With the abolishment of milk quotas this year, for the first time in 31 years, Irish dairy farmers have the potential for expansion. “15 years ago farming was almost a ‘dirty’ word,” says Bantry dairy farmer Corney Buckley, “today it’s difficult to get a place in an agricultural college such is the demand to get into the industry. Farming has contributed hugely to the recovery of our economy and will continue to drive the Irish economy forward. It’s an industry that promises a bright future for our young people.”
Corney and John Buckley are two generations of farmers in Bantry. Corney is married to Sheila and the couple also has a daughter, Ann. As well as fulfilling the role of farm bookkeeper, Sheila looks after the calves and Ann, a teacher, enjoys helping out on the farm whenever she’s home. The father and son partnership milk nearly 200 cows on their owned and rented land. Although the abolishment of the quotas has brought with it the challenge of volatility in milk prices, Corney and John are optimistic about the future of Irish farming.
“The price of milk has dropped about 30 per cent in the last 12 months,” says Corney “but looking forward, the prospects are very good. We have a good climate with regular rainfall and no drought. West Cork is a good grass producing part of the country and the market is expanding for extra dairy products so we look forward to rising to the challenge.”
Corney has been farming for over 40 years. Before that, he recalls saving a few ‘bob’ to buy some pigs while still at school. “I fattened them up, sold them on and made my first few pound, which I bought some heifers with,” he says smiling. That was the first bit of money I made in farming.”
After getting his certificate in Agriculture from Rockwell College, Corney had the opportunity to purchase the family farm, making payments on it over a number of years. “It wasn’t easy to get finance back then, you saved and you saved some more. I started off on a green-field site with 30 milking cows,” he says.
A graduate of Clonakilty Agricultural College and winner of the Macra na Feirme FBD Young Farmer of the Year Award for 2013, John (29) is married to Marguerite (Mags) and the couple have just celebrated the arrival of their first son, possibly the next generation in farming.
John completed nine months work experience in New Zealand during his time in college. “It was a great experience and showed a very positive future for farming,” says John. Back then agriculture wasn’t the cool thing to do here, but in New Zealand, it was the industry to be involved in, full of young and enthusiastic people and offering lots of opportunity. Thankfully Irish young people are seeing the future in farming now and we’re having a huge influx into agriculture.”
John was also awarded a Nuffield Scholarship last year, which provides a travel and study bursary to scholars with the aim of encouraging the advancement of agriculture and rural development through the promotion of awareness, education and leadership in the Irish agriculture and rural sectors. As a result, he has travelled extensively over the past year, looking at and learning about different methods of dairy farming all over the world, in countries like France, the UK, the US, Mexico, Brazil and New Zealand.
Corney is no stranger to awards himself, having won the Munster Dairy Farmer of the Year in 1980. He was involved in Macra na Feirme in his younger days, Drinagh Co-op and Carbery for a number of years and is still an active member of the IFA.
“My father is a very progressive man. I have very much been brought up with modern dairy farming and we share the same goals,” says John.
Sharing this huge passion for modern farming, Corney and John are farmers for 365 days of the year, putting in 14-hour days, if not longer, during silage and calving seasons. “I love farming as a way of life,” says John, “you’re always outdoors, you are your own boss and it’s a great environment in which to raise a family. You’re working with all the things that are good about Ireland. Yes the hours are long, but a lot of this is self-inflicted. Plenty of other people can do it in less time but we enjoy it.
“Farming is a challenge but an interesting and enjoyable one,” admits Corney. It’s great to see the changes and improvements that are being made all the time, up through the years, in the industry. When I started off in farming, silage was new, hay was still being made and there was a lot of traditional methods used; today farming is much more intensive and mechanised and productive. There have been huge improvements in grassland management, the harvesting of crops and feed, the way we feed, numbers of stock that can be carried now.
“It’s interesting the way farming has moved forward; that in itself has created its own challenges — you can’t make a mistake now, because if you do, you won’t stay in business. You have to educate yourself all the time to keep up with the changes. As the demand for milk has increased, so too has the demands made by the customer; the customer wants sustainability and quality assurance but as cheaply as possible. These are the demands we try to meet.”
Corney and John’s cows supply the Carbery Winter Milk Scheme so produce milk all year round with 40 per cent of their cows calving in the autumn and 60 per cent in the spring. “It would be quite unusual to be milking 12 months of the year but we saw it as an opportunity for expansion during the quota years,” explains Corney.
Although cautious of further expansion too quickly, the Buckley’s are progressive thinkers, moving forward all the time. “We have become more efficient and practical in our way of thinking,” explains Corney. “All of the land on this site had to be reclaimed and improved, which cost a lot of money, time and effort. As our numbers have increased, we have improved and increased in size our milking facilities and winter housing.
“There is no doubt that farming as an industry in Ireland is going to get bigger. But if it gets bigger, then labour costs will increase, which of course will be another challenge.”
“To be successful in farming you need to be prepared,” says Corney. “Poor weather, fluctuating product price, rise in production costs, falling productivity, fluctuating income, disease risk, these are all trials faced by farmers. But if you’re prepared, then you can deal with them. “We always have a plan b. In 2013, a lot of new farmers didn’t see the fodder shortage happening but it will happen again and you have to be prepared for that.”
“There is a lot to be said for experience,” says John “which shone through in the fodder crisis in 2013. Older people viewed fodder as money in the bank, whereas many young farmers didn’t view it as being important.”
Corney would encourage anyone with an interest in farming to get involved in the industry. “Of course, firstly you must have an interest, but if you know your farming, know your business, keep informed and educated, keep an eye on input and output, then you have a good chance of being a success in agriculture.
“I started with nothing and got to where I am today with hard work,” says Corney.
“There’s an image out there that farming is a closed door but it’s not,” says John. If there are young people out there with no connection to a farm but interested in getting involved and put in the work, there are plenty of people to offer help, advice and work experience.”