The Future of Farming: Ailish Byrne, Head of Agriculture, Ulster Bank

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In the first instalment in our series of interviews with the Ulster Bank agriculture team, we speak to Ailish Byrne, Head of Agriculture, about the continual need for upskilling amongst farmers and the challenges posed by Brexit.


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Ailish Byrne, Head of Agriculture at Ulster Bank, grew up on and still runs her family farm in County Laois, as well as leading the bank’s countrywide agriculture team. After studying agribusiness and rural development at University College Dublin, she went on to gain a PhD in farm financial management.

Having nurtured an interest in the management practices of farmers during her doctorate, she applied for a role in Ulster Bank’s agricultural team, joining them in 2003, and helping farmers to invest and expand their businesses. She now develops and directs the bank’s overall strategy for the sector.

Can you tell us about your farming background?

“I’ve always been interested in agriculture and particularly the business of farming. I grew up on a tillage farm, which also had sheep, cattle and pigs – so a variety of enterprises – giving me first-hand experience of working with animals and also with crops.

“My parents have retired, so I now run the farm for them. It’s all tillage today, and it works well to run a tillage farm when you are also employed full-time off the farm. It’s very season-specific in terms of sowing and harvesting the crops – it usually fits in well with my work with Ulster Bank, as you work on the farm in the springtime or the autumn when you’ve got long evenings, and also at the weekends.”


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What’s your favourite part of farming?

“Growing up, everybody around me was involved in the farm business, which I really enjoyed. I also love being outdoors and working with the animals on the farm – more so than I enjoy tillage! My daughters have ponies, so I still get to work with animals: it’s fulfilling, as I like seeing them progress and develop over the year. But I can also look at a crop, at how it progresses from germinating in the spring, right through all the different growth stages over the summer, until it’s harvested in the autumn, and would say that’s probably the thing I like the most – seeing the full cycle of production.”

What is your agricultural training background and qualifications? How important is training and best practice for farmers?

“As well as having my degree and PhD, I participate in a number of discussion groups, seminars and farmers’ conferences, and my husband farms as well, so I’m continually kept up to date with what’s happening on other farms. It’s important to keep this wider awareness, as legislation has changed along with the practices you have to adhere to.


“In Irish agriculture, 90% of our produce is exported, and 50% of our beef is exported to the UK market. There is a worry about what will happen once the Brexit deal is agreed, what it will look like, and how we can best prepare for and manage that situation”

Ailish Byrne, Head of Agriculture, Ulster Bank


“I think that it’s vital for farmers to keep themselves informed, and to attend training courses. Farming in Ireland has in some ways moved away from the family farm, with some people becoming much more commercialised. Part of that is about having a huge range of skills that continually need to be upgraded, including business management skills and people management skills. How you go about managing people coming in to work on the farm is a new concern for a large number of farmers. On top of that, they have to keep up with all the technical, production and efficiency metrics in farming.

“There is a wide range of training available from Teagasc, the national agriculture and food development authority. It provides training courses through a variety of mechanisms: in classrooms; practical training on farms; discussion groups where 10 to 20 farmers from a local area meet on one individual farm to learn from that farmer what he’s done well and the areas he can improve on. That sort of very practical training seems to work well, and farmers are able to bring it home to their own farms.”

What are the key challenges facing Irish agriculture?

“There are a number of challenges. Volatility is one, both price volatility and weather volatility. Also, Brexit is a key concern. In Irish agriculture, 90% of our produce is exported, and 50% of our beef is exported to the UK market. There is a worry about what will happen once the Brexit deal is agreed, what it will look like, and how we can best prepare for and manage that situation.

“The uncertainty is causing an issue particularly around currencies at the moment, and also how to plan for the future. For example, we have a number of beef farmers who are currently buying in stock for finishing which will be sold next March at the Brexit deadline. What the market for these cattle will look like is very hard for anybody at this stage to know. That’s causing real anxiety among livestock farmers and particularly in the beef sector.”


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What is the most exciting trend or innovation you are seeing in Irish farming?

“The most exciting development is the use of different technologies on farms. Particularly around the arable sector, where you have very advanced technologies that allow a tractor to drive itself up and down the field in a very precise track using GPS. You can also spread exactly the right amount of fertiliser, and spray over a very specific area. Lots of new technology is focused around that.

“Drilling down, even innovations in grass are very important. There are technological advances in grass varieties that allow farmers to grow more per acre, and to utilise more of the crop. That’s a driver of cost efficiency, as grass is the cheapest feed that cows can eat. If we continue to improve our innovation around grass, I think that will lead to key efficiencies on our farms.”

 

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