Simon Byrne is not a man who is afraid of taking on plenty of hard work. The soon-to-be father of two is a sheep farmer and an independent agricultural advisor, and this year he is growing malting barley on contract for the first time on the family farm at the foot of Mount Leinster in Ballinavocran, Co Wexford.
He is currently experiencing lockdown in his office finalising over 200 Basic Payment Scheme applications and dealing with new candidates for Nitrates Derogation.
The Byrne farm, which Simon runs alongside his parents Joe and Jane and partner Sarah, consists of 94 hectares, 40 of which is tillage land near Ballon, Co Carlow.
The Byrnes, who have been farming here for generations, recently finished lambing their flock of 400 crossbred ewes. Sarah, a teacher at Glenmore National School, is usually plays a key role, but this year she admired the lambing shed from a distance with son Simon. The pair hope to welcome their second child at the end of the month.
Jane spent all her working life in the Wexford Farmers Co-operative. She is now retired, but is busier than ever, as is her husband.
"The three of us farm together, and we have always enjoyed a great working relationship," says Simon.
With sheep, tillage and advisory services demanding so much attention at this time of the year, Simon has found himself particularly busy during the Covid-19 restrictions.
Having changed some fencing boundaries, Simon has begun to initiate a temporary paddock grazing system for his sheep. Currently, the sheep are all out in three groups of 125 ewes with their lambs. Some triplets are in a smaller group.
The Byrnes began lambing just before St Patrick's Day. Usually, they would have students from Denmark in to help out during the season. This year, however, the foreign exchange pupils had to cancel their travelling plans due to virus restrictions. With Simon's parents close to the age of those told to cocoon, they were keen to restrict visitors on the farm.
The Byrnes started bringing in the Danish students in the 1980s.
"It spread by word of mouth, and now every year, either vet students or agricultural students are welcomed onto the farm," says Simon.
"Things were very hectic on the farm this year with the lambing season keeping myself, and my parents busy nearly every hour of the day.
"The whole process went very well, and we managed to lamb all the ewes with very few fatalities. Over 600 lambs are now out across the fields.
"We were lambing for just over a month in total, and it worked out nicely that the cocooning season coincided with lambing season. The weather this spring was brilliant, which made farming a lot more pleasant."
A new breed, Innovis, was brought onto the farm from the UK five years ago, as Simon was eager to bring more maternal traits into his flock. Known for their hardy nature, the breed is suited to hilly areas, perfect for the Byrne farm.
"The breed produces extremely hardy lambs, and they are brilliant mothers," says Simon, who spotted the Innovis at the Royal Welsh Show.
"Our ewes are out wintered on turnips and strip-grazed. Triplets were brought in after scanning at the end of January, and doubles were housed three weeks before lambing and put on a home-made ration. Singles were out until they started lambing.
"We have been sowing turnips since the beet went years ago; we do this because we don't have to harvest it. We let the sheep out on it, and they are happy throughout the winter. We sow 10 acres of turnips every year and rotate it annually with this land, then acting as our ground for reseeding."
Simon aims to enhance his paddock grazing system and begin grass measuring this year.
"We have done the fencing, but water is an issue for us. We don't have a natural water supply, and we are on a hill, so we have a lot of work to do with water tanks," he says.
Simon has enrolled himself onto a grass management course and sees great potential in the use of technology.
"This is the first year that I am trying to get in on grass measuring and planning. I put in 1,000 metres of fencing and eight gates to create paddocks. I am starting a course and aiming to get the right grass at the right time of the year."
This year was a first for Simon to take over the task of sowing - Joe has tended to lead on the tillage front.
"I hope the barley is straight enough for my father when it comes up because he usually completes the sowing himself; we will just have to wait and see," smiles Simon - the Byrnes harvest everything themselves.
With 100 acres recently sowed, the farm has fields of barley for most of the year. This year that is malting barley, as Simon signed a contract.
"I have grown malting barley for the first time this year. That made the spring even busier because usually we would have winter crops, but this year we didn't," he says.
'People prefer to buy cheap food and wear expensive runners'
Simon Byrne feels his role as an agricultural advisor complements his work on his farm, although he concedes that "the busy seasons for each job collide with one another" in spring. Simon has been a private advisor for 10 years, having started with Teagasc.
"I like to think I am a very practically minded as an advisor and as a farmer," he says. "People know what I am doing on the ground and therefore appreciate my advice. It is clear to my clients that I am involved in the same job that they are doing themselves." The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact Simon's business, with his annual meetings with farmers cancelled or postponed. Technology is helping communication, but a phone call is not the same as a face-to-face meeting, Simon says.
"I have an office here at home, and usually, spring is the one time of the year where I meet all my clients. I love meeting people, but now things are different," he says.
"There are always these other questions to be asked besides their regular ones. Schemes may always be the same, but topics such as retirement, succession or reseeding are also discussed at these times.
"A lot more information is discussed with a cup of tea in my office." A lot of clients have been asking Simon about the next CAP. "The new CAP will change a lot of things. I think there will be a focus on the young farmer and a move towards greening," he says.
"Most of my clients that are in GLAS are exiting it this year, and I think they will have to have something to move onto after this. I hope the CAP reform accommodates for this."
The Covid-19 situation may eat into the CAP finance, he feels.
"We need to safeguard our food industry. We have to be in so many more schemes now to keep money flowing. It is a worry that we have such a reliance on schemes.
"Machinery and equipment is too dear from a family farming perspective. The price of everything is going up except food; people prefer to buy cheap food and have expensive runners on.
"People take food for granted. They want to cut the shopping bill and spend the money somewhere else. People can't get their cars expensive enough, but they can't get their food cheap enough."