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Saturday 20 January 2018

Video: From zero to the country's top farmer in seven years

'The new milking parlour has transformed our lives'

Peter and Paula Hynes on the family farm in Aherla, Co Cork. Photo: Claire Keogh
Peter and Paula Hynes on the family farm in Aherla, Co Cork. Photo: Claire Keogh
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

It was only "a notion" that resulted in Peter Hynes entering the Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year awards - and it wasn't even his own notion.

"I was just flicking through the Farming Indo when I saw the ad and I knew he'd never enter it himself, and I really feel he deserved some recognition," recalled Paula Hynes. She was Peter's childhood sweetheart, and is now mother to his three girls and an important partner in the growing dairy business.

But "never in a million years" did the couple expect to scoop the top prize at the glitzy awards night in Dublin.

"We were more excited about the prospect of our first ever black-tie event and a night up in Dublin," said Peter.

But the 42-year-old has defied the odds since he first made the decision seven short years ago to turn his hand to farming.

Neither of the Hynes couple were born into farms, so there was never any expectation that they would chose farming as a career.

But when his stepfather Geofrey Good wanted to step back, Peter and Paula's love of animals made them natural candidates to take up the reins. In the intervening years the pair have built up one of the top-performing herds in the country.

The 105ha farm just outside the small village of Aherla, 20km west of Cork city, is full of mature trees and charming stone buildings.

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But much of the land needed to be reclaimed and there was also huge scope to lift the annual herd average from 240kg milk solids.

Education

Paula checking on the cows. Photo: Claire Keogh
Paula checking on the cows. Photo: Claire Keogh

Against the advice of many, Peter enrolled himself in the Level 6 dairy course in Clonakilty Agricultural College - a daunting prospect given that he would be nearly twice the age of many of his classmates.

"I already had a Green Cert but I was determined to really learn about what was possible," said Hynes, who up to that point had been working for Cement Roadstone in a role that required him to manage a team of five.

"That has also really stood to me in that I'm comfortable employing people and managing them," he said.

Unsurprisingly, Hynes excelled in Clonakilty where he won student of the year, but he is already giving as much back to the college as he ever got from it. "I give the €750 that I get from the Knowledge Transfer programme to the college and get a local company to match it with funding for an annual student award - it's just so important to give young people a start in this industry, to keep young blood coming in," he said in a theme that the couple hark back to regularly.

Peter and Paula Hynes on the family farm in Aherla, Co Cork. Photo: Claire Keogh
Peter and Paula Hynes on the family farm in Aherla, Co Cork. Photo: Claire Keogh

It's for the same reason that one of the three discussion groups that Peter is involved in was set up by him specifically for young farmers.

"It can be hard for young guys just out of college to get accepted into discussion groups because older farmers feel that the young lads will bring little or no knowledge or figures to the discussion. And I know what it's like not to know!" he said.

Discussion group

The couple are also members of the Bandon Budgeting group and Moorepark's Monoculture group that trials single grass varieties for seed companies. The latter has strict financial criteria that requires members to do an annual cashflow and profit monitor.

The involvement in these discussion groups - as well as demonstrating the benefits of a grass measuring kit called the Grasshopper for its Irish developers - takes him away from the farm for about one day a week once the silage is made.

"I get as much out of hosting or visiting farmers as they do from me. Obviously, there's a financial gain for me in terms of what I do with the Grasshopper and other seed and AI companies, but I'm also learning a little from every visit too."

Despite the massive strides that the couple have achieved on their farm, 2017 promises to be a major milestone with the start of a €500,000 six-year business plan.

"We were at the end of our tether trying to milk 150 cows through an eight-unit parlour. But we also needed new housing and it all added up to €500,000.

The couple with their children Georgina, Becky and Chloe in their new Dairymaster milking parlour
The couple with their children Georgina, Becky and Chloe in their new Dairymaster milking parlour

"We spent two months last year pulling together the business plan but it has all been worth it.

"A new 20-unit Dairymaster parlour is in just six weeks and it is not an over-statement to say that it has transformed our lives. We don't spend more than 2.5 hours per day milking now, and it has all the bells and whistles - but that was the way we wanted it because I don't think we're going to be able to rely on labour in the future so we were really investing in comfort for ourselves and our daughters if they are interested after us," said Peter.

He has also drawn on his experience off-farm to manage the repayments and site-safety.

Safety

"The deal was that the last payment wouldn't be made on the parlour until everything had been bedded in for a minimum number of weeks.

"And we're very particular here about safety so every contractor had to be on the ball in that regard," he said. Despite the big capital spending programme that is ongoing, it is the €1,200 that Hynes invested in a Grasshopper grass measuring device that he ranks as key to his profitability.

"It is actually a lot more accurate than the rising plate meter device that was developed in New Zealand. I reckon the latter has a margin of error of plus or minus 500kg, whereas the Irish device is closer to +/-100kg.

He believes that up to 20pc of suppliers in his own Dairygold co-op will go bust over the next five years if they don't reduce their costs.

"Starting to measure grass will be key to their survival," he said.

So what does the Farmer of the Year award mean to such high achievers like the Hynes?

"It gives us a bit of confidence that what we're doing works - but I think there's also more in the tank," said Paula.

"It proves that it's not all about 400 cows. Hopefully, it'll also be an inspiration to other young farmers that it is possible to succeed in farming."

Peter Hynes herds the cows in fog for their morning milking pictured at work on their farm Aherla, Co. Cork. Picture: Clare Keogh
Peter Hynes herds the cows in fog for their morning milking pictured at work on their farm Aherla, Co. Cork. Picture: Clare Keogh

Herd size has trebled since 2010

The Rathard Holsteins herd has trebled in size since 2010 to 150 cows today, and Peter and Paula Hynes aim to get to 200 by 2018. The difficulty of maintaining herd performance during expansion is widely acknowledged. Despite this, production per cow on the Hynes' farm has gone from 240kg milk solids to 420kg, while the breeding season has reduced from 31 weeks to 12, leaving the herd in the top 5pc of Dairygold suppliers.

Some of this is down to breeding, with Peter moving from zero AI to 100pc AI on heifers and securing a valuable Keystone contract with NCBC, which ensures all heifers are genotyped for free. The strike rate for first service was 75.34pc so there are few repeats.

While the Corkman is meticulous at keeping records, he even has a system to keep an eye on how good a job the stock bull is doing.

"All the cows are bred to polled Hereford AI for the second half of the breeding season. The stock bull is non-polled Hereford so that we can tell which is which," Peter explains.

Hereford calves were averaging €65/hd more than their Angus equivalents.

The parlour is chlorine-free, and the farm reduces costs through its involvement in trials for companies selling detergents and grass seed. Pig slurry is also used to maximum effect to cut fertiliser costs, while maintaining dry matter production at an impressive 14.5t/ha.

In addition, Rathard is embarking on selective dry-cow therapy from this autumn.

The whole farm has been reseeded, with Peter taking the rather unconventional approach of setting seed as soon as conditions allow in the spring.

"Last year, we were sowing on the day after St Patrick's Day. This year it was a fortnight later but it's a great job for minimising the hit your total dry matter production takes per acre," said Peter.

This focus on the bottom line means that the break-even point for the farm after wages is 29.5c/l,and Peter is confident that figure will drop by a significant 5c/l next year.

Video by David Doyle.

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