Helping farmers become more sustainable

Posted on: 9th March, 2018

Category: Farming

Contributor: West Cork People

As Business and Technology Dairy Advisor with Teagasc, Grainne Hurley’s main role is knowledge transfer with the core aim of helping farmers to become more sustainable. She also facilitates five Knowledge Transfer (KT) discussion groups in West Cork.

Teagasc – the Agriculture and Food Development Authority – is the national body providing integrated research, advisory and training services to the agriculture and food industry and rural communities.

When she’s not at Teagasc, Grainne helps her husband Jerry run their two farms in Dunmanway and Clonakilty, one of which is rented and under a farm manager. Between the two farms, they milk almost 260 cows.

The couple have three children, age six, three four and 18 months.

Grainne grew up on a dairy farm in Dunmanway and has always had a fierce ‘grá’ for farming. “I always loved feeding the calves, driving tractors, everything about the farm growing up,” she says.

After finishing school, although Grainne initially wanted to enroll at Clonakilty Agricultural College, with her mother’s encouragement, she decided to go to University. Her twin sister, who prefers paint over muck, was planning on studying art in Cork, so Grainne decided to study environmental science at UCC. “UCD was the only University at the time with a degree in Agriculture but I was very shy, which is why I decided to stay in Cork,” she explains. As it happened, Grainne’s sister got a place on a course in Limerick, which led on to Dublin. “I did three months of the course in Cork, hated it, and went working in a fish factory in Skibbereen.” Grainne successfully reapplied to UCD and after four years got her degree in Agriculture. During the summer holidays, while at college, she did a lot of relief milking and some office work with South Western Services.

Her work placements for college included one with the Moyles’ on their pig farm in Ballinascarthy in 2002. “I learnt so much there…I loved it, except for the smell first thing on a Monday morning,” she says laughing. Grainne also did a stint with the Irish Farmers Journal, three months with a tillage and pig farmer in Timoleague and then on to Canada where she spent three months on a dairy farm.

“I really enjoyed the experience in Canada but dairy farming there is very different to Ireland. It’s all about volume rather than quality. It’s an indoor system and the Holstein cows are milked three or four times a day, which means getting up at three in the morning to milk.”

After graduating, Grainne did a PhD on the biology of grass plants at Moorepark Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Centre in Fermoy. “I spent three years between Moorepark and Queens University in Belfast comparing eight different grass varieties and researching what affected their reproduction…how grazing management impacted it,” she explains.

Which leads on to Grainne’s work today with Teagasc. “I’m always trying to promote that farmers use more grass in their systems, as buying in feed can be very expensive,” she says.

“Since milk quotas have gone, a lot of farmers have expanded very fast. We’re trying to show them how to become more efficient before they expand. This is where grass management comes in.”

Genomics, the study of an animal’s DNA, is an area that has become very important to dairy farming. “The bull’s DNA is tested at a very young age and this will indicate the biological information of heredity that will be passed onto the next generation, for example you can see if their offspring will have good milk protein, leading to a better herd in time,” says Grainne.

Another one of Grainne’s roles is financial advice. “IWe do approximately 50 profit monitors every year. The farmer gives us his, or indeed her, data at the end of the year, all the inputs and outputs, and we analyse it and benchmark the figures off previous years or national figures. This gives the farmer targets to aim towards.”

The KT discussion groups facilitated by Grainne give farmers the opportunity to encourage and learn from one another. “Farmers listen to farmers,” says Grainne. “We assess budgets and discuss new technologies coming through and so on. My job is to present the data from the Teagasc research centre but also to facilitate discussion between farmers. The idea is that people in the group will push each other on. Often you’ll have one or two farmers who will try something new and that will then trickle down to the rest.

“I’ve never felt hindered by being a woman in agriculture,” says Grainne sincerely. “Farming has become a lot more businesslike, attracting more young people and we have a lot more women advisors coming through here at Teagasc. The farm manager on one of our farms in Dunmanway is a young girlwoman, under 30, and like all women farmers, she’s well able for any challenge.

