The phrase ‘she’s some woman for one woman’ comes to mind after meeting Caroline Walsh (nee O’Neill). Originally from Ballinadee, Caroline (33) now lives and farms in Crohane, Ballinascarthy, milking 70 cows. She is married to Joe Walsh, an agricultural contractor, and the couple has five children.
In 2010, Caroline won Feirm Factor, a competition that challenges farming skills, business acumen and physical and mental endurance.
The straight-talking Ballinadee woman, who brought her cows with her when she settled in Ballinascarthy, says the sense of community in her townland is fierce.
Caroline had previously worked part-time in a veterinary practice in Bandon so she knew many of her neighbours before she ever arrived. “That was an advantage,” she says “we had a common ground to start off from. We’re always helping each other out and borrowing from each other, there is a sense of community or connection that’s lost in a lot of places.
With five children ranging in age from 11 down to 18 months, there’s never a dull moment in the Walsh household, particularly during calving season.
“We had a cow who had twin calves and one of them had ‘water belly’, a twist in the intestines due to a genetic defect, so we ended up having to take her to the ‘kennels’ or knackery. Nobody wants to be in there or be seen inside there but if you do meet someone, you just have to stop and vent. We’re so busy this time of year that when you do get the chance, you stop and talk.
“When it all goes wrong, I turn on the radio and dance the troubles away with the kids,” she says laughing. “A few funny dance moves from them and nothing seems as bad anymore.”
Life is busy but the farm fits in around the family. “The cows move to suit us,” says Caroline, who starts milking every morning at 6.30am. She has a childminder who comes every morning and evening for a few hours to accommodate milking.
“All the calving has to be done before Joe goes, around St Patrick’s Day,” explains Caroline. He’s an agricultural contractor so he’ll be busy until mid October!”
School runs, homework, housework and activities like swimming, rowing and GAA take up most days, in between milking. The children have to be fed too of course, so there’s never time to stand around.
“When I go down to the milking parlour at 4.30 in the afternoon, I switch on the radio and take a deep breath in – that’s my therapy,” says Caroline smiling. “And in the morning when I’m down there, all I can hear is the birds. Then I ready myself for the next burst of madness!
“Most of my kids were born in Springtime. You’re there, eight months pregnant, and holding up a tail for a heifer,” she says laughing. “It’s mad.”
Caroline went to Clonakilty Agricultural College before going on to study Agricultural Science at CIT.
Before getting married, she had rented a farm next to the family homeplace in Ballinadee, where she milked 60 cows.
“Dad gave me a good start…he gave me 40 cows, my dowry I suppose you could call it!” she says laughing.
Caroline met Joe through Macra na Feirme and the couple got married in 2013, moving the following year to Joe’s family’s land in Ballinascarthy. “Joe’s family were after getting out of cows when we got married,” explains Caroline. “We knocked the old parlour and put in a new one.
“After having five children, you get cuter to the way you work,” says Caroline. It’s all about making things more efficient and managing your time well. Joe is fantastic from an engineering perspective. He will make up anything to make life easier for me on the farm.”
Caroline has an innovative mind and, with the help of her uncle John O’Neill of O’Neill Engineering in Ballinadee, already has a few inventions under her belt!
“My ambition is to make life less labour-intensive,” she explains.
So when given the challenge of creating an off-farm enterprise as part of Feirm Factor in 2010, Caroline naturally turned her mind to this task.
“I went to my uncle John O’Neill with the idea of creating a mobile calf staller for holding calves while de-horning,” she explains. The O’Neill’s were able to put more time into the product after Feirm Factor and it’s now being sold internationally.
Another idea she came up with was the Cluster Dipper, which prevents cross contamination between cows in the parlour. It’s ideal for dry cow therapy or mastitis treatment. This is now also on the market (oneilleng.ie).
“Necessity really is the mother of invention,” she says seriously.
Caroline also counts herself lucky to be a part of the Teagasc Clonakilty KT discussion group. “It’s a very forward thinking group,” she explains. “The older farmers want to see the young farmers succeed. We’re very much a team and are all part of a WhatsApp group, where we can ask each other for help and advice when necessary.
Last year I had a cow who was sucking her own teet,” says Caroline “I googled everything going but I’d say it was literally happening out of boredom. We ended going up to a neighbour down the road who can fix anything. He got a tyre from a baler, which we blew up around her neck. That solved the problem.”
Her neighbours are another stalwart group who Caroline can call on for help. “If Joe’s at silage, I can call one of my neighbours in a heartbeat if I’m stuck,” she says. The time of the bad storm last year, one of our neighbours shared their generator with us, we didn’t even have to ask – they just arrived up after milking.
“My biggest downfall is being a perfectionist in regard to the cows,” she admits, “I can’t let a sick cow go.”
This time of year of course is busier than any other. “I’d hardly sleep if a cow is calving,” she says. “That cow is there all year and there’s only one minute of real importance in that year…when that calf comes out.”
Caroline is from a family of six children. “I think determination was built into us by our parents. My father would roll the eyes and laugh and say ‘sure you’ll never be able to do that’ and it would drive us daft. We’re all very headstrong as a result.”
This inspiring farmer has never wanted to do anything else. “I remember one summer, I think I was about nine, I got up one morning at six and milked about 60 cows. I was delighted with myself and couldn’t wait to tell my father. But I’d forgotten to close the tap on the tank and all the milk ran off down the drain!”
“I remember another time, I must have been eight, and I was the only one of the six children to get a box of Roses at Easter. It was because I was always out helping on the farm.
“It’s a lovely upbringing for any child,” says Caroline. “When you see little kids kneeling down and talking to the calves, it gives them a great sense of respect for animals and a very gentle nature.
“We go home to Ballinadee to talk more cows,” she says laughing. “There’s no getting away from it, even if we wanted to!”
While they don’t get a holiday in as such, the Walsh family spends the summer going to regattas and vintage and threshing days.
“I think if you can accept the curtailments of your life you can move forward,” says Caroline. “It’s about having a positive mental attitude.”