Digging deeper - why these award winning tillage farmers decided against dairy

Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Tillage Farmer of Year award winners Tim and Mark Ronaldson on Stonebrook farm near Ballymore Eustace
Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Tillage Farmer of Year award winners Tim and Mark Ronaldson on Stonebrook farm near Ballymore Eustace
Tim works the land
Jackie gets busy during feeding time on Stonebrook Pet Farm

Unpredictable Irish weather, high fertiliser costs and low incomes in recent times have encouraged a growing number of tillage farmers to park their combines and turn to dairy farming.

It did cross the mind of Tim Ronaldson on more than one occasion, and it was suggested to him by an advisor, but for now he and his son Mark are riding out the storm at their family enterprise at Stonebrook Farm near Ballymore Eustace close to the Kildare/Wicklow border.

"To be honest if Mark was into dairy farming I probably would have switched over long ago, but it's not that simple either," Tim said.

A graduate of Kildalton College, Mark (25), now works full-time on the farm and benefits from the Young Farmer Scheme for which he has his own herd number with a handful of bullocks and a separate plot of land.

Jackie gets busy during feeding time on Stonebrook Pet Farm
Jackie gets busy during feeding time on Stonebrook Pet Farm

Tim farmed sucklers up to 2002 but has since concentrated solely on tillage.

"When you hear that a bad year in dairying is equivalent to a good year in tillage, it would be enough to make you change your mind," Tim said. "But realistically you cannot go from tillage to milking just that like. It takes a lot of planning."

It certainly doesn't help the mood when the weather plays havoc with your plans, and June and July have brought yet another few rough weeks, weather wise.

Last week as he patiently waited for the sun to return, Tim was already assessing possible damage done to crops across the 900 or so acres he has between his own farm, rented land and contract farming on a nearby estate.

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"In this business we heavily rely on the weather and this year it has been from one extreme to the other. On the longest day of the year we were trying to cope with the dust when making hay as it was so dry, and now we are just waiting for the rain to move off before it's too late."

Tim uses a New Holland cx8080, with a 25-foot header, a piece of equipment he says has served them very well since 2011. "It is only used some 200 hours in the year so does not get too much hardship," he said.

Tim works the land
Tim works the land

For Irish tillage farmers, our summers are nothing but a headache, and Tim can recall a time when the combine was actually grounded. "It was the year I got married to Jackie, 1986, and we had someone working for us. The combine was stuck in the field for three weeks."

A fourth-generation farmer, he has been farming at home since his late teens when he was handed a block of land by his late father, the well-known cattle dealer Eric Ronaldson. "Things weren't great at the start and the first year we got into tillage was a disaster, but we sought professional advice even back then. Ivan Whitten of Teagasc has been a fantastic help to me more recently."

Winter wheat, winter oats and winter and spring barley have made up a large percentage of the crops farmed there over the past 20 years, but in the past few years Tim has found the need for diversification. Two years ago he switched over from rape to beans. This is sold to Wynnes as ration feed.

Grain is also supplied to Athgarvan Grain and Quinn's of Baltinglass.

"The switch to beans was a good decision and it has been going well so far. It is also beneficial for EFAs (ecological focus areas).

"As tillage farmers we have to constantly find ways to make things easier, so we would forward sell a couple of times during the year to spread the risk.

"Everyone knows it is going through a bad patch and prices have been bad. And if the price for imported grain drops even further we will be in serious trouble."

In a bid to cut down on the need for fertilisers Tim has been using organic matter, in particular layers of manure which is delivered in bulk from Monaghan. "You simply cannot justify the cost of fertiliser when this is so readily available, and so effective."

Fertiliser is called upon occasionally though to help eliminate sterile brome which has the potential to seriously damage the winter barley. "Between spraying and rotation we should be able to get rid of it, but you can see in recent years how it has really spread out from the headlands."

At the end of the season Tim will again grow cover crops of fodder rape and turnip which will be grazed by sheep owned by a local farmer.

Over the years Tim and his family have built up a great relationship with their neighbours, and he continues to lease land which was originally sourced by his father several decades ago.

The home farm stands on 300 acres, of which 200 is in tillage. They rent 250 acres locally and contract farm a further 350 acres on a private estate nearby.

Neighbours are also good for business and know where to source the best hay year-round. Be it one bale, or 10, farmers regularly arrive at the gates to get their required quota.

It was this approach to farming that caught the eye of the judges during the recent Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year Awards. "Instead of always selling in bulk, we admired Tim for the way he accommodated people by selling hay and straw in small numbers throughout the year," commented judge Helen Harris.

Not surprisingly much of his hay is in demand by local stud farms. The harvesting of their orchards for apple juice has also gone down a treat, especially with the hundreds of children that pass through their doors each week to visit the Stonebrook Pet Farm.

"They are truly an amazing family," Ms Harris added. "It was their approach to farming and bravery that really made them stand out."

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