“Once you have the interest, experience and drive, it’s simple to get over any obstacles.”

While it’s a challenge combining family life with farming and also working full time as an agricultural advisor, Grainne takes it all in her stride. “I measure the grass on the rented farm on my day off,” she says smiling.

Labour is one of the biggest problems facing farmers today. “When you go over 100 cows, you need extra help in the Spring, and it’s very difficult to get seasonal workers.”

However, technology in farming is moving at an unprecedented pace, which will hopefully ease the labour problems.

“The technology you can have in your hand is unreal, there are so many farming apps now,” says Grainne. “For example it’s now possible for a farmer to control a drafting system – which assists in assists in organising cows for AI, hoof paring, medication, and buffer feeding – using any WI-Fi enabled device.”

Another option for offsetting labour difficulties is collaborative farming.

This can include share farming where two or more farmers join resources and efforts in order to acquire various benefits. “For example an older farmer might supply the land and buildings while a younger farmer supplies the cows and the labour. It offers a great opportunity for a young person to get on the farm ladder,” explains Grainne.

A Farm Partnership is where two or more farmers join resources and efforts in order to acquire various benefits. Farm Partnerships, are becoming increasingly popular in Ireland with almost 850 formally registered on the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine Register of Farm Partnerships.

Contract rearing involves the movement of replacement heifers from the owner’s farm for rearing on contract by another farmer.

“In the last five years, since the milk quotas were abolished, dairy farming is moving fast,” says Grainne, “and I do see a lot of farmers getting burnt out,” she warns. “Farmers need to look at their time management and get rid of any work that they don’t need to be doing themselves.

“It is seven days a week, 365 days a year, but it’s very rewarding once you are disciplined enough to take time off.”

And sometimes having less cows means more money. “I see a lot of farmers who would make more money if they cut back on their cows. Carrying too many cows on the grass they have means they have to buy feed in at a high cost.

“All farmers know the value of grass but it’s getting them to measure that grass and get it right is key,” she explains.

“Farmers need to walk their land once a week. It’s so important to know what quantity of grass you have in your field. If you’ve too much grass, the quality deteriorates, if you’ve too little, you’ll run into shortages of feed. If you can measure your grass every week, you’ll be able to forecast. It will give you a picture of how your farm can grow and develop and how many cows your farm can sustainably carry.

“And if you have very good grass and are selective with your breeding, you’ll have good protein in your milkproduce high quality milk more competditively.

“The other side of it happens in the milking parlour, as good hygiene will dictate the quality of the milk.”

One of the areas where many farmers are falling short in according to data released by the Department of Agriculture recently is the protection of water against pollution caused by Nitrates.

“The co-ops and Teagasc are taking on a lot more environmental advisors to go out to farmers, which is good news,” says Grainne.

“While our dirty waters have improved, our clean waters have become dirtier so the EU are worried about the ecological life and want to see an improvement in that,” she explains. “Ireland has to apply to the EU every four years for derogation, a relaxing of the rules or laws as such, which allows Irish farmers to carry more cows on their landbase. But in return, we must comply with their rules. These include not spreading slurry after June 15 using a splash plate, as it releases a lot of gas. The alternative is a low emissions slurry spreader like an umbilical spreader, which reduces the amount of gases being released in the air. Watercourse drains, which animals had access to before, will have to be completely fenced off to keep the water clean. Farm roadways will also have to be changed to correct drainage problemsnutriennet losses to watercourses.”

Teagasc carries out soil analysis on farms to determine the average nutrient status of an area and to give a measure of the available nutrients in the soil. “We put a plan together for the farmer so he knows what fertilisers to use. He’s penalised if he doesn’t keep to the plan.”

“My biggest challenge, because of the increase in paperwork, is getting out to the farmers, which is where I need to be,” says Grainne.


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