‘If I were 10 years younger I’d convert to dairy the bills to be paid after cattle are sold are shocking’
With 120 suckler cattle and 400 ewes, Tom Conroy’s 400-acre farm on the outskirts of Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath is large by the standards of the drystock sector, where the average suckler and sheep herds stand at 20 and 140 respectively, according to Teagasc.
But with margins getting ever tighter, Tom says that if circumstances were different, he would switch to dairy farming.
“If I were ten years younger, I’d convert to dairy,” he says. “The bills that must be paid after all the cattle are sold is shocking. By the time I’ve fixed up with everyone, there’s not too much left.
“At least in dairy you’ve got a cheque coming in every month and you’ve still got your animal left as well. With my system it’s very hard to pay everybody and have enough left at the right times to do things like develop the farm.
“I’m farming 400 acres between owned and rented land it’s only a couple of kilometres away, around 320 acres altogether, but it’s split by roads, then the remaining land is scattered, so it would be good for dairy.”
Covid-19 forced Tom to alter how he did business. The closing down of marts coincided with the time when he usually sells most of his cattle.
However, even with the online buying and selling platforms yet to be established, his local mart in Tullamore was able to help him out.
“I called the manager of the mart Antoinette Daly at the end of March to ask what could be done to sell cattle,” he says. “She said the mart was closed but she would make a few phone calls to get buyers.
“That was on a Friday and by the following week I started getting phone calls from people who wanted cattle to eat grass.
“They’d ring looking for cattle Charolais and Limousine were in demand and anyone that came I sold to them and often they would take a few more than they came for.
“We agreed on a price per kilo and then we booked a slot in the mart where they were weighed. All you had to do was show up. They did all the paperwork.
“All you had to do was pay commission the seller paid €10 and the buyer paid €8 and you got the cheque a week later in the post.”
Lamb sales also make up a big portion of the enterprise. While Tom says it’s not a lucrative business it’s an important and fast way for him to generate income, especially when his family were going through thirdlevel education.
“Someone once said to me lambs won’t make you any money, but they’ll keep a few bills paid and they were right. I had five kids and they all went through college, so the lambs were a good way of generating money.”
“The first of the sheep lamb in February and early March and the remainder lamb in April and May. The first of them go to the factory in June / early July. I sell them through an agent called Bernard Campbell. He comes over and looks at them and picks the best ones to sell. We only sell them as they’re fit to go. It works well.
“The lambs kill out at roughly
Wet period Tight margins:
Tom Conroy with some of his suckler herd at Stonehouse farm, Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath; below, with his wife Catherine 50pc; 21kg is the cut-off point, you don’t get paid for anything over 21kg, so if they weigh more it costs you to produce something the factory will sell for profit, which is wrong.
“We got a good price for this time of the time of year. I usually got 4.90/kg for mid-July lamb we got around £5.50-5.60, which was one of the first times it was up for this period. The Easter price wasn’t as good this year either.”
The prolonged wet period means that Tom has been unable to cut hay in recent weeks.
“I have 20 acres of hay that I hoped to cut in mid-July, but it has been so wet it’s still in the field. The contractor will be here next week to cut 60 acres of silage, and if the weather doesn’t pick up by then I’ll be cutting the hay as silage and putting it in the silage pit because it will be too strong at that stage.”
With reports of a scarcity of straw the coming weeks, Tom is looking to use peat as an alternative form of bedding.
“I heard straw is going to cost over €15 a bale. I’ll be using over six bales every second day which will work out very expensive. So, this year I’m going to use peat, from Bord Na Mona. It will work out cheaper than straw and is a lot less labour intensive as you only have to throw it down every couple of weeks.”
‘Someone once said to me lambs won’t make you any money, but they’ll keep a few bills paid and they were right. I had five kids and they all went through college. The lambs were a good way of generating money’