When cows are your calling

Posted on: 9th March, 2018

Category: Farming

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Back in 2011 Vanessa Kiely O’Connor and her family won the Carbery Top Milk Quality Supplier Award and the same year represented Bandon Co-op to win the National Dairy Council Award for Best Quality in a herd under 50 cows. The family farm in Upton today carries 52 cows on 60 acres.

Vanessa runs the farm with the help of her husband David who works full-time for Aer Lingus at Cork Airport. Over the past seven years, as her two children have grown and become more independent, so too has Vanessa’s drive to bring the farm to maximum efficiency and maximum profitability.

One of West Cork’s inspiring women farmers, Vanessa is a member of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA), an Agricultural representative on Cork Co. Council and this year she was co-opted by ICMSA on to the Farm Business Committee.

She is also a member of the Bandon Budget Knowledge Transfer (KT) discussion group and last year managed to find the time to complete a Professional Certificate in Business Strategy in Farming from Smurfit Business School in association with Teagasc and UCD.

“I never thought cows would be my vocation,” she says laughing. “But I think being a woman makes it easier to understand their psyche. They like routine, I like routine, so we get on very well. I have great empathy for them, particularly at calving time!”

Although not from a farming background, Vanessa grew up surrounded by farms in Ballybrown, Co. Limerick. After secondary school she went on to do a year at an agricultural college followed by two years of the Farm Apprenticeship Course at that time. It was while on her placement with a farm in Upton that she met her husband David.

The couple took over the family farm from David’s parents in 2002,which at the time had 43 acres and 28 dairy cows, so Vanessa and David, at their own pace, have been building the herd while juggling time rearing a young family. It’s only now, with her children nearly grown, Fintan is (16) and Sadhbh (15) that Vanessa feels she can develop the farm to its full potential. “I’ve never had the free ‘brain’ time before to give it my full focus,” she explains.

“A lot of people think it’s an advantage that I can be at home with the children but I’ve always worked a full day and when the kids were younger I had no choice but to bring them to work with me.

“When Fintan and Sadhbh were small, I used to put them both into the car at three o’clock and drive around until they fell asleep, then pull up next to the milking parlour and roll down the windows. I had the pram in the dairy ready for when one of them woke up!

“We had monitors and child gates all over the house,” says Vanessa. It was a small farm at the time so we couldn’t afford childcare, the same struggles as anyone else in any other job with a mortgage and both parents working.”

The cows have to be milked before the school-run in the mornings. After she’s done the school run, Vanessa might have time to throw on a few loads of laundry and tidy up after breakfast before she’s outside again finishing off the morning’s jobs on the farm, putting in the silage, cleaning the yards etc.

With more time now to put into research, Vanessa has found the ICBF Herdplus to be an invaluable asset and it has really helped her to focus on the genetic profile of her cows; selecting bulls, which give a more fertile healthier cow with high milk solids. “We get paid for our milk solids and quality milk and if I can improve the fertility and health of the herd, then both animals and ourselves are winning,” she explains.

Vanessa walks her land measuring the grass weekly. She inputs the data into PastureBase, a grassland management support tool. “At the end of the year I know how many tonnes of grass I’ve grown and how many tonnes I’ve utilised for the cows,” she explains.

A member of the Bandon Budget KT discussion group, facilitated by agricultural advisor at Teagasc Grainne Hurley, Vanessa uses the Teagasc Cost Control Planner Programme. “At the end of the year we complete a Profit Monitor in December and have a meeting to discuss our results – profits or losses in January. We’re all very progressive and eager to learn from each other and improve our own systems financially and physically.

Vanessa plans on having two-thirds of the farm grazed by St Patrick’s Day; the calved cows are out grazing since January 29 and have just started to go out by night this week. The cows have access to the shed day and night should the weather get bad. “Cows reach peak milk supply six weeks after calving and require a lot of energy in their diet, grass is higher in protein than silage so the earlier you can get them on grass the better for them, I always keep a close eye on their nutrition but more so between now and the breeding season to make sure they are kept in good condition,” she says.

“Farming is gone from beyond being a way of life – it’s a mixture of science and tradition. At least now we can understand certain traditions, as the science has proved how and why certain ways work.”

There is so much new research being presented at farm events by Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture. “There is always something new to learn and if I think it suits my system, I might give it a try.” With all the challenges of the highs and lows of milk price and trying to work with our Irish weather, the business of farming is difficult, but the farmers of West Cork are up to the challenge and it is inspiring to see their determination to continually strive to upskill and stay on top of the business.”

Vanessa says that the course she completed last year with Smurfit Business School was extremely beneficial. “I learned a lot about myself and what’s driving me,” she explains. “I was at that crossroads where I was questioning myself and my business ability but the course covered planning, negotiation skills, finance etc and I realised that I was already in year one of my five year business plan.

“Since then, I have set myself financial, physical and personal targets. The personal targets include sitting around the table as a family and discussing business and family issues. We now have a diary, which everyone, including the farm, has a section in.”

Like so many farmers, Vanessa aspires to running a busy and productive enterprise, but one that also fits in around family life. In the last five years she has started bringing in a milking relief worker so the family can take a weeklong holiday abroad together once a year.

Although farming will always present a number of challenges, Vanessa seems to thrive on them. “I enjoy my cows and take pride in my work and I want our family farm to reach its full potential and I want my children to see that if you work hard that you can achieve your goals”

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