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My Week: ‘I have two dodgy knees, but suckling is not as intensive or wearing as dairying’

John Liston switched from dairy to suckling for practical reasons, but he stuck with his low-input organic system on his Limerick farm

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John Liston of Donaman, Croom, Co Limerick. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

John Liston of Donaman, Croom, Co Limerick. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

John Liston of Donaman, Croom, Co Limerick. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

Arthritis and two “dodgy knees” were the main reasons behind John Liston’s move from dairying into suckling two years ago.

The Croom, Co Limerick farmer turned his dairy herd into organic production 20 years ago and was one of the founders of the Little Milk Company, which provides organic milk to cheese producers.

Their cheese has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Coup de Coeur in Paris and Gold in the World Cheese Awards in 2018.

However, John’s herd of Friesian and Jersey cows were turned into a 40-cow suckler herd to allow him to farm his 200 acres less labour-intensively.

“I’m looking to build that up to 60,” he says. “I like cows and have very dry land — most of it anyway is dry — and I thought I could run a suckler herd as a low-input system with a traditional breed, such as Angus, with no meal, just hay and silage over the winter and calve them outdoors. And, so far so good.

“I have arthritis and two dodgy knees. I’ve had surgery and probably need replacements, but suckling is not as intensive or wearing as dairying. The cows calve outside and Angus are easy calvers.

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The cows are autum-calving and calve outdoors

The cows are autum-calving and calve outdoors

The cows are autum-calving and calve outdoors

“My motto is ‘keep it simple’. I use very little machinery — any silage or slurry spreading is done by a contractor.

“The cows are autumn-calving and I’ve only had to supplement them since the weather got bad, with more silage and hay.

“They have access to a yard with ring feeders for silage and hay, and in December the cows hardly came up out of the field, it was only when the weather turned that they came in for silage.

“They tell you when they are hungry, as when they’re not, the round bale of silage would not be finished in the morning.”

While he left dairying, John kept the farm’s organic status, which he says he turned to as he was not hugely happy at the way farming was going with increased chemical inputs.

“Organics was a growth area at the time, sales were going up,” he says. “When I joined the organic scheme there was only a handful of organic dairy farmers.

“A few of us got together and decided that cheese making was the best outlet for our milk and set up the Little Milk Company in 2013. The cheeses are mainly exported to France, Germany, the US and Denmark. It’s also used to make cheese powder, which is used as an ingredient, in crisps, pasta and pizza.”

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The cattle are finished at 27 months

The cattle are finished at 27 months

The cattle are finished at 27 months

Urban Co-op

While most of his suckler herd is sold to Slaney Meats, John plans to put four or five animals through the Urban Co-op in Limerick. Next week he’ll send a heifer, prepared by his local butcher to the Co-op.

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“I finish my cattle at 27 months and those I sell through the co-op I don’t have to go in to sell them — they freeze and store the meat for me and sell it,” he says.

The co-op developed out of a local group of customers and John got involved three years ago.

“The co-op is evolving all the time as there is a growing interest in organic and local produce,” John says. “They are always looking for new products, and some of my meat is sold through there, along with game, salmon, trout and pork.

“There are no hard and set rules about who can sell through the co-op, which has help on hand for labelling and storage.

“There is a kitchen which allows suppliers collaborate with others. The co-op sells a lot of goods in bulk, such as cereals, detergents and shampoos and apple cider vinegar.

“Sales last year were almost €1m and 60pc was local Irish produce. The rest is stuff we can’t grow in Ireland such as olive oils.”

Open up the farm

While John only started supplying the co-op before Christmas with beef from his Angus herd, he’s hoping to open up the farm through the co-op to visitors.

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John dug a pond to increase the biodiversity on his farm. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

John dug a pond to increase the biodiversity on his farm. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

John dug a pond to increase the biodiversity on his farm. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

“In time people will be able to see where the beef comes from,” he says. “More and more people are looking for grain-free meat — cattle that have been fed on a total grass diet, which is what mine are.”

Over the next couple of weeks, John will also tackle the ash plantation on his farm.

While it’s currently free of ash dieback, he says the ideal thing would be to use it for hurley wood, but he’s not sure what demand is there at the moment with Covid continuing to restrict sports, so it may end up as firewood or chipped for bedding.

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