The Secrets to Farming Success

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PJ O’Keeffe, Macra na Feirme Young Farmer of the Year 2017, talks about the challenges he’s faced to get where he is today.

Dairy farmer PJ O’Keeffe, 33, had been farming with his parents for 10 years when he took over the running of the business in 2015. Since then, his herd has grown at a rapid rate.

 

You’ve grown your farm business significantly in the past four years. What were the drivers for growth?

“We’ve always been a really efficient dairy farm, even when we were operating on a small scale. So, some of the key things were to maintain the same level of efficiency – we had to make sure the farm, going forward, was a thriving farm for people to work on. The main driver other than that was to grow to a scale where the farm was going to be performing at its maximum level.

“We had to develop a price base at which we deemed the farm could be sustainable – we had to find the best price to produce milk at and simultaneously continue to grow. At the moment, we’ve maximised out the farm and will milk something between 520 and 550 cows this year alone. We’re going to consolidate for a year or two before we decide to do anything else.

“Going forward, I want the farm to be producing above 550kg of milk per cow annually when the herd reaches a level of maturity, which we should see within the next few years.”

 

What has been the most rewarding aspect of this growth programme?

“Looking back 10 years ago, I had a dream of the kind of growth I wanted. We’ve reached our goal and need to give ourselves credit for what we’ve achieved. Any targets we set for the farm along the way, we’ve hit.

“People advised me that certain things I was going to try couldn’t be done – that we were going too fast – but we surpassed our targets, and that’s the main thing. Winning the Young Farmer of the Year was a pretty big thing, not just personally but for everyone involved. It’s a level of acknowledgement for all the hard work put in collaboratively, whether that be the contractors, people that work on the farm, and my parents – who left me a pretty good farm to take over.”

 

What’s been the most challenging aspect of the growth undertaken?

“The most challenging thing has probably been acquiring good skilled labour. It’s been a pretty steep learning curve, going from a farm that was centred on family labour to getting your head around what people want, why they want it, how to encourage people to work for individuals and help people grow at the same time. You can’t control other individuals – you have to encourage and lead. As a result, the day-to-day running of the farm has become relatively straightforward.”

 

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

“I probably would have built a milking parlour a year earlier and I likely missed out on a really good opportunity to get a good individual into the business that would have given us the ability to grow from the outset.”

 

“People advised me that certain things I was going to try couldn’t be done – that we were going too fast – but we surpassed our targets, and that’s the main thing”

PJ O’Keeffe, Macra na Feirme Young Farmer of the Year 2017

 

As the current Macra na Feirme Young Farmer of the Year, which key piece of advice would you give to someone taking on a growth project similar to your own?

“One thing I would say to anyone is, it has to be enjoyable. If not, question the sustainability of it. It has to be sustainable for those working as part of the farm. Every farm and system of running it is different – no two are the same. But it has to be doable before it becomes profitable – that’s the main thing.”

 

How have you dealt with the very challenging spring, which every farmer was faced with this year?

“We have a very good milking parlour, which makes it easy. There’s somewhere warm where people can go and have a cup of tea and take a break. This spring will not be my most profitable, but we have to be able to get through it and come out the other side and still be in good stead – and everyone is in reasonably good shape. I think if we look back at how bad yesterday was and how bad last week was and how bad last month was, we’re looking in the wrong direction – you can’t change that.”

 

Where do you see yourself and the farm in five years’ time?

“We’ve worked hard for the past 10 years to put things in place and it would be advantageous, I believe, to give somebody else the opportunity to take it on – to bring fresh eyes and opinions. There are plenty of capable young people out there who just need to be given the opportunity. I could look to setting up a second unit to make a difference. Milking cows is a job I absolutely love and I could do it night and day, but it doesn’t have to be my role to retirement.”

 

Farmers are good at sharing learning with each other at events and on discussion groups. Would you recommend it?

“Absolutely. It’s the cheapest way of learning – you get the benefit of their experiences, the things that have gone particularly well and those that went poorly. It’s key for the industry, especially in times that are tough – during a lack-of-fodder crisis and a very cold spring, or where you have very poor grass growth – that we can learn from what other people are doing and maybe save a few quid here and there. If we spoke to 10 people and learned one thing off each one of them, we’d have 10 new things at the end of it.”

 

By Joy Persaud

 

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