'I no longer have neighbours with cattle' - one of Dublin's last dairy farmers on urban pressures

My Week: Padraig Ó Scanaill talks to Siobhán English

In for the long haul: Dairy farmer Padraig Ó Scanaill pictured on his farm in Swords, Co Dublin. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
In for the long haul: Dairy farmer Padraig Ó Scanaill pictured on his farm in Swords, Co Dublin. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

Siobhán English

The Mexicans built a wall and so will Padraig Ó Scanaill, if that is what it takes to secure one of the last remaining dairy farms in North Co Dublin.

"There are only about 15 of us left here now. The rest have either been sold off for re-development or the farmers have switched to something else," he says of the ever-dwindling number of dairy farms left on the outskirts of Dublin city.

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"And just recently we saw the Guinness farm at Knockmaroon sell off their dairy herd," he adds.

Padraig, too, has been approached to sell on numerous occasions, but this, he says, is his life and he has no intention of packing up anytime soon. "I no longer have neighbours with cattle. That's how close Swords has come to me, but I won't be getting out in the near future.

"Farming is a wonderful life. I love what I do. I've been doing it for 37 years," says the man who has been the face of 'Premier Dairies' for the past 10 years.

Padraig recalls a time when his great-grandmother had a milk round in Swords. That was in the 1940s and milk was delivered by horse and cart.

"The farm was almost on the main street back then. My grandmother took it over in the 1970s. She gave me a heifer calf while I was still at school. I used to milk her before school every morning - it was thanks to her that I got a love for it."

That farm was sold for re-development, but in 1970 Padraig's father, Tadhg, who worked as a vet, bought another plot a mile-and-a-half outside the town. It was run-down and had no facilities, but by 1982 it was up and running as a small dairy unit.

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Padraig had just qualified in Agricultural Science in UCD and returned home. He was the second eldest of 11 children, two of whom - Peader and Conor - are well-known vets in the Swords/Ashbourne area.

"I remember selling my first gallon of milk to Premier Dairies on March 1, 1982," Padraig recalls. "The quotas had just come in and I was only milking 12 cows, two at a time."

Some 37 years later and Padraig currently runs a herd of 84 Holstein Friesian cows from his farm at Rathbeale, on the west side of Swords. He also keeps a small beef herd.

Spring calving

For the past number of years he has done autumn calving, but Padraig says he is considering moving to spring calving for a number of reasons. "It's less complex. Labour is an issue so by moving, hopefully, it will make things easier," he says.

Padraig admits it can be difficult to get casual labour. "I had surgery on my shoulder last summer so I was out of action for several weeks but my wife Geraldine, son Muiris and daughter Muireann all helped out."

Much has changed since Padraig started out in 1982, but cow health, he says, is always paramount. He is one of only a handful to keep his cows on straw all winter, but he says it always pays off in the end. "I have been bedding them on straw since the days when straw was given away by the local farmers. Yes, we have the added expense now, but we have the sheds and the set-up for it. As a result, we have dung instead of slurry and it is better for the soil."

Padraig had come through droughts before, but the one experienced in 2018 was one of the most stressful. "We had plenty of silage starting out but used up all our reserves and had to buy in maize to get us through," he says.

With the new silage season now in full swing, the contractors have been busy at the farm preparing for next winter.

Padraig agrees that dairying is hard work, but says it's the 'only show in town' when it comes to farming.

"Milk prices fluctuate, but overheads have gone up and that is difficult. In saying that, there is no other enterprise that can give you the same return."

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