Sticking with a vision for beef farming
Attention to detail on everthing from breeding to farm infrastructure are the cornerstones of David Johnson's suckler cow enterprise
People who are good at their job often make it look easy. But success is usually predicated on things like great interest, clear vision and an appetite for work.
Suckler farmer David Johnson, the beef category winner in the inaugural Zurich/Farming Independent Farmer of the Year Awards in 2014, possesses these qualities in spades.
The first thing you notice when you drive into the farmyard at Redcross, Co Wicklow is its tidiness. This comes not just from the spending of money, but also from the time spent in designing a layout that is very efficient and incorporates existing farm sheds that were previously used for fattening cattle.
David, wife Paula and their three sons Matthew, Scott and Christopher live next door to David's parents Henry and Dorothy, whose house backs on to the farmyard and, at this time of year, the stock that greet you are the cows on the pop of calving. So they can be checked regularly and easily by whoever is passing or nearby.
When David came home to farm, he was interested in getting into suckler cows. His dad was open to this and they gradually built up a quota for 100 cows, and have settled at that figure.
The cows are mainly Charolais and Limousin cross and the herd is 70pc spring calving. They also keep a small number of pedigree Charolais and Limousin cows, with their bull calves sold for breeding.
David took over the reins when he married Paula in 2000 and the farm now extends to 300ac, including 80ac of tillage. It is in five divisions and while this may seem pretty fragmented, David points out that it is fewer than in the past and explains how they took advantage during the Celtic Tiger years to consolidate, selling some outlying bits and buying other adjoining land so now they effectively manage the livestock from two main bases, the other yard being located about four miles away, at Pringles (yes, as in the crisps!).
As we were about to jump in the jeep to visit Pringles, a cow started to calve and we stayed until the calf was out, with some assistance towards the end from David.
Both David's parents appeared moments later, as they, like most livestock farmers, never tire of the miracle of the safe arrival of a new life.
The yard at Pringles was built from scratch and comprises two sheds, built in 2004 and 2006 and substantial handling facilities. It is the kind of place that I imaginereal stockmen love to look at because it is so well laid out.
David admits the building of the yard was delayed for almost a year - "various layouts would be going around in my head at night" - while he worked out how to make it function as well as possible.
Central to the design are the principles of renowned US animal behaviourist Temple Grandin so the walls and chutes are curved and the gates can be opened to join up with another in a way that ensures a safe and fluid movement of animals.
This is partly for convenience - suppose there is a sick cow and he needs to get her out of the pen, it is a big job to get someone else to help - but the need for such a safe system was highlighted a number of years ago when Henry was badly hurt when he got kicked with both legs by a bullock when they were doing a herd test.
"We would always have been safety conscious but sometimes things happen outside what you might reasonably expect," says David. Fortunately Henry made a full recovery but it has made them extra vigilant.
In keeping with the view that a happy animal is a productive one, there is a strong emphasis on animal welfare. The cows are on rubber-covered slats and each pen has straw lie-back areas for the calves.
Given all the negativity around the beef sector, it is refreshing to meet someone who is upbeat about the future.
In truth nobody knows what's coming, but at least David figures that at least he now has the infrastructure in place.
"When the money stops or even slows, all you have to do is keep feeding and keep paying the day-to-day-bills," he explains.
"The suckler herd will remain but whether it will remain mainstream or become a niche sector is unclear. A lot will depend on what happens in the dairy sector.
"With the ending of milk quotas, dairying is probably going to go like tillage, where there is a kind of a five-year-pattern, with a couple of good years, a couple OK and one bad. In 2020 we will know a lot more."
As for the American market, he points out that, US production is currently at an all-time low but it will inevitably bounce back.
The time may come that the flow will be back in the other direction, he says.
David, who turns 46 this week, was delighted to win Zurich/Farming Independent beef farmer competition.
"Like most farmers, you hardly see anyone from one end of the week to the other, so it's nice to get some recognition for what you do."
Teagasc adviser Bob Sheriff was a big help in preparing his entry. Another factor was hitting the targets in his three-year plan which was just coming to an end.
These related primarily to increasing stocking rates and improved grass utilisation. The latter necessitated paddock fencing, boring wells and reintroducing hedging.
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