Saturday 21 July 2018

Waking hours with... Maeve O'Keeffe

Maeve O'Keeffe (25) lives in Ballynoe, Co Cork. She manages a dairy farm with 130 cows, is secretary of the Irish Cattle Foot Trimmers Association, a Nuffield Farming Scholar for 2015, and founder and CEO of Inspect4 Hoof Trimming Ltd

Maeve O'Keeffe manages a farm with 130 dairy cows. Photo: David Conachy
Maeve O'Keeffe manages a farm with 130 dairy cows. Photo: David Conachy

Emily Hourican

I manage the dairy farm at home. We have 130 cows, but I milk them only once a week now, on Saturdays. I decided I didn't want to be stuck in the milking parlour all the time, but doing it once a week keeps me in tune with everything, and I like that. If I'm milking, or have an agricultural show to go to, I'd be up at 6am. Other mornings, it'll be 7am. I always go to mam's house for breakfast. I live about 10 minutes away from the farm where I grew up - so I go home for breakfast every morning, and it's always porridge.

I'm the eldest of four girls, and the only one to work on the farm so far. After school, I went to the Waterford Institute of Technology and studied agriculture, where I was the only girl in my class. I love farming, because I love the mix, the fact that no two days are the same, and being out in the open.

Farming has changed over the years; it's still hard work, but a lot is down to good management now as well. Most people have an image of farming that's just wandering the fields or milking cows, but in fact it's quite scientific. And the more cost-effective you can make it, the more profit you make.

Every day I'll go and look at our heifers. You have to check them and count them, make sure the electric fences are working and that they have water, and move them on to fresh grass if necessary. I also do a grass walk every week. That means I walk every field and measure the grass, to make sure there is enough and that it's the correct quality. The better the quality of grass, the better the quality of milk.

We have dinner at 1.30pm every day, at home in the farmhouse; potatoes and bacon maybe. We'd sit down, my mam, dad and some of my sisters, although you almost never have all six of us sitting down together. Then it's back out to work, but it isn't all farming.

Some years ago, I set up a company, Inspect4 Hoof Trimming Ltd, to manufacture crates for cows. That developed from a need we have on the farm to hoof-trim our cows if they have an infection. The infection makes them lame, and what we were doing was waiting until we had two or three cows lame together before calling in a contractor.

But by that time, the first cow's infection might have spread, so she's costing more money in the long run. I wanted to be able to treat them for infection as soon as it happened, but I didn't like the equipment on the market, so my father and I developed a crate that offers a safe way of handling animals.

It worked so well that I got a patent and turned it into a business. I'm also secretary of the Irish Hoof Trimmers Association, which involves quarterly meetings, and this year I was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, an agricultural scholarship that gives the opportunity to travel around the world and research different topics. My topic is lameness in dairy cows.

There is a rhythm to the year, and spring is particularly busy, because there is a 12-week breeding period where you have to get all your cows and heifers in calf. That requires a lot of time just sitting in a paddock, watching cows to see when they're in heat. It might sound really silly, just to be sitting in a field, looking at cows, but it's really important.

If you have a cow in heat that you miss, that's going to cost you the next year in milk lost. If she's not put in calf at the right time, you lose out on three weeks of milk the following year, and if you miss her completely and she doesn't calf, you're down even more. There's a lot to be lost, so it's very important to get those cows in calf in those 12 weeks.

I try to finish around 6pm. I'm very involved in camogie; I play with a local club, St Catherine's, so in the evenings I might have training, and there is usually a match at weekends. If I have training on a Saturday morning, then I have to be up at 5am to get the cows milked before I go.

Because I have dinner in the middle of the day, I might just have a sandwich back at my house in the evening. Or I might meet up with friends for dinner and a night out. Since February, I haven't been out that much, because my younger sister needed a liver transplant - she was born with a very rare syndrome called Alagille syndrome.

We've always known she would need a transplant, but in the last few months she was deteriorating. She has a rare enough blood type and the chances of getting a liver through organ donation were slim, so me, my mam and another sister had offered to become living donors, which means you donate half your liver.

We were all booked to go to England and be tested, and if my mother wasn't suitable, I was next to be tested, so I haven't been drinking. But we got a phone call two weeks ago to say that a suitable liver had come in. My sister had an eight-hour operation - it started at 4am that very morning - and so far, so good.

That has been unreal. We still can't believe it. Because of the liver condition, she had suffered with an itch all her life and would never have had a proper night's sleep. To see her lying there now, not scratching, is amazing. Already, two weeks after a serious operation, she has more energy than she had going into it, and we are so thankful to the donor and the donor's family.

I watch a small bit of television in the evening, and try and get to bed by 10pm. I usually fall asleep quickly, but if I have an idea I'm excited by, I might not sleep for half the night thinking about it. Even so, you still have to get up at the usual time the next day. I love working with animals - I always have - and they really love routine. First thing in the morning they are all there, ready and waiting for you. There is a relationship; you know them well and they know you. I could look at a single udder and know which cow it belongs to. And there's no back-chat out of any of them.

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