grass intake over the past month very difficult.

"That is the nature of things and the way that weather controls farming, there is no two years the same, so you have to work with it," says Fiachra.


Focus on safety also paying dividends with farm efficiency

"It is nice to be able to walk around a farmyard or farm in your slippers so that children or visitors can walk around safely without having to warn them about dangers that should not be there" says Fiachra Liston .

And it's that approach which won him the 'Safety Farmer' award in the 2019 Farmer of the Year awards.

Tidiness, cleanliness and safety is evident throughout the Liston farm and farmyard. And in turn this helps drive farm efficiency.

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20/02/2020
Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick.
Pic: Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

Don Moloney

20/02/2020 Fiachra Liston's farm at Banogue, Croom, Co Limerick. Pic: Don Moloney

"My father was always a man that wanted the place to be tidy and to have machinery properly serviced to avoid breaks at a busy time."

Qualified personnel are contracted to service the equipment, the cost of which is recouped over time by having it operating properly when needed.

It has also contributed to a low turnover on machinery. One of the tractors on the farm is an 1989 model and another dates from 1994 with the original stickers still evident.

Silage harvesting, slurry spreading, reseeding of pasture, hedge cutting and general digger work is all contracted out.

Low emission slurry spreading has been used for a number of years and this is more important now than ever with the farm operating under a nitrates derogation.

Hedge trimming has switched from once a year to once every three years to meet the nitrates' derogation requirement on biodiversity.

"It is an added cost because it takes longer only cutting every third year . Likewise, the low emission slurry spreading costs more, and we don't directly see return for that in our pockets," says Fiachra.

Fencing of waterways to meet the derogation requirements has also added to cost and some loss of land usage. Water is piped throughout the farm and each drinking trough is on a concrete base which helps to avoid poaching.

Treading the boards with local drama group is 'a real buzz'

Fiachra Liston is a busy man, but he also a very active social life outside the farm through his membership of IFA, ICMSA, Macra, a local drama group and a vintage machinery club.

He is former county chairman of Limerick Macra executive, and served as chairman of Kilmallock Macra branch - the only surviving founder branch of the organisation dating back to 1944.

His mother, Mary, has brought her years of experience on stage in Macra during the 1970s and '80s to good effect as producer with Banogue Drama Group of which Fiachra is a leading member.

They have staged many full length plays, including John B Keane's evergreens Moll, Many Young Men of Twenty, and Big Maggie. Fiachra says he gets "a real buzz" out of playing to a good crowd.

He's also a member of the Greybridge Classic Club which is made up of farmers, contractors, retired people, and vintage machinery enthusiasts who combine to raise funds for charity.

To date they have raised and donated in excess of €250,000.

The club's Christmas lights tractor run by 120 tractors around a 50km circuit through Bruree, Athlacca, Bruff and Croom taking in a lot of small villages has been one of their most spectacular undertakings.

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