Meet the finalists of the Zurich/Farming Independent Farmer of the Year competition


Farmer George Finlay pictured with finacee Hannah Sheerin (far left) and sister and chef Amanda Finlay with some of the East Friesland sheep on the family farm near the Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow. Photo: Frank McGrath
Farmer George Finlay pictured with finacee Hannah Sheerin (far left) and sister and chef Amanda Finlay with some of the East Friesland sheep on the family farm near the Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow. Photo: Frank McGrath

Storm Powell profiles the shortlisted candidates in the Dairy, Tillage, Beef and Sheep categories for the Zurich Farm Insurance/ Farming Independent Farmer of the Year Awards 2018

Dairy Farmer of the Year

Edward Kenny

Age: 58

Location: Wilkinstown, Navan, Co Meath

Area Farmed: 222ac

Type of Farming: Dairy

A fourth generation farmer, Edward initially started farming in 1984 and, by 1995, was milking 35 cows. But, somewhat disillusioned with farming, he then focused his interest on off-farm activities and his herd numbers were slow to increase to 140 cows by 2014. However, since the abolition of milk quotas, he is now focusing full-time on his dairy enterprise and has increased numbers significantly to 270 cows.

Edward lives on the farm with his wife Sarah and family. His eldest son Josh (24) who is currently on a graduate programme with Irish Country Meats (ICM) nominated him.

Edward uses a simple grass based system and has one full-time employee. Calving takes place in spring and most calves are contract reared. Cows are breed to AI bulls. Improvements to support his recent expansion have focused on improving soil fertility, cow fertility, upgrading buildings and expanding his milking parlour. Edward is a member of Navan Dairy Discussion Group and is also in the Boyne Valley Purchasing group.

Michael Macken

Age: 34

Location: Harlinstown Farm, Slane, Co Meath

Area Farmed: 500ac (360ac owned, 140ac leased)

Type of Farming: Dairy

Harlinstown Farm has been Michael's home all his life. Today, he farms in partnership with his younger brother James. Originally a beef and sheep farm, Michael and James converted to dairying in 2010 and commenced a comprehensive building programme including a 40-unit herringbone parlour, cubicles, slurry store and silage pit. The farm has also been reseeded and four kilometres of roadways have been introduced.

The dairy herd peaks at 510 cows, mainly cross breeds, and is culled to 430 at the moment. All calves and heifers are contract reared and contractors do all machinery work except feeding.

As both Michael and James are single, personal costs are low and this allows reinvestment each year. The key focus is to maintain a low cost system. One full-time and two casual workers are employed.

Michael is a member of the Bó na Bainne discussion group and the Boyne Valley Purchasing group.

Patrick Brennan

Age: 59

Location: Ballingarry, Roscrea, Co Tipperary

Area Farmed: 400ac

Type of Farming: Dairy

Patrick Brennan milks 204 cows near Ballingarry, Roscrea. He farms 200ac at home and the remainder is divided into four lots several miles from home. Patrick has a spring calving herd. Calves are kept till 1 years and then sold on for fattening. All grass is measured, and cows with calves are out on grass by day in early February.

Following a stint in nearby Gurteen Agricultural College in 1978, Patrick commenced with 23 cows in 1981. He maintains links with Gurteen by taking students on placement each year. The Farm Relief Services (FRS) uses Patrick's farm for practical elements of their Training to Milk courses. Patrick, who previously won a Bord Bia award for Sustainable Dairying, is also a director of Arrabawn Co-Op.

Patrick lives on the farm with his wife Helen. Their youngest child Padraig is studying a Dairy Business degree course in UCD and plans to come home to farm.

Tillage Farmer of the Year

John Kearney

Age: 30

Location: Castlelyons, Fermoy, Co Cork

Area Farmed: 86ac (including 26ac leased)

Type of Farming: Tillage (spring barley — harvesting, spring barley — whole cropping, wild bird cover) and forestry

A civil engineer by profession, John farms part-time and also works for a forestry company designing and building forest roads. John took over the home farm of 60ac in 2012 and converted 27ac to tillage. The remainder is in forestry. John also rents 26ac for tillage use.

