In this week’s Women in Ag segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Emma Marshall, a beef and dairy farmer, about her love of the land and the recognition of women in the sector.
Emma Marshall, a fourth-generation farmer, believes social media has been instrumental in encouraging women into the agricultural field.
From the age of 13, she has been actively involved in her family farm at Drumbo, Belfast, which is home to 70 dairy cows and 300 beef cattle.
Emma has been working on the 300-acre farm for ten years since she graduated from school.
Beef and dairy farmer
“I quickly realised I preferred cows more than classrooms,” she told That’s Farming.
“My fondest childhood memory was sitting on the floor of the tractor cab while my father drove or teat dipping and feeding my grandfather’s cows in his old 3-a-side parlour.”
“I cannot imagine myself working behind a desk or in an office. I always wanted to work with animals in some capacity, perhaps a vet if I had been more of a bookworm.”
Milking, calf rearing, and calving are among her primary responsibilities, as are general animal husbandry activities such as bedding, feeding, checking, and herding.
“When I get a chance in the summer, I do tractor work. However, I much prefer to be in the parlour or dealing with livestock.”
Emma milks 70 cows in an older Fullwood 8-unit low lying jar parlour built in the 1970s by her father’s uncle.
“Miking takes about two hours, give or take the days when nothing goes to plan. We have a bigger batch in spring and winter to keep milk supplies steady all-year-round.”
Rotational grazing is based on the amount of silage they require for the forthcoming year.
They calve all-year round as “it keeps a constant milk flow when the price is good and bad”.
Most of the cows in the herd are Holsteins, mainly for their milk production, but they also have some Jerseys/Montebeliardes and Ayrshires.
“We have not gone overboard with breeding and prefer to maintain hardy, strong cows.”
Each year, they keep some sucklers as a novelty, and they normally calf them in January or March.
“Every year, we keep a few sucklers, mostly Herefords and Limousins, but we send the rest to the factory. Around 300 beef cattle are kept for finishing.”
Grassland management and concentrates
They use a grass-based system with low input and do not strip graze since their fields are small enough to maintain.
“We let the cows graze off each one before rotating to the next. We try to keep them off each field for three weeks each time.”
Cows are fed 5/6 kilograms of concentrates through the parlour and clamp silage during the winter months. During the summer, they reduce concentrates to 3/4 kilos along with grass.
“Last year, when the meal prices were skyrocketing, and milk prices were falling, we decided to reduce the cows’ daily kgs through the parlour, and they averaged around 8,500 litres.”
They have two stock bulls, a Holstein for the dairy cows and a beef bull for dry cows and heifers. Besides, last year, they switched from a Hereford to a Limousin bull stock bull.
They purchase calves from local Marts in Saintfield, Ballymena, and Downpatrick.
“We buy a variety of breeds, primarily Friesian, Angus, Hereford, Simmental, and Belgian Blues. We rear them for 30 months and then send them to the abattoir.”
They keep some beef heifers as sucklers, with dairy heifers coming on as replacements and dairy bulls and beef bulls moving on for beef.
They keep all heifers as replacements, and serve these based on their size and weight – rather than their age.
“If they are not ready by 15 months, we just give them more time; a heifer served undersize will never make a good animal.”
The highs and lows of dairy farming
Turning the herd out to pasture is Emma’s favourite aspect of dairy farming.
“After a long winter in housing, there is no better feeling than opening the gate on a sunny day and letting them run.”
“Bringing life into the world and watching a calf develop into a cow who will produce her own calf is also a high point for me; it is very rewarding.”
The most difficult aspect of dairy farming for Emma is the uncertainty.
“With the prices fluctuating, it is difficult to plan ahead when you are unsure of the outcome.”
“Seemingly, everyone thinks that dairy farming is the way to go. In recent years, the markets have been flooded with milk, driving down prices.”
Women in ag
Emma stated that being a woman in agriculture has never been an issue for her.
“You get the odd look when you are driving down the road in a tractor or walking into a shop with muddy wellies, but it has mostly been positive for me.”
“I was never told I cannot or would not be able to do a job because I am a woman.”
She believes there is more recognition for the increasing number of women entering a male-dominated industry.
“Knowing that they can do a man’s job equally well and that they will be welcomed with open arms”, Emma believes, is the most important component in encouraging women to enter this field.
“I would tell any woman considering a career path in farming not to hesitate, to investigate her options and find a job that suits them.”
“If you are willing to put in the effort and determination, you can achieve anything.”
“Farming is one of the most difficult sectors to plan ahead in,” Emma stated when asked about her future goals.
“With the uncertainties of Brexit and Covid, I guess we will have to wait and see what happens. However, I am hoping to keep expanding and improving the herd.”
“My life in agriculture is a whirlwind of ups and downs. There are highs, and there are lows, but the best days make the worse days all worthwhile.”
“As the old saying goes, ‘do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life,’ I am one of the lucky ones who can honestly say I wholeheartedly love what I do,” Emma concluded.
Interview conducted by Catherina Cunnane
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