In this week’s Career Focus series, That’s Farming, speaks to Aiden Cunningham. The LIC breeding advisor discusses his farming roots, managing dairy herds comprising 400-1,500 cows and stints in the US and New Zealand.
Dairy enthusiast, Aiden Cunningham, has spent his life floating between the Emerald Isle, the US and New Zealand.
He now resides in Dunmanway, Co. Cork, and works for LIC since October of last year, following a stint overseas.
Spending time on his grandparent’s farm in Westmeath sowed the seed for the Irish dairy farmer, who boasts global experience. His grandparents bought a farm in Westmeath in the mid-60s, having moved from their home in Galway.
Aiden’s father, who was a carpenter, emigrated to the US when he was 20, and shortly after he was born, they moved home to Ireland.
“After a few years, my parents decided to return to the states. I had already begun to spend my summers in Westmeath with my grandparents and my uncle working on their farm,” he told That’s Farming.
“It was evident to my parents that I really loved it. So even though we moved back to the states, I flew back to Westmeath every summer until I moved back to Ireland myself after finishing schooling in the states.”
“My grandfather worked on building sites in Scotland, and my granny ran the farm until he returned home from Scotland for good. My uncle is still farming in Westmeath.”
“When finishing school in 2008, I thought construction might offer me a good career, but I never got past my first year of construction management in GMIT. Very quickly, I learned that farming was what I wanted to be doing.”
He developed a “real love” for farming whilst working with his grandparents and uncle from an early age. This led him to Tullynally Castle in Westmeath, where he milked 400 cows in 2007 before venturing to New Zealand at the age of twenty, three years later.
He travelled to NZ for what was supposed to be a 3-month working holiday on a 700-cow dairy farm in Waikato for calving season.
Aiden attended Massey University in NZ from 2011- 2014, where he obtained a Bachelor of Agri-Science degree.
That turned into him staying and studying in NZ for four years. After he finished university, he contemplated going for his residency visa for NZ but felt he would benefit more from travelling further.
“While looking to do a grain harvest in the USA, I was asked to go work as an assistant manager on a 1,500-cow dairy farm. Then, I was quickly promoted to manager and was on a very steep learning curve.”
“I managed 1,500 cows in Missouri for two seasons before returning home to Ireland to help manage a new conversion in Kilkenny until December 2018 when I was hoping to go lease my own farm.”
“I worked with Grasslands (NZ and Missouri). In 2019 to 2020, I was asked to go to NZ to help manage a farm for calving and mating before doing the same things in Missouri.”
“While walking farms to lease/share milk, I travelled to the USA/Canada on a 5-week motorcycle trip. Then, I ventured to NZ to manage a farm for calving and mating before doing the same in Missouri and returning to Ireland this time last year.”
“While I was hoping to do a full season in Missouri, Covid meant that my girlfriend Caroline could not travel over, so I opted to come back to Ireland,” added Aiden, who completed a strategic management and planning course with Smurfit and Teagasc in 2017.
LIC breeding advisor
While he was still looking for land to lease, he saw a role with LIC and Eurogene advertised and secured the position.
As a breeding advisor with LIC, an NZ co-operative that focuses on herd improvement, he covers Cork and South Tipperary.
The co-operative began in the early 1900s with milk recording services for testing cows for butterfat levels before introducing AI breeding programmes and sire proving schemes in the 1950s and 60s.
“Today, it is a world leader in pasture-based dairy genetics. Irish farmers get the benefit best daughter proven sires for pasture-based dairy farming.”
“A day in my working life varies depending on the time of year. Starting in the summer, I will be touching base with farmers to see how scanning went and start looking towards the spring.”
“I will usually try and get on-farm and have a look at the cows and heifers with the farmer and review milk recordings and end of year fertility reports.”
He then constructs a plan for spring and starts putting together a team of bulls to suit the herd and the farmer.
“The goal is to get to all my farmers before the start of calving. I tend to leave farmers alone as much as possible during calving. It is such an important and busy time, and that is where their focus needs to be.”
“As calving tails off, cows start milking, and farmers start to gear up for AI. Things start getting busy again, as breeding plans get finalised and reviewed post-calving.”
“I like to touch base with my farmers after the start of AI to see how things are tracking. This helps give us a good feel for what is happening on the ground.”
“I like to get out to see my farmers and their cows as much as possible. Also, I need office time to go through fertility reports and milk recordings too.”
“I enjoy working with farmers; I love cows and grass, and it is great getting to work with so many really good farmers,” added Aiden, who measures grass and relief milks.
“To me, breeding the right type of animals for profitability is very important. It is important to have a cow (and a herd of cows) that are both productive and fertile.”
He put this into perspective in an Irish dairying context. “In Ireland, this means we need a cow that can eat grass and efficiently convert feed into kilos of milk solids and will easily get back in-calf each year.”
“Environmental sustainability is becoming a bigger part of the conversation, and with it, how to lower our impact and footprint. This comes back to efficiency, making sure we are getting the most milk from what we are feeding the cow.”
Cunningham’s experience managing people and farms in different environments and climates has exposed him to many different challenges.
“Once you have been through something once or twice, it makes it a lot less daunting. Most importantly, it gives you perspective on things. It makes me really appreciate home.”
“No one farmer has all the answers. We often have to call a neighbour or a trusted peer or advisor when we come across a new challenge or want a fresh perspective.”
“Looking overseas is like talking to another farmer. You see different ways of tackling similar issues and may come away with fresh ideas.”
On the back of this, he pointed out that it is always important to adapt what is useful and make it your own.
The dairy industry’s future
When asked about his concerns for the Irish dairy industry, he stated that “it is harder than it needs to be for a new entrant (without land) or for a young farmer to get into farming”.
Aiden said there are hurdles regarding land mobility, access to capital, and challenges around potential obtaining milk supply agreements for spring-calving.
“If we do not help new people into the industry, we risk losing out on so much new talent and enthusiasm.”
“I feel the industry is on a really exciting journey at the minute. We have robust pasture-based systems and excellent researchers working hard to help us improve on-farm performance and meet our sustainability targets in very practical ways. We are constantly improving and will need to be constantly improving.”
“The best farmers I see are great with cows, grass and have strong business skills. But importantly, they are genuinely nice people and enjoy working with other people, particularly young people.”
“They make farming fun, and enjoyable and they help train the next generation. It is important to get off-farm and away from cows to enjoy time with family and friends.”
Aiden’s aim for the future is to build his portfolio of clients over the coming years and add as much value to their farms as possible. “I would also like to lease my own farm in the coming years and milk my own herd of cows,” he remarked.”
“The future of dairy farming is overwhelmingly positive. We have challenges regarding lowering our environmental footprint. Honestly, I believe we are ahead of the pack, as we have been proactive in seeking and testing solutions,” he concluded.