Milkman discusses employee engagement and work-life balance

Cho. The decisions made by a family dairy business that has developed and expanded its farm in Roscommon over the past 12 years have been highlighted at a Fermanagh Grassland Club open meeting sponsored by the Vaughan Trust.

The speaker was Ed Payne, who runs Hilltop Farm with more than 500 dairy cows on two farms with family members.

Ed – recipient of a 2017 Nuffield Fellowship – serves on the board of the Irish Pasture Association.

Ed lives in Ballybeg, Co., with his wife Jennifer, father Jimmy and mother Dawn. Makes decisions to further develop farm business in Roscommon.

He noted that the farm management system works for them, but may not be suitable for every farm. There are many staff members involved, the critical time is spring when calving begins.

About 90 percent of the herd calves within six weeks, meaning an average of about 20 babies are born each day, with 36 born in 24 hours, which Ed says requires someone to be in the yard 24 hours a day.

In his presentation, Ed explained the evolution of the farm to where it is today, as family members decided on the future path.

They decided to switch from beef to dairy farming in 2009 and began developing the farm in 2010. In 2013, an outbreak of microplasma disease resulted in the loss of some of their cows.

The second division started in 2018, with a combined herd of 450 cows.

Ed said their two parcels of land are good quality soil where they can grow a lot of grass in an area that receives 900-1,100mm of rain each year.

At the Tulsk farm, grazing in the first shift begins on February 5 and ends in early April.

They developed a dairy business where they raised a small herd of cows.

Ed said this was made possible by having good relationships with members of the family team, local contractors who work for them, solicitors, banks and the Teagasc consultant, and of course the neighbors established during his father’s time.

He said they constantly talked about cash flow, budgets and realized they had to work hard to run the business well. Ed said he knew he had to be a people manager as well as a cow manager.

However, Ed said each member of the family business brings something different to the table to help them make these important business decisions.

According to him, one of the biggest challenges for dairy farmers is labor and looking to the future is how they will manage the environmental challenges ahead.

As for the work on the farm, they have two tractors and a quad, they spread all the fertilizer for the silage, they supply the grass themselves, but all the silage making, slurry spreading and cattle hauling is done by contractors.

In terms of cow breeding, he felt they have very large cows and are gradually breeding some smaller cows, but regardless of size, their biggest priority is productivity.

The herd averages 6,100 litres, and with on-farm milk prices rising 21 cents to 64 cents a liter in 2021, this helps improve efficiency.

About 80 percent of their vet bills are from preventative medications like vaccines, and Ed told his audience they can control what’s administered.

During his speech, Ed spoke about the Nuffield Scholarship and his thoughts on work-life balance.

Ed said the Nuffield Scholarship was an opportunity of a lifetime and one of the drivers that developed the farm. He looked at the topic of employment in farming and recognized that many farmers had never worked for anyone else and felt that they needed to understand the priorities of workers.

Ed likes to empower people, which puts them in charge and allows them to make decisions.

He calls his off-farm interest – ultra-running – “Top Paddock” and admits to being an overthinker and extremely competitive. In solo running, it was running against yourself.

Ed also said that farming has given him the opportunity to pursue his interests outside of the farm.

Looking to the future, Ed said the family is looking at further expansion with a possible agricultural partnership.

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