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Conor Halpin
Conor Halpin
Journalism intern.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

‘Rates are insufficient, but we cannot ask for more because it is not there for the farmer’ – ag contractor

As part of this week’s Ag Contractor of the Week segmentThat’s Farming profiles, Michael Dunning from M&J Dunning Agri Contractors. He discusses the firm’s journey working for three generations of clients, gaining business through the opening of livestock marts, growing output from 7,000 to 20,000, bales, and the future of Irish agricultural contracting.

Remaining in business for 70 years against the backdrop of ever-changing and ever-evolving times is no easy feat, and one family who can resonate with that is the Dunning family from between Athlone and Roscommon operate.

The family established the business when Michael Dunnings’s uncle, John, took up an offer during his career as a mechanic to buy a Massey Ferguson TVO tractor and Howard rotavator.

He began rotovating fields, including a local vegetable garden before later investing in a Massey Ferguson finger bar mower, charging a pound an acre at one pound an hour mowing meadows.

Following this, in 1953, Michael Dunning’s late uncle, John, and father, Pat, founded their agricultural contracting business.

At that time, around 1952, “very few” agricultural contracting firms were in operation.

According to Michael, many people chose horses and ponies for their farm work, but a “demand” for machinery helped to expand the firm’s customer base.

John and Pat established the business with one tractor and later added a second one to their fleet.

M&J Dunning Agri Contractors

His uncle, John, took a step back from daily operations in the late 1960s and Michael and John junior joined the business at seventeen as teenagers.

They made their mark investing in their first tractor, a Massey Ferguson 590 costing £5,500, a Claas Rollant 46 Rota Cut baler for £17,000 (new) and a Kverneland bale wrapper for £4,000.

“I saw other agricultural contractors driving around the locality, and all I ever wanted to be as a child was an agricultural contractor,” Michael Dunning told That’s Farming.

“We also run a suckler-to-beef farm. In 1998, my brother John and I went to Mountbellew Agricultural College to complete our Green Cert.”

Michael and John operate the business, employing workers at peak times serving Galway, Westmeath, and south Roscommon.

Agricultural services

The business has over 150 clients and offers various agricultural services.

They commence each January spreading slurry, February/March, reseeding wild bird cover for ACRES, sowing crops April-May, then start into silage and slurry spreading with February-April and September-December hauling livestock for farmers to Ballinasloe, Mart, Roscommon Mart and Ballymahon Mart.

He noted the introduction of Low Emission Slurry Spreading (LESS) attracted customers and even this year with rising fertiliser costs, with the firm emptying up to 40 tanks annually.

The amount of spraying they undertake varies, as the brothers put it – “weeks pass by when they spray fields morning and evening”. “They also offer some fertiliser spreading in the business.

Undersowing clover is their latest service, which grew from rising fertiliser costs and a discussion with their local Teagasc advisory team.

Farm machinery

Their tractor fleet includes three 6175 Massey Fergusons, a 7718 Massey Ferguson (with a Quiche front loader), a Massey Ferguson 5460, a Massey Ferguson 390, and a Massey Ferguson 7S180.

Whelan’s Garage in Loughrea maintains tractors, with the business carrying out some repairs, aiming to invest in a new tractor every two years and a sprayer every two years.

Other items include a McHale Fusion standard integrated baler, a McHale F5500 – 15 Knife Chopper baler, a McHale Orbital High-Speed Round Bale Wrapper, Krone mowers, Kverneland mowers, a McHale rake, a Claas tedder, Kverneland plough, and a rotavator.

In addition, they also have two 22ft Kane silage/grain trailers, a Diskin bodybuilders livestock trailer, an agitator, two 2,400g Redrock slurry tankers and a Kverneland plough.

They also own a tine harrow, a Kuhn power harrow (with seeder attached), a tine harrow (with an air seeder attached), a rotavator, and a Massey Ferguson square baler.

Marts 

An essential chapter in the business journey was bringing cattle to fairs and later to marts in Moate, Ballinasloe, and Ballymahon when they opened around 1952.

Their father invested in a Diskin bodybuilders cattle trailer in Athlone to haul cattle to local marts.

“Most farmers we work for get us to haul cattle, sell if possible and secure the best price knowing we are in marts most weeks and have a fair idea of the valuation of cattle.”

“We have had customers since the 1950s who never left us. We are very focused on time; we do not like being late.”

“We know we are providing farmers with an important service to get the crop harvested at the right time to make the farm profitable.”

“To be honest, we find it almost like tyre pressure, where we are all working together. Now, we are touching up to 20,000 silage bales. In 1995, I started at 7,000 bales my first year and built it.”

“I would like to thank customers for their support. In some situations, in the business, we have third-generation customers where we would not work for their father but for their grandfather.”

Challenges and the future of Irish agricultural contracting

Challenges they face include rising farm machinery and fuel prices.

The brothers intend to get “better before bigger”, with three children between them interested in machinery.

“I would say the future of Irish agricultural contracting is bright enough other than rising machinery costs is a worry because machinery prices are gone out of control.”

“When there are fewer full-time farmers, there are going to rely more on an agricultural contractor to do their more specialised work.”

“With rising machinery costs, I do not envision many farmers will start buying machinery for their use. Instead, they will look for a more specialised agricultural contractor to do that work.”

“In my view, agricultural contractor rates are insufficient. However, we cannot ask for much more because it is not there for the farmer either.”

“So, we need to make it work so that all of us can get a few bob out of it,” the agricultural contractor concluded.

To share your story like this agricultural contractor, email Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming – [email protected]

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