Millie McIntyre is this months Ballybar Collective guest blogger and she has knocked it out of the park with her thoughts on planning for the future and goal setting. Millie, also known as @tales.of.an.irish.farm.house is based in Tullamore, milking 85 Friesian and crossbred high yielding cows with one Delaval V300 robot, on a grass-based system. The cows are split between Spring and Autumn calving on 220 (owned) acres. Retaining all heifer calves, selling any beef or surplus Friesian heifers at about 15 months and the bull calves are generally sold locally. The usual suspects are also running around the farm as well, hens, ponies and a handful of sheep. Millie is this months Ballybar Collective guest blogger and she has knocked it out of the park with her thoughts on planning for the future and goal setting.
I have been thinking about Covid and how it has affected so many peoples' plans. Weddings have had to be postponed, important events called off and birthday parties cancelled. It got me thinking about how little I plan. In fact, my life seems to be a series of unplanned events, right from the very beginning... and by "beginning", I mean I was an unplanned baby! My parents married just before I was born in 1976, but my father died the following year... not something anyone really plans for.
It was around that time that my farming journey began. My father left a portion of the farm to me (when I turned 21) in his will. This was a constant throughout my childhood... knowing that one day I would own land and have to do something with it. It was a strange feeling for a young child. I grew up farming alongside my mother. There wasn’t much choice around our farm, work needed to be done and my mother often needed help doing it, be it day or night. Also, a lack of childcare meant that I was reared on her lap in the tractor, or on a concrete block in the cow byre. My mother is a great stock person and a very hard worker, but that doesn't always convert to running a successful farm.
Just after turning 17, with no plans for a future career, I went off to agricultural college, so that I'd at least have the necessary qualifications I needed to inherit land without a huge tax bill. What I wasn't expecting to find there was a love of farming! I returned home to farm at 18 full of enthusiasm, knowledge and labour-saving techniques! By this time my mother was farming sucklers, after having been a dairy farmer for most of my childhood.
I worked at various jobs over the next few years whilst farming with my mother. I was lucky to get to travel quite a bit too, but at 21, my responsibilities changed. I was now a landowner. The following year my mother took early retirement, and I leased a further 75 acres from her, as well farming my own 60 acres. My mother had built her own house and I was living in my own little house. It was all going wonderfully until a new motorway that was planned made a beeline for my land. The farm was very fragmented already, (part of it was split by the Dublin-Galway road) but this new motorway split it again.
Around this time, I was at a party with friends when I met Colm, who was a dairy farmer. On that particular night, I had told my friends that I was planning to stay single for a while... that plan went out the window! We got engaged a year later.
I decided around that time to sell my little house and a small piece of land and we applied for planning permission to build a house on Colm's land, but the first time we applied, we were refused planning permission. We had no house to live in, but we went ahead and got married in November 2001, when he was 24 and I was 25. We planned to start a family soon but hadn't foreseen that we'd arrive home from honeymoon pregnant!
I continued to farm my sucklers in Kildare while Colm was milking in Offaly, making married life a challenge. We spent much of that first Spring apart calving cows in different counties.
Then we were offered a massive opportunity... neighbours of Colm's were selling 60 acres in one block with a house and yard, plus a herd of dairy cows and quota. We decided to take the chance. I sold the remainder of my own (now split) land and my sucklers and bought the neighbour's farm. We went from milking 50 cows to milking 100 overnight. We moved into the house just before my 26th birthday, and just a few weeks before our first child was born in August 2002.
During that same summer Colm's uncle approached him, saying that he wanted to sell 50 acres of land adjoining Colm's farm. We had to buy it... the farm had originally been in one piece but was divided between Colm's father and uncle, who were twins. We went to the bank and borrowed the money to buy it, adding to the already large debts that Colm had taken on at 19 when his own father had died suddenly.
Over the next couple of years, we farmed together. Colm continued to spend the summers working with his brother who was a silage contractor (he milked in the mornings and I milked in the evenings) and we still had my mother's farm leased 20 miles away. We had a second baby in 2004 and continued to work on improving the breeding of the cows, the grassland and the farm in general. We worked hard and continued to pay off our debts as quickly as possible.
A few years later we planned to have a third baby... when the scan showed two babies, we had to adjust our plans...again! Our twins were due in June 2008, and on May 11th, when we were checking cattle at my mother's, we got a call from a neighbour to say that our milking parlour was on fire.... we rushed back to find the parlour ablaze. Everything in the dairy was lost. The pit itself was ok (although full of meal), but the loft and roof above it were gone. With the help of friends and family, the pit got emptied and a milking machine was cobbled together to keep us going. The cows were milked at midnight that night.
Two weeks later our twins were born, and Colm spent a very long rainy summer in a roofless parlour, while I mostly stayed at home with a child on each breast and two other little ones to look after! We survived... but only just!
In 2009, a chance meeting and a brief conversation with a tillage farmer from Co Cork led us to start researching the idea of trading as a company. We met with lots of opposition along the way, but after lots of legwork and perseverance we set the farm up as a limited company in 2010.
A couple of years later my mother-in-law decided to downsize and we bought her house from her. By then we had cleared our farm debts and we restored and refurbished her 250-year-old old farmhouse, which is in the yard where we milk. We moved there during the summer of 2014. This move has definitely made balancing children and farming easier.
Last year we decided to change our milking system. We bought a robot. A huge change for us both, but especially for Colm who left school and started milking full time at 16. We spent a long time researching and soul searching. Buying one robot would mean reducing numbers from 110 to 85 but buying two would stretch us financially and would mean increasing cow numbers, as well as doing extensive building work.
We decided to go with one robot and started milking with it in January of this year, but we will most likely add a second one in time (the shed is designed for two robots). It has been a busy year of training cows and heifers into the new system. We put in many long days (and occasionally nights), but hopefully it'll pay dividends in the future.
We have no 5-year plan, and we don’t set ourselves targets. That is not to say that we don't think about the future at all... we just don't plan too far ahead. We seem to achieve more by being open to new opportunities and being flexible enough to take them. Over the last couple of years, we have had the chance to buy a couple of small pieces of land, neither of which we expected to come up for sale. Luckily, we were in a position to buy both.
Although not great long-term planners, our heads are always full of ideas! We are forever hatching plans to improve things around here. I do wonder if the fact that we both lost our fathers when we were young has made us slow to plan too far into the future.
We no longer lease my mother’s land. A few years after the children started school, the 40-mile daily round trip became too much. Colm finished working with his brother in 2005, but he continues to do all of our own machinery work.
Our children are now 18, 16, 12 (x2). They are all quite happy to work for the summer on the farm, or to help out at weekends. We will however put no pressure on them to farm. The farm is here for them if they choose to follow that career path, but we would encourage them to get a good education first, travel plenty and gain varied experiences in many areas.