How a once rising star of the IFA has you tagged

Liam Egan, general manager, Eurotags Division of Mullinahone Co-op, with some of the current tags
Liam Egan, general manager, Eurotags Division of Mullinahone Co-op, with some of the current tags

Martin Ryan

It's funny how things work out. At one time Liam Egan was viewed as the rising star in farming politics and he seemed destined to compete for the leadership of the IFA.

The Coolderry, Co Offaly farmer had become a household name among livestock farmers for his pioneering role in IFA bringing about major transformation of the controversial Bovine TB Eradication Scheme which had become a costly scourge for farmers.

He had come to the end of his term as national chairman of the IFA animal health committee, leaving behind a research project on the role of wildlife in the spread of infection that is still referred to decades later.

A further legacy was the vastly improved compensation scheme to eliminate some of the misery that herd breakdown had been inflicting on farmers.

"I stood up at national council one day and told them that I was moving in another direction and I was leaving the committee. I know that took a lot of the people there by surprise, but I have never regretted it," he told me from behind his desk as general manager of the Eurotag Division of Mullinahone Co-op more than a decade later.

"I suppose it looked to me at the time that I was just going to be waiting around. The opportunity to join Mullinahone had come. It was interesting because it was dealing with issues that I had been involved with; and, to me, it was more or less like a continuation of what I had been doing on behalf of farmers in the IFA," he added.

He had been elected chairman of his local Coolderry IFA branch at the first meeting he attended. He became vice-chairman of the Offaly executive within a few years and county chairman two years later. He moved on to the association's national council and to its animal health committee, of which he later became chairman.

"I had no interest in becoming involved unless there was going to be results and there was a lot of things that I could see that needed to be done at that time," he explained.

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"There were two main issues dominating in Offaly, the scourge of Bovine TB and the fight by farmers for disadvantaged status. These were issues that we were interested in taking on and I got very involved in both, but especially in the Bovine TB side," he said.

"I started thinking a lot more about the way farmers were being treated when animals were being removed from their herds and the compensation they were getting. There was an issue about the involvement of wildlife in the spread of infection which was not being tackled. They were huge issues for farmers," he added.

The Offaly research into potential threat wildlife posed as a TB became a monumental piece of work which had stood the test of time. The figures that came out of that survey - which was the first of its kind undertaken in the country - left no doubt that there was a correlation between the spread of TB in livestock and the level of infection among the wildlife.

"Looking back, at it now, the change from the valuation system to the grant for reactors was a huge achievement. That was finally conceded by the Department of Agriculture and all the farm organisations were in favour and supported it," Liam recalled.

"It has been a huge benefit to farmers, because what had been happening to farmers up to then was terrible. I came across some dire situations at farm level with the stock being removed and the amount of compensation was pitiful," he said.

Looking back his time in IFA had delivered a lot for farmers over a relatively short period.

"My time on the IFA animal health committee coincided with a lot of change. There was the privatisation of the testing and a new system of animal identification was being introduced with the change to double tagging to meet EU regulation," he remembered.

He recalled that the changes also achieved approval for farmers to tag their own livestock, which was more convenient for the livestock men and removed the necessity and expense of engaging a vet to do the job as previously applied.

"I found that there were some great people within the veterinary side of the Department who wanted to do what was right. I had my ups and downs with them and we did not always agree on everything. But, without the support of people like that who make the decisions it could not have worked and we were indebted to them," he said reflecting on some of the people he had dealt with.

"Little did I know at that stage where my future lay within the whole tagging business that we were negotiating with the Department officials on behalf of the IFA and farmers," Liam added with a smile.

On the move to Mullinahone he recalled that his first introduction to the co-op was facilitated by former National Farmers Association (NFA) secretary, Sean O'Neill, taking him to visit the society, but it was not for years that the relevance of the visit was to become more important.

