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Ear to the ground

The Interview
Timmy Quinn

Here’s looking at you, kid

Young Farmer of the Year, Timmy Quinn sees a bright future for farming in Mayo

The Interview
Anton McNulty

HAVING to work 365 days a year, with unpredictable hours, and having to work around the Irish weather sounds like a nightmare job for most people, but 2008 FBD Young Farmer of the Year, Timmy Quinn, wouldn’t swap his job for the world.
The land has always been close to the heart of the 34-year-old dairy farmer from Castlecarra near Carnacon, who beat off stiff competition from farmers all over the country to receive the award from former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, following a day of intense interviews in Kilkenny last month. Along with his wife, Collette, he farms 300 acres, half of which he owns and half he rents, incorporating 110 dairy cows and 40 suckler cows.
While Timmy was always destined to have the life of a farmer, he was ‘thrown into’ the running of the farm earlier than expected, following the tragic death of his father in 1990. Timmy was only 16 years old when his father was killed by a bull when he was taking in the herd for milking.
A farm manager was taken on by the family to take care of the farm business while Timmy completed secondary school, but he took over the farm in 1994 after he completed a year in the Agricultural College in Mountbellew. While he never doubted his ability to make the grade as a farmer, he says that he is indebted for the help he got from his mother and the local Teagasc adviser, John Lynn.
“I love the outdoors and it would have been something I would have always done anyway but I suppose it [father’s death] did make up my mind to do it and there was no issue with it. It was tough at the beginning but you just have to pick it up and go on. Time doesn’t stop for anyone. The cows have to be milked regardless. I was always pretty confident I could do this but I had great help and support from my mother and the rest of the family.
“In a way, I had a lot of freedom because there was nobody there to hold me back. I see a lot of younger farmers now who have taken over the running of the farms but would be farming alongside their father. A lot of the fathers would be a bit old-fashioned and set in their ways and holding the young person back. I had the run of things from day one and I could make the changes I wanted. Financially, my mother would have helped me in the first few years and John Lynn became more a friend than an adviser and would not like to see me put a foot wrong,” he said.
Since Timmy took over the running of the farm, farming practices have changed, with a management plan now in place for each day’s work. The more efficient management plan has seen the farm expand from 45 cows producing 45,000 gallons (204,000 litres) to 100 cows producing 600,000 litres on the same area of land. The modernisation of the farm and the milking equipment has allowed for 100 cows to be milked in an hour, and he is always thinking of expanding the size of his herd. He feels the biggest restriction facing farmers in Mayo is not milk quotas but the inability to expand farm sizes.
“The biggest restriction facing farmers is land base. There are a lot of enthusiastic farmers out there who would love to expand their herd and produce more milk but they can’t because their land base is too small. Until land becomes more available they will stay stagnant and that is what is curtailing farming in the west. I’m always looking to expand and I’m all set up for it if land becomes available because the land in Mayo is as good for dairying as anywhere else.”
Dairy farming, he explains, is at the moment a ‘roller-coaster’ business which has seen the price the farmer gets per litre of milk drop by 25 per cent while the costs of feed and fertiliser has risen by 30 per cent in the last two years. Balancing the books and reducing the costs of producing the milk has made farming a very scientific business. Farming has become more than just letting the cattle out in the field to graze, and farmers like Timmy are, quite literally, watching the grass grow to get the best yield.
“Grassland management is one of the key areas where profit is made and lost, and it is vital at this time of the year that your grazing platform is managed to the best of your ability. Grass is the cheapest thing you can grow and you have to produce it as economically as you can. Every week we would measure how much the grass grows and at this time of year, with grass being so valuable, we calculate on the computer how much grass to allocate to each cow. We have calculated how much grass will grow from now until the end of November, how much the cows eat, and in order to keep grass in the cows’ diet between now and then, you can only allocate x amount of grass to the cows.
“We get paid on the amount of fat and protein in the milk and the secret is to keep the grass lush and green and not to let the grass grow above five inches. That is the type of grass where you maximise your output. It is a science in itself to monitor the grass and have the right type of grass for the cow. The difference between ordinary grass and the grass I am talking about is money and profit,” he explains.
With the economy starting to fall off the rails, Timmy laughs at the talk of recession, commenting that farmers are used to hearing that their industry is in recession. However, during the course of the building boom, scores of farmers decided to go part-time and take up a second job on the buildings. But while many around him took up the trowel and shovel, he was never tempted to join them. He feels he made the right call.
“I remember there were lads working in the construction business and they would be down in trenches and it would be teeming from the heavens. Because I was in farming, I could decide to stay out of the rain and do indoor work but they still had to go outside and work. When you go working on a site for someone, you have to work all day long, while in farming you can fit your work around other things.
“My office is outside and looking out over Lough Carra and towards Croagh Patrick and on a morning like this, which is fantastic, you would not want to be anywhere else. I never worked for anyone in my life and I really don’t know what it would be like to work for anyone else except myself. Your hours are your own and I am lucky at what I am doing.”
Timmy has invested heavily in farm equipment such as automatic scrapers for cleaning the shed and cameras in the shed which allow him to keep an eye on cows in calf. He said these investments have taken the hardship out of farming and, with a young family, he tries to keep his work within business hours. The days of a farmer being out working until ten o’clock at night are over, he says, and the key is being more efficient and not letting yourself become a slave to your work.
Being your own boss may have its rewards but it also has its downsides and one of those is the lack of free time. With cows to be milked twice a day and the summer time being the busiest of the year, the question ‘do you get away on family holidays?’ is a difficult one. His wife, Colette, gives a firm answer for him: ‘No’. Timmy, meanwhile, explains that they take breaks away but they are difficult to plan especially when they have to hire some help to look after the cows.
“Some other person would just have to book the holiday and pay for it while we would have to find a man to look after the farm for the fortnight, which would cost as much as the holiday.”
With his daughter Sarah, aged two-and-a-half, and his four-month-old son Timmy to think about in the future, he hopes that the option of running the farm will be open to them when they get older, but he stresses that he won’t be forcing them to follow in his footsteps.
Timmy feels that, in order to survive in farming, you have to have courage to try new things and as he gets older he hopes he will continue to have that courage to change.
“The biggest thing I would say to young farmers is don’t be afraid of change. If you want to see improvements in your farm, you have to be prepared to make changes in order to improve it. See what others are doing and ask for advice before making your mind up for yourself. As I get older, the biggest thing I would be afraid of is that I would get set in my ways and hold the farm back. I hope in the years ahead I will be open to change and try new things.”