'Switching to dairy has provided great opportunities and a constant cashflow'

Eamon Sheehan's change from suckler farming has paid off - and his equestrian sideline is also bearing fruit

Eamon Sheehan pictured on his farm in Cuffesgrange Co.Kilkenny. Picture Dylan Vaughan
Eamon Sheehan pictured on his farm in Cuffesgrange Co.Kilkenny. Picture Dylan Vaughan

My Week Eamon Sheehan talks to Claire Fox

Eamon Sheehan firmly believes farmers aren't getting enough credit for the effort they put in to looking after the environment while contending with weather and market challenges.

As a participant in the IFA Smart Farming Programme, the Kilkenny dairy farmer, who lives on his 180-acre farm in Cuffesgrange with his wife Lois and children Rachel (6) and Julia (4), says the environment is one of his main priorities.

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"Farmers are doing their best to work within the routine of calendar farming, which isn't always straight-forward," he explains.

"Sometimes you could have a dry October-December where it would make sense to spread slurry but you can't, and then you sometimes have a deluge from January to April, when you're allowed to spread."

Eamon feels that under CAP, farmers should be rewarded with payments for the "miles and miles of hedgerows" that are present on their farms, rather than penalised by not including them in the farm maps.

Installing a variable speed drive in his milking parlour, his contractor using the trailing-shoe method of slurry spreading, and using protected urea are just some of the actions Eamon has taken in an effort to reduce his farm's carbon footprint.

He says better time management is also something he has learned since starting the Smart Farming programme.

"I was told by the advisor in the programme to plan 70pc of my day but to allow for 30pc of unplanned work as that is the nature of farming. A rep calling to your door or a phone call could occur throughout your working day, you have to allow this to happen," says Eamon.

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Time management is something that has become ever more important to Eamon since switching from a 120 suckler cow herd made up of Limousins, Charolais and Belgian Blues to dairy in 2013. He now milks 170 British Holsteins.

"In 2012 I applied for the new entrant quota and we started milking in 2013. We sold half of our suckler herd in 2013 and sold the rest the following year, while increasing our dairy herd by 20-30 cows each year. It has been a very busy time," he says.

"The first year was particularly hectic as we had our first child, Rachel. It was a manic time but overall switching to dairying has provided great opportunities for us and a constant cashflow."

While calving can be tough for farmers who enter in to dairying, Eamon says the dairy calving system is "a dream" compared to calving suckler cows.

"Dairy cows don't want to attack you as much as the sucklers. The change-over has in the long run been the best for us," he says.

At the time of conversion Eamon bought a "high-spec" second-hand, 20-unit milking parlour from Wales on eBay.

Eamon's parents, Eamon senior and Maureen, are still heavily involved - they are very much the "pillars of the farm". While Eamon's daughters have an interest in the cows, he says his other on-farm enterprise of breeding sport horses is their first love.

The Sheehans breed a selection of mares under the Cuffesgrange Sport Horses brand, until the age of three or four, then sell them. Recently Cuffesgrange Cavalidam won gold at the European Pony Championships in Poland.

"I worked for over two years in America with horses after doing my Green Cert in the early 2000s. We'd travel with the horses around the showjumping circuit and then bring them to Florida in the winter," says Eamon.

"It's great to see our mares do well; when we sell them, their owners bring them to a new level."

In 2017 Eamon completed a Nuffield Scholarship in Microbial Management, a topic he is passionate about. He believes being "proactive rather than reactive" is key to increasing anti-microbial resistance on farm as he says it's an issue that poses "as big a threat as cancer" to human and animal health.

Eamon was also the inaugural winner of the MSD Prevention for Profit Competition and was noted for his comprehensive disease management programme, which includes vaccination against IBR, leptospirosis, salmonella and calf scour.

"I've been doing selective dry-cow therapy for the last number of years which is great," he explains. "It's all about looking after cows from a young age and being preventative rather than having to fire-fight disease during an outbreak."

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