'It is great life and a great industry' - Young farmer of the year on expanding from herd from 80 to 500 cows
Young FBD Farmer of the Year PJ O'Keeffe was up to his eyes refurbishing his milking parlour when we spoke last week and asked for a small adjournment of our conversation until he finished the work at the facility on the family's dairy farm outside Callan in Co Kilkenny.
Fresh from winning the FBD-sponsored competition organised by Macra na Feirme in partnership with the IFA the previous week, it was back to business for the 31-year- old.
"We are up to our eyes here at the moment. I want the new work (new toilet and kitchen facilities upstairs and extra wintering facilities for the cows) to be finished by Christmas and then we can face into whatever madness we have to face into in the New Year," he says.
PJ is a dairy farmer driving in the fifth gear and his ambitions for his own farm and for Irish farming generally, are large.
"I want to see the farming degrees and courses at our colleges the most popular when the students fill out their CAO forms next February and I want to see the Irish grass based dairy industry become the best in the world," he says by way of outlining his agri manifesto.
"Young people when they are thinking about a career should think about agriculture. It is great life and a great industry. They should give it a try," he adds.
PJ farms 198 hectares in Kilkenny and supplies milk to Callan Co-Op and onwards to Glanbia. He took over the family farm 12 years ago from his parents, John and Joan, and has been in expansion mode ever since.
After graduating from Kildalton Agricultural College and spending a year farming in New Zealand, he took over the family farm with 70-80 New Zealand crosses in 2005. But when EU milk quotas were abolished he went into expansion mode and upped his cow numbers to 200 in 2015, 320 in 2016 and 430 this year.
The next target is 500 and PJ says that the New Zealand crosses will be producing top rated milk fats from an enterprise that emphasises grass led milk production.
He is a dairy man through and through. "It's the only farm enterprise for Ireland. It is the future," he emphasises.
Three people, including a farm manager, work the farm on a full-time basis and there are two part-time employees.
PJ is particularly surefooted when it comes to farm safety which he says should be given top priority by all farmers. "Like any other job everyone has to go home safe so you can't run a farm that is falling down," he stresses.
He is happy with the 33c/l he is getting for his milk currently but stresses that a mechanism will have to be devised to put a basic 30c/l floor on the milk price so that dairy farmers can make a proper living from the enterprise and have sufficient funds to reinvest and expand their operations.
Off farm his interests are many and varied: "Cycling, running, Macra and the GAA though I took up dancing for a Strictly Ballroom competition run locally by the GAA.
"Myself and my partner Ashley Cooke (they have a two-year-old son Tristan) spent hours travelling to a dance instructor for the competition and were coming home at all hours. It was mad."
The hard work paid off, though, when they won the competition.
So I then ask him if he has any pebble in his shoe about the agri-scene at the moment and after a brief shuffle he replies: "Yes carbon emissions. The dairy industry is being blamed for the carbon emissions in Ireland when in fact we have the lowest emissions in Europe because of our grass based system and the fact that we are not farming in the middle of a highly industrialised region."
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