Aware of the implications of farming on carbon footprint, John has signed up to GLAS and adheres to their measures by sowing wild bird cover and a catch crop after harvest. He has also erected bat and bird boxes on the farm and has created a solitary bee confinement area. He is also a member of IGAS, the Irish Grain Assurance Scheme

John is a member of the tillage-based Knowledge Transfer Programme in Moorepark. He continues to research into an energy crop for bio gas production.

Alex Butler

Age: 21

Location: Streete, Co Westmeath

Area Farmed: 160ac (100ac leased, 60ac shared)

Type of Farming: Tillage (winter wheat cropping, winter barley, spring barley, spring oil seed rape) and grass

At 21, Alex is the youngest finalists in this year’s competition. Working as an agricultural contractor with his father, he also leases 100ac and has a share farming arrangement with three farmers. Of the 100ac leased, 35ac is in tillage and rest is in grass from which he sells two crops of silage. He also winters store lambs

Following a year spent in Gurteen Agricutural College, Alex studied Crops and Machinery Management level 6 in Kildalton College and spent four months last year harvesting in Australia.

Alex still uses a plough based system but is considering minimum tillage which, he feels, makes the best profit margins in terms of field efficiency, fuel economy and workrate while reducing energy consumption and costs.

Share farming has enabled Alex to expand his enterprise. He feels it is an ideal option for older farmers or for those without up to date machinery.

John Cullen

Age: 53

Location: Ballymurn, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford

Area Farmed: 1,100ac of which 1/3 owned, 1/3 leased and 1/3 shared

Type of Farming: Tillage (winter barley, winter wheat, spring barley, spring beans, oil seed rape)

John lives on the farm, where he grew up, with his wife and five daughters and has been farming there since he was 16 years of age. Today he farms a total of 1,100 acres, of which one-third is owned, one-third is leased and the remainder is share farming with three farmers. Most of the land is within a ten-mile radius of home. He also does a small amount of contract work for local farmers.

He commenced share farming about five years ago and feels that it works well for both parties and can see this type of arrangement increasing in popularity.

John is a member of the Johnstown Tillage Discussion Group which meets a dozen times a year. He finds these meetings very useful and commends the local Teagasc advisor who keeps members up to date at all times through the use of phone apps.

Beef Farmer of the Year

John Phelan

Age: 35

Location: Dunbell, Co Kilkenny

Area Farmed: 148ac

Type of Farming: Beef

John, who farms with his brother Tadhg and father Tim, is the 5th generation at Blanchville House, Dunbell. His mother Monica runs a country guest house and self-catering business there.

John finishes 300 to 400 continental beef heifers, mostly Limousin/Charolais cross. He buys in stores at 1 to 2-year-olds and finishes them under 30 months. He uses a grass rotation system with emphasis on farm infrastructure such as farm roadways, a fenced paddock system and water troughs and he emphasises the importance of animal handling for safety when dealing with large numbers.

Cattle are wintered on slatted houses with rubber mats. A new shed was erected three years ago to increase the scale and efficiency of the farm. John’s main focus is on grass utilisation and he uses Pasture Base for grass measuring. The family have a separate 50ac tillage enterprise and all grass, straw and grain from the farm is fed to the stock.

John, who qualified with an agricultural science degree from WIT, Waterford, is involved in a local beef discussion group.

Nichola Murtagh

Age: 23

Location: Ballynacargy, Mullingar, Co Westmeath

Area Farmed: 80ac (leased)

Type of Farming: Beef (suckler cows and calves)

Part-time farmer Nichola Murtagh combines her work as an AI technician with running an 80ac suckler farm which she leases near Mullingar. Having grown up on a nearby farm, Nichola has always had an interest in animals and working outdoors.

Following her Leaving Cert, she spent two years studying for the Green Cert in Mountbellew Agricultural College and this led her to leasing the farm of 35 suckler cows and calves.

The cows are put in calf to Charolais bulls and the calves are sold from eight months onwards. The land is laid out in paddocks. Most of the weanlings are sold by winter and the cows are wintered in a shed which Nichola built last year.

Nichola also has a two-year contract with AIB as part of the Backing the Brave Campaign and, as a result, her face is familiar to many farmers.

