Maeve's machine gives inspection 'on the hoof'
Twenty-four- year-old Maeve O'Keeffe came up with the idea for a machine to help farmers tend to cows' hooves after working in New Zealand. Now she is winning awards and selling to farmers around the country. She spoke to Sarah McCabe.
"My family business is dairy farming but I had never heard of this kind of machinery before I went to New Zealand, where I worked on a 1,300 cow dairy farm. I saw how farmers in New Zealand use machinery to save time and money treating lameness on dairy farms. The machines immobilise cattle and allow farmers to tend to their animal hooves whereas in Ireland, farmers call in specialists -- often waiting until two or three cows have fallen lame before calling in help because of the associated fees.
This is bad for the cow and costs money; the longer a cow is lame, the more their milk is affected, they will need extra antibiotics, and their breeding pattern will be altered. It has been estimated that each case of lameness costs €200. If 20pc of a herd of 100 cows falls lame -- and that's a conservative figure -- it will cost €4,000 p.a.
When I returned from New Zealand I went back to college to finish my agricultural degree at Waterford IT. Part of the course involves a module in entrepreneurship so I decided to develop my own immobilisation machinery.
I didn't want to copy the examples I'd seen abroad though -- I wanted to improve on them. The machines I'd seen just provided a holding pen for cattle where one foot could be lifted, but in that situation the farmer still runs a good chance of being kicked, and the beast is forced to balance on three legs, which risks them falling over.
I developed a safer alternative. I worked with my dad and others who work with us on our farm. My machine "Inspect 4" safely immobilises the animal in a crate and then tilts it 90 degrees using hydraulic technology, so they are lying on their side and the farmer can inspect and treat all four hooves.
I hadn't really planned on commercialising the idea but it won an award at the Tullamore Show and the judges urged me to patent it and take it further. It is now patent pending and in production, made to order.
One major challenge has been convincing farmers of the validity of the method -- they are just not used to seeing cows turned on their sides -- but the animals are very content in the harnesses. We demonstrated the technique to the Teagasc Agricultural Research Centre at Moorepark and they were shocked at how calm the animals were.
Getting the product right has also been a challenge. We have scrapped three models in two years and only launched in August. It's also been CE certified meaning it has gone through rigorous safety checks.
We have spent a lot of money on product development and are only now beginning to talk about profitability. Ireland is a small market so we do plan to sell overseas but you have to walk before you run.