"I was always of the view that when the ball hops, take it because you never know where it might bring you, and the opportunity may not arise again. Don't be afraid to take a chance. The opportunity came to me to join Mullinahone and I have never regretted it," he said.

It did mean the end of any involvement with IFA - to avoid any conflict of interest - but he still values the friendships he made in his years of officership and believes that his role in the organisation and his understanding of farmers from his own continued practical experience has stood him well.

Liam continues to farm at Coolderry where he runs a drystock enterprise with the assistance of his wife, Mary, finishing stock to beef

"The fact that I still have involvement with farming makes my job a lot easier. I understand farmers' problems, and it leads to better communication in dealing with issues that arise.

"I understand the pressure that farmers are under and the whole policy of Eurotags is to do what we can to help. The staff here are great - they're so committed to getting the job done," he said.

Experience proves pivotal

Martin Ryan Two decades of experience in the processing and supply of livestock tags to farmers proved pivotal to the success of Mullinahone Co-Op in securing the contract with the Department of Agriculture when plastic ear tags were introduced.The co-op had been working with Allflex, a world leader in the design and manufacture of livestock tags based in northern France since 1972. 

The blank tags were being purchased by the co-op and processed at Mullinahone for supply to mainly pedigree dairy farmers for animal identification as part of the management programmes in many of the top dairy herds.

The society regarded their link with Allflex as a very important platform on which to 'sell' the service which they could provide to the Department of Agriculture and the farmers, with the added advantage of the back up service which the link offered.

Liam Egan initially worked part time as advisor to the livestock tag division of the co-op, bringing with him a lot of experience on the practical application issues on farms, which was invaluable to the society success in developing a successful business.The society has retained the contract at successive tenderings, a reflection of the service which they have provided in meeting with both the legal and administrative requirements and customer satisfaction.

The tags used have evolved over the years.  There have been some minor changes in design, significant tightening in security, and more emphasis on overcoming any durability issues identified in use.   The most recent change has been the introduction of the BVD sampling tag and improved reliability of the tag.

Liam Egan believes that the BVD tag has opened up potential for huge additional use and benefits. He foresees the tissue sample immediately benefiting the geonomics programme as the first of a wider range of additional uses in the years ahead.

The tags are now provided by the society for sheep and pigs. All of the tags have to be individually processed  with laser printing of the ID for the 110,000 customer base.At peak of season the society handle an average of 150 phone calls per hour from farmers and process some 2.1m cattle tags, around 2.2m sheep tags as well as tags for pigs each year.

On line ordering has now been provided with 16,000 farmers signing up to the electronic system in its first year of operation. Around 26 people are employed in the whole process at peak of season.

Founded in 1893 it made £4 in year one

The oldest surviving co-operative society in the country, Mullinahone Co-op, was founded in 1893 in the village situated three miles on the south Tipperary side of the Kilkenny border in the diocese of Ossary.

In its first year of operation the co-op had a profit of £4, before running at a loss of £450 in its second year.

However, the fortunes of the society fared well overall and it recorded a profit in 96 of the first 100 years in operation.

The village had a population of 733, with five bakeries, three bootmakers, four drapers, ten grocers, a saddlier, a coachbuilder, two hotels, and a courthouse.

Today, one hundred and twenty-one years later, the population is around 350.

Mullinahone Co-op is the primary source of employment, with a workforce of 80 people, all coming from within 
close proximity of the village.

The umbrella society is under the management of Gerard Flynn as CEO.

The Euro-Tags Division, managed by Liam Egan, provides employment for one third of the workforce, processing orders from 80,000 dairy farmers, around 10,000 sheep farmers and about 20,000 livestock farmers to whom they supply nearly 4.5m tags each year, all of which have to be individually produced.

Eurotags is under tender to the Department of Agriculture, subject to renewal every few years and customer satisfaction is a key ingredient to retaining the contract at each renewal.

The society is also engaged in the manufacture of soft cheese and has a milk collection arrangement in place with Glanbia.

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