Darragh McManus

Age: 33

Location: Scurmore, Enniscrone, Co Sligo

Area Farmed: 250ac

Type of Farming: Beef (suckler cows, pedigree Charolais herd, ET calves)

33-year-old farm manager Darragh McManus runs a 250ac beef farm in Scurmore, Enniscrone, Co Sligo for brothers Brendan and Gregory Feeney. Over 120 commercial cows and 30 Charolais breeding females are farmed at Scurmore, which is home to the Bostonia Charolais Herd, one of Ireland’s most prestigious herds of pedigree Charolais cattle.

Married with three young children, Darragh originates from a suckler farm in Fermanagh. Having received his Higher National Diploma (HND) in Agriculture from Greenmount College, he managed a farm in England before taking up role in Sligo three years ago.

The farm also boasts 30 ET (embryo transfer) calves every year. The herd is a continental cross. Darragh takes two cuts of silage from 180ac in May and July and reseeds 10-15pc of land each year. Cows are paddock grazed and calves are creep grazed in front of the cows.

Much of Darragh’s time is spent showing the pedigree herd and awards this year include Champion Charolais at both the Tullamore and Balmoral Shows, Reserve Senior Champion (Tullamore) and Best Group of Three (Balmoral). Red ribbons were also picked up at Athlone, Ballinrobe, Ballina, Inishowen, Grange Bonniconlon and Longford Shows.

Sheep Farmer of the year

George Finlay

Age: 29

Location: Glen of Imaal,

Co Wicklow

Area Farmed: 182ac plus 200ac commonage

Type of Farming: Mainly sheep, some sucklers

George Finlay is based on the family farm in Ballyhubbock House, Glen of Imaal where he farms 102ac. He farms a further 80ac and 200ac commonage for his uncle.

The crossbred commercial flock numbers 400. He keeps 50 replacement ewe lambs each year and buys in 30 hoggets. His scanning rate has been 2.01 and he has introduced Belclares to attain higher yields and better confirmation. George uses a 21 day rotation system to utilize grass efficiently. George also farms 12 suckler cows.

As well as the commercial flock, George has set up a sheep dairy enterprise producing ice-cream.

He purchased 53 East Friesland ewes which are known for their high yields of milk. The ice cream is custard based, has a creamy taste, is high in protein, low in fat and ideal for people with digestive disorders.

The award-winning, family-run bakery Ballyhubbock Home Foods was set up 25 years ago by George’s mother Monica and her expertise and knowledge has been invaluable setting up the Ballyhubbock Farm Ice Cream brand.

Eoin Larkin

Age: 35

Location: Eyrecourt, Ballinasloe, Co Galway

Area Farmed: 150ac (three farms leased, 50ac, 60ac and 40ac)

Type of Farming: Mostly sheep, also tillage and beef

Eoin Larkin lives in Grange, near Eyrecourt with his wife Eimear, and leases three separate holdings.

The three farms total 150ac and are situated in three different parishes in the Kiltormer area about 13kms from his home. His main enterprise is sheep. He also has 8ac of tillage and 30 cattle which he sells as forward stores. He is letting 280 ewes out to the ram this year.

Eoin has been leasing land for 17 years and, as he lives away from the base farm, he travels about 100kms per day. As he has no permanent facilities, he has set up a mobile unit on his trailer. He closes the land from October till early March and uses winterage for the sheep.

Eoin is currently chairman of Eyrecourt Agricultural Show. He has a keen interest in thoroughbred bloodstock and is involved with his father in buying yearlings and selling them as stores.

John Bell

Age: 55

Location: Castletown Geoghegan, Mullingar, Co Westmeath

Area Farmed: 120ac

Type of Farming: Sheep

Originally from Co Louth, John Bell has been farming on the outskirts of Castletown Geoghegan for the past 28 years. He has 600 breeding sheep on 120ac of grassland. The breeding stock are generally Belclare,  Belclare Cross, and Texel/Belclare Cross bred to terminal sires.

To operate John’s stocking rate, he uses a paddock system whereby sheep spend three to four days in any block of land. He operates his fencing system using a quad bike. It’s a March lambing flock and his scanning rate is 2.15. All sheep are housed before lambing. He doesn’t feed meal after lambing except to finish lambs in late summer. John does most of the farming on his own but has help at lambing time and uses contractors to shear and dose the sheep.

John is a member of the local KT (Knowledge Transfer) sheep discussion group which was set up five years ago and has been massively beneficial to farmers.

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