A breed apart

Posted on: 6th July, 2015

Category: Farming

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Suckler farmer Tommy Moyles is doing a job he has always wanted to do, in a place he enjoys living in. Just a stone’s throw from Sandescove strand in Ardfield on the Wild Atlantic Way with views of Rosscarbery bay, Toe head, Sherkin island and Mount Gabriel, Tommy’s land is in one of the most beautiful and accessible locations in Ireland, which is why, although he won’t be a millionaire any time soon, he counts his blessings every day. “It’s ten minutes drive in to Clonakilty town and I can be at the airport in an hour and from there anywhere in the world. Unfortunately it doesn’t show up on the balance sheet but it’s pretty priceless to me. Many will say I’m foolish for saying this, but it’s my life, my story and I chose it so if you don’t like it, tough,” says Tommy.

Tommy graduated from CIT in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree. He manages the cattle enterprise on his family’s pig and beef farm at Ardfield Clonakilty, running a herd of 65 Simmental cows and followers.

Although his father, Tom, is a predominantly a pig farmer, Tommy’s grá has always been for cattle. Like many aspiring young farmers, he bought a calf with his First Holy Communion money, selling it a year later and buying another calf with the profit. He also made some extra money from selling the eggs from the 50 ducks he kept while still in school.

Beef production from grass is one of Irish farming’s greatest strengths. It is also a difficult industry to solely make a living from without scale. According to 2014 figures from Teagasc, only the top one third of single suckling and cattle finishing will operate a profitable enterprise in 2015. So why do Irish suckler farmers do it?

Suckler farming is one of the rare types of farming where it is possible to keep workload to a minimum, even at calving time, so some suckler farmers supplement their income with other farming practices or find part-time work in other sectors.

“In comparison to dairy, your income will never be the same,” says Tommy bluntly, “so why should you put a huge amount of time in when it’s not necessary. Some guys love hardship, I don’t, I put a value on my time.”

Tommy aims to have easy care cows that can calf unassisted. “Straightforward calving gives both cow and calf a good chance of performing well for the rest of the year. With a beef cow, she calves, you hope everything will go ok, and at the end of the day, you don’t really have a lot to do.”

Efficient time management also allowed him the chance to become very involved in Macra na Feirme; he was Vice President of the national organisation for two years. As well as contributing articles weekly to the Irish Farmer’s Journal, Tommy is a member of Kilmeen Drama Group and is involved in both the summer productions, ‘Widows Paradise’ and ‘Rossa’. He enjoys having a pastime so different to his day job.

“There were two things that changed my family’s way of thinking and the way we now do things as suckler farmers,” explains Tommy. “The first was my brother’s experience working on a cattle station in Australia. He saw what was possible with big numbers of cattle and how the biggest difference between how things were done there and here was the absence of time pressure on the farms in Australia; they have a few busy days in the year with vaccinations, worming and so on, but that’s it.”

The other eye-opener for Tommy was travelling under the Nuffield Ireland farming Scholarship in 2014. As a result of being awarded the scholarship, Tommy was away for three months learning about agriculture in other parts of the world. “I left at the end of February, whereas before, I would have shut down my life completely during calving time. I saw that the place could operate without me and started working to live instead of the other way around.”

Tommy’s educational trip on the Nuffield Scholarship started with a conference in Australia, before travelling with a group and on his own for 12 weeks to South Africa, Kenya, Russia, Eastern Europe, Germany, the USA and New Zealand, learning about different farm practices and businesses. “The main thing I learnt is that the management and time management techniques are pretty much the same across all industries, including farming.

“Efficient time management can make a farmer’s workload so much easier,” says Tommy. “Recognising your own strengths and weaknesses helps. We’re not a mechanically minded family so machinery work is contracted in; this allows us to focus on what we’re good at. There were 28 hours of slurry spread on the farm last year; what’s the point of buying a slurry tank and have it sitting in the yard for 363 days of the year.”

The decision to bring all their own animals to slaughter in 2013 was a positive step for the business. “This increased our output at similar costs and little extra time,” explains Tommy.

“For the future, we need to be more aware of what goes on outside the farm gate, we are food producers not just cattle farmers,” says Tommy. “Irish beef farmers don’t see the meat side of beef, which is very different to how it’s done in New Zealand and Australia. It’s important to understand your customer and what they want. A huge learning curve for me was selling meat from the freezer to a few neighbours. I gained an understanding of the different sizes and cuts of meat that sell.”

Tommy believes there should be a module on meat, counting for at least 20 per cent of overall marks, on all agricultural courses. “If young farmers are educated on this, then they will have a better understanding of their product and what sells.”

“Fragmentation is our biggest challenge,” says Tommy. “We have 60 acres here in Dunowen, 20 a mile away and rented land 10 miles away in Ballinascarthy, on the other side of Clonakilty.”

Spring 2013 brought another far more worrying challenge. “Not so much the fodder crisis,” says Tommy “but we had a bad scour and fluke outbreak with a mortality of 20 per cent of calves. Disease was our biggest trial that year.

In suckler farming in general, Tommy sees succession is one of the biggest challenges to its future. “There are opportunities for people to get into dairy without a background in farming but the challenge facing the beef industry is who is going to keep the sector going if young people don’t want to do it. It’s not a full-time occupation, so not as attractive as dairy.”

Saying that, it’s a job that Tommy highly recommends. “Once the animals go outdoors in spring, there isn’t a lot to it. You have to take chances and think outside the box and find a system that works for you to make a living from suckler farming, but if you do that, then it provides a very rewarding way of life.”

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