Jessica Hall, herdswoman at Printshop Holsteins, Northern Ireland, in conversation with That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, as part of this week’s women in ag segment.
“I grew up on a dairy farm on The Wirral, where my dad was the herdsman for lord Leverhulme’s Thornton herd of pedigree Guernseys.
In 2004, mum and dad, Andrew, and Michele Hall, took over the farm’s tenancy. We carried on the prefix Thornton but moved away from the Guernseys and into Holsteins. We crossed all Guernseys to red and white and bought Holsteins to run 90 cows on the farm.
Since as far back as I can remember, I have been a farm girl. I loved cows and have never wanted to do anything else.
Ag degree and relief milking
I hold a national diploma in agriculture from Reaseheath College, Nantwich, Cheshire. I completed this course from 2009-2012. Year you enrolled and graduated: 2009- 2012. After growing up on a dairy farm, I could not see myself doing anything else.
After graduating, I became self-employed. I worked on the home farm as well as relief milking. My parents decided in 2015 to end their tenancy and sell our cows.
In 2018, I moved to Northern Ireland and have been the herdswoman at Printshop Holsteins, Nutts Corner, Crumlin. Gaston and John Wallace own the pedigree Holstein herd.
Until moving to Northern Ireland, I continued to relief milk as, at the time, this suited me well.
I was working on several farms milking and completing other chores. Also, I would prepare and show cows. I am still involved on the show circuit and was recently named reserve champion handler at the 18th Multi-Breed Dairy Calf Show.
The farm I am currently working on comprises 200 cows, with the home farm spanning 110-acres with an additional 230-acres rented.
We calve all year round and house milking cows all-year-round. We feed TMR, but we zero-graze for 5/6 months of the year and feed grass to a low yielding group of cows.
We AI all cows to Holstein semen, the majority of which will be proven bulls. In recent years, the breeding policy has changed with a move towards sexed semen and beef and less conventional semen.
We use beef sires on the low end of the herd. It depends on the individual animal how many rounds of sex semen they get. We run a home-bred Holstein sweeper bull with low yielders to catch any cows that do not hold to AI.
We calve all-year-round as it suits our housing facilities and milk contract. We try to breed cows that have the least faults, are functional and profitable of average stature, with good feet and legs and well-attached udders.
We keep most calves as replacements, but we have surplus animals that we either sell as maiden heifers or when they calve.
Using more sex semen, we now have an increase in heifer calves. Therefore, we will be selling more this year and in previous years. We aim to calve our heifers 24 months
Production and facilities
The herd average stands at 10,370kgs at 3.93% butterfat and 3.22% protein, from 3.1 tons of concentrates per cow per year.
Our milk from forage (silage/grass) figure is 3, 291 litres per year, and our average calving interval is 405 days. I have sourced this data from the CIS milk recording and Promar. We supply our milk to Strathroy on a liquid contract.
We have a 24/48 Dairymaster parlour and milk cows three times a day. It usually takes around 2 hours to milk with one person in the parlour.
Furthermore, we house all milking cows in cubicles, and we have a loose yard for springing and fresh cows. We house calves and heifers in either loose yards or cubicles.
On the other hand, we house bulling heifers and in-calf heifers in rented accommodation through the winter months.
We are constantly striving to improve and adapt to keep moving forward. Furthermore, we plan to improve our calf rearing unit as the barn is over 100-years-old and is starting to show its age.
Long-term, we would like to put up a new heifer rearing shed as we currently rent sheds for winter months for breeding and in-calf heifers. Having heifers at home would enable us to keep moving the herd forward, as we would like to AI more heifers to sexed semen.
We plan to maintain the current herd size as it suits the system we run.
My responsibilities as a herdswoman are calf feeding and rearing, feeding, scraping, and bedding of youngstock, foot-trimming, AI’ing and managing the general health and well-being of the cattle.
Milking and general farm work are among my other duties. There is not much I do not do as there is only John and I on the farm full-time.
I love working with cows and outdoors, even when the weather is challenging. I could never sit behind a desk; I like to be on the go and hands-on, so being a herdswoman is ideal.
Some days it feels like there are not enough hours in the day.
Moving to Northern Ireland has been the biggest challenge I have faced. However, I was fortunate to get a job that allowed me to have such an active role on the farm and be taken in as one of the family.
Women in ag
I do not feel like I have been treated differently from my male counterparts in the sector. Moreover, I consider myself a hard worker, and I was fortunate to grow up with a great teacher in my dad, who made sure I could turn my hand to most things.
As well as the cows, I can drive a tractor and operate machinery competently, and I have pretty good DIY skills. You hear that you are doing something well for being a woman, but I take that as a compliment. I am quite feisty, so I can stand my ground when necessary.
I feel that women in agriculture are getting the recognition they deserve at farm and industry levels more so in recent years.
I think social media has played a big part in this. Farming can be tough, but everyone reaches out and supports each other.
On the whole, no farmer, man or woman, get the recognition they deserve. Farming is not just a job; it is a way of life; it is our job to make sure that the animals we care for are healthy and happy 24/7, 365 days of the year
I think there are a lot more women coming into agriculture now. There are not many parts of the agricultural sector anymore that do not have their fair share of women working in them now and doing a great job.
Days can be challenging, but I am passionate about it, so I find the good days outweigh the bad.
TB, prices and climate change
I think the future is bright for farming, with so many young people coming through with plenty of ambition and enthusiasm.
However, I think there needs to be changes in the industry. Input prices are increasing, but there is no real movement in milk prices.
TB testing needs to be improved, and a new strategy put in place to help eradicate the huge problem that surrounds TB. The climate change problem also seems to fall very heavily on farmers.
After growing up on a dairy farm, I have never wanted to do anything else. I have always pushed myself to learn and improve.
Although I am sure there are many things I might change or do differently, I would not be where I am today with the knowledge I have if I went back at changed the journey I have taken.
At the moment, I do not think that farming in my own right is something I would like. In saying that, it would be nice to have a small herd of elite cows. Unless I won the lottery, it would not be a practical dream.
I like that I do not carry too much of the stress or worry that comes with farming. I like that I can do my work, enjoy it and clock off at the end of the day.”
To share your story like this herdswoman, email – firstname.lastname@example.org