'We took on 100 staff for relief milking, we'll need even more'
FRS boss Peter Byrne looks ahead to next year as expansion in sector opens doors
While most of the talk about expansion in the dairy sector has focused on milk, land and co-ops, the explosion in output is also set to create massive opportunities for other service providers in the sector.
Better placed than most to take advantage of these developments are Farm Relief Services, or FRS Network as they like to call themselves these days.
The man at the helm of the business since its inception in 1980 is Roscrea native Peter Byrne.
Because it is owned by farmers and doesn't pay out dividends, the €40m annual turnover that the business generates tends to fly under the radar.
But Peter Byrne knows better than most that the operation is set to grow that top-line figure significantly over the coming years.
"Even though we've diversified significantly into several non-agricultural areas, 75pc of the total business is still farming related," the 62-year-old explained.
When FRS set up its first office in Roscrea more than 30 years ago, Mr Byrne was transplanted from Macra into the brand new offshoot organisation.
"We really started off with with very little capital. Farmers contributed £80 each of start-up capital, which entitled them to preferential rates on the various services that we offered," he said.
It was never intended to generate a return for shareholders, so all profits have been channelled into developing new businesses and subsidising the cost of the services provided to farmers.
These include scanning, hoof care, fencing, general farm labour and milking. It's this last service that is particularly exercising Mr Byrne's mind at the moment.
"We know that there's going to be a huge increase in demand for relief milking when quotas go.
"In fact, we've already seen a significant lift in demand to the extent that we've taken on about 100 extra staff in the last few months and we'll probably need to take on the same again over the coming 12 months," he said.
He is also conscious of the huge skills vacuum that looms for the dairy sector and has already taken steps to address it.
"From the start of July, we'll be rolling out two-day courses on milking skills all over the country.
"While it sounds like a no-brainer, there is actually a lot of sequencing techniques that can really improve the efficiency of a milker.
"It'll also cover a nice bit of theory because improving hygiene and reducing SCCs is also going to be a big part of the objectives.
"It'll be the same as the SafePass that construction workers get," claimed the FRS boss.
He should know a thing or two about the SafePass – one of the non-farming branches of FRS now specialises in providing training courses on health and safety, including the SafePass.
Peter is planning to have the milking course, which is being run in conjunction with Teagasc and Animal Health Ireland and will be a FETAC level six qualification, subsidised to the tune of 50pc of its commercial value of €500.
"There's great interest in it and I think we'll have 400 put through this programme by Christmas alone.
"We've already got 150 of our own staff signed up, there are new entrant enquiries and we have plenty of farmers already interested, both for themselves and their staff," he said.
This would be the first of many initiatives required by the dairy sector if it is to cope with a 50pc increase in output over the next seven years.
But Mr Byrne has also overseen the development of an IT arm to FRS, which should also help to lighten the load on time-stretched farmers in the coming years.
"Under the guidance of Fabien Peyaud, we have developed an app that basically eliminates a lot of the paperwork, lists and time-consuming data entry of routine events such as animal movements, births and veterinary treatments. It works on smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC and the annual VAT inclusive price is just €99," he said.
Reaction to the app has been very encouraging, with scores of farmers signing up daily and thousands of calves already registered through the system.
Even more exciting is the likely launch of the system on to the British market this year, opening up a vast new market for FRS.
"Because we've been able to tie in with both the Department (of Agriculture) and ICBF, we can act as a one-stop-shop for farmers that need to input information for either of these organisations.
"It also allows the farmer to pre-populate the app with all the animals in his herd without him having to input any of them. With a couple of clicks, Herdwatch sucks all the relevant details from ICBF or the Department, so it's there from the moment that the farmer first opens it," explained Mr Byrne.
The app is being constantly expanded and updated by Peyaud and his team, with the latest features including a option to enter weight data and breeding data such as scans and service dates.
"There's still a huge amount that we could do with this technology, so we're in talks with Enterprise Ireland at the moment to see just how big we can go with it."
Perhaps slightly less exciting, but just as successful, FRS also launched a members' benefits package which provides back-up cover for farmers if they every find themselves too sick or injured to work their farms.
"This has been a huge success for us, so much so that we were able to extend the cover that farmers get by 50pc to 12 weeks this year," says Peter.
In simple terms, the scheme provides farmers with an employee to do up to €500 work per week at a discounted rate of €125 for up to 12 weeks. The annual cost of the package is €290, and the farmer must pay the full rate for the first week of cover.
"It's totally self-financing, so the more farmers that we have in the scheme, the bigger a pot we have to provide cover for those that need it," said Mr Byrne.
"The feedback has been great and as farms become more professionally run operations, back-up cover is becoming more essential, especially in the traditional one-man set-ups."
For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App