02 Jul, 2022

Lessons from a Young Farmer

Kevin Moran is a 28-year-old dairy farmer who took on his own farm in 2013. Over the intervening nine years, he has built his dairy herd from 72 cows to 272, and his farm has grown from 90 acres to 265.

He shares his philosophy of working smarter, not harder, and building a legacy that can take care of his family for generations

to come.

Kevin Moran is something of a novelty in the farming world in that his first full-time farming experience was not on the family farm, but involved him going solo at the age of just nineteen. The Mayo man is currently farming in Caherlistrane, near Tuam, where he leased his uncle’s farm and subsequently took on a further three pockets of land.

Farming was very much in the blood, and Kevin started milking on his father’s farm aged just eight. By the time it came to doing his Leaving Cert (and Green Cert), he reckons he was the only student in his entire school of 500 who knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

Kevin is even younger-looking in the flesh than his 28 years would suggest, something that didn’t exactly work in his favour when he first sat down with bank managers to look for start-up capital. With the confidence of youth, he sought a loan of ‘just’ €250,000. Each of the four agricultural banks politely declined, but the young man took this as an opportunity to become financially literate and talk to the banks on their own terms. After a total of nine rejections, and following a guarantee from his uncle, AIB eventually decided to take a chance on him. He values this relationship – and relationships with other creditors and with his part-time workforce. “If you drive a tractor into a wall, you can repair both. But if a relationship comes unstuck, it’s pretty much impossible to fix it.”

He admits that his ambitions when he started out were fairly modest – to have a herd of one hundred cows, and to be debt-free by age thirty. In 2015, however, he was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship. The ensuing travel gave him a brand-new perspective on agriculture right around the world, and his ambition shot from 100 cows to 1,000. Today, however, Kevin points out that he’s reached a more balanced position in terms of where he wants to go next.

“My advice is to grow if you can, then consolidate for a while before you go again. I watched my father still paying back loans to the banks when he retired at almost seventy years old, so I think it’s important to make sure that you keep your debt manageable – although there’s no need to fear well-thought-out borrowing with a clear payback on your investment.”

When probed on the reason for his rapid growth, Kevin is adamant that it’s all down to the smart system he operates. Arising from a spell working with Timmy Quinn, he took on board the mantra that “the farm should work for you – not the other way around.”

The silver bullet, states Kevin, is lowering your input costs. Low input and medium output are the route that he’s opted for, which he claims ‘lets you ride the waves when the unexpected crops up.’ He also stresses the importance of cashflow, and recommends that farmers budget, budget and budget again – making sure that you’ve made provision for every foreseeable event, along with a contingency for the unknowable.

When difficult times come along, such as the drought of 2018, Kevin urges caution against making overly deep cuts to the business. “It’s still important to breed good stock, feed them well, and remain true to your social and sustainability responsibilities, including greenhouse gases, water quality, air quality, and a reduction in energy and fertilisers.” And as if to prove his point, he says that he’s planning to seed this year, despite the challenges in the availability of fertiliser and feed.

In terms of creating a sense of work-life balance, he ascribes a lot of the time savings on his farm to the grass-based model, which lets Mother Nature do a lot of the work. Also, he avoids any machinery work – this is all contracted out, which gives him certainty over his costs. And in terms of milking, a rotary parlour can handle his 270 cows in an hour, with another 30 minutes for washing up.

All his young stock are contract-reared, which takes another very time-consuming task off the table. And with milking relief at weekends and holiday periods, he makes sure to take time off, and to reclaim the ‘head space’ that he believes is so important. Kevin is adamant that this model of making the farm work for you is badly needed if dairying is to become attractive to new generations of farmers.

As to what the next ten years holds in store, Kevin hopes that his role becomes that of a helicopter pilot, taking a loftier view of the farm’s operation, and decreasing its dependence on his physical presence. “Plans are afoot for a second unit next year, and at the same time, I hope to drive my carbon figures down to around half a kilo per litre of milk, which would be very satisfying indeed.”