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Dairy Girls: How this family farm is thriving with women at the helm
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Dairy Girls: How this family farm is thriving with women at the helm

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by Shayna Sappington
31st May 2024
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The overall winner of the 2022 NDC & Kerrygold Quality Milk Awards, the Connelly family are modernising the dairy industry with state-of-the-art tech and sustainable practices, as well as a next-generation team of four female farmers set to drive this dynamic farm into the future.

On a 120-acre farm outside of Tuam, Co Galway, the Connelly family are hard at work proving, as daughter Ava puts it, that “small changes make a big impact”. Five generations of Connellys have farmed here, with Austin taking the reins from his parents, who inherited from his granny and her sisters, so it seems fitting that his own four daughters, Ava (23), Anna (21), Jane (19), and Kate (17), alongside their mum Yvonne, are an integral part of its current operation.

Traditionally a beef and sheep farm, the Connellys decided to make the switch to dairy in 2018 after discovering its benefits, both financially and sustainably. “We were all a bit flabbergasted at the thought of this upheaval in our life,” said Yvonne, “but by January the following year, we had converted the whole farm thanks to the help of everyone in the house.”

Naturally, this transition has come with its own set of challenges, but the Connellys found great supports, in both their community and family. “Somedays are a bigger mountain to climb than others,” said Yvonne and Austin. “We had to learn from scratch about dairy and that in itself was a huge challenge. We had to learn a whole new skill set, and we couldn’t have done it without the help of the girls.”

When making the switch, the girls said they delved into their own research and brought it back to the family table for discussion, where ideas and arguments were volleyed back and forth respectfully until the beginnings of a farming strategy were formed. “It’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks,” Austin laughed, “but it all worked out in the end.” “Yes,” added Yvonne, “if this table could talk, it could tell a lot of stories.”

The Connellys also turned to their nearby Teagasc office, their co-op Aurivo and local dairy farmers, who helped them get started with tried-and-tested advice and guidance. “There’s a great community out there in dairy farmers. They’re very willing to help you, teach you and tell you about their own experiences. So we got a wealth of knowledge from them, and we still go to them for any problems we have.”

When it comes to the day-to-day running of the farm, each family member overseas a specific aspect of the operation, along with helping with general tasks like moving and milking the cows, feeding calves, cleaning cubicles and bringing the youngest Kate to school.

Ava, the eldest, looks after the grass to optimise which field the cows need to be moved into next. “I measure the grass once or twice a week, and that information tells us where the cows will go next. It maximises the grass production side in a more natural and sustainable way. Plus, it’s one less job for Dad.”

Jane, who’s away at college, looks after the genetic breeding remotely, ensuring the herd is maximised for sustainability. “This time of year we’re starting with AI (artificial insemination). Jane has all our bulls picked out and everything ready for us, so we just have to look at her sheet and go from there. Even though she’s down in Sligo in college she can, through technology, still help us and keep a close eye on the calfing cameras and things like that.”

Then Anna and Kate are the de-facto “gofers”, helping out wherever they can and looking to social media for clever solutions. For instance, Anna recently repurposed a tanning mitt to help clean the milking clusters with ease. “It was around the first year we started out that I saw a video online of an exfoliating mitt that you use to take off tan and had the idea of using it to clean the clusters, and it works really well. So that was one thing we figured out – we can get different ideas from Instagram and the like.”

“They’ve all learned new skills,” said Yvonne, “from building on the farm to laying water pipes, which we did during Covid. Kate is able to put up cubicles and count every single screw she puts in there, and all of them can drive a dump truck when the time calls for it.”

When it comes to sustainability, Austin has been cognisant of best practices, but the whole family has become even more so since they made the switch to dairy. “We have hedgerows and use buffer zones, employ energy-efficient machinery, and have introduced clover to reduce nitrogen usage on the farm.

“We put a lot of work into our genetics to help breed a better cow to be more sustainable – to produce better fat and protein and everything else, from their health and fertility to their maintenance. Every year we learn something new about that and we try to incorporate it into our breeding. Even Austin has learned a lot about technology since we went into dairy,” Yvonne laughed.

The family also use cattle boluses, a nifty implant that notifies them via a phone app when the cows are in heat, so they can start the AI process. “The cows are the first thing on our minds. If they’re not happy, nobody else is happy. We treat them all like individuals, not a herd, so technology’s great for this.”

This type of teamwork and innovation is what led them to be crowned overall winner of the NDC & Kerrygold Quality Milk Awards in 2022 – but despite all they’ve achieved, the Connellys are not standing still. “The award gave us a great boost – to see what we did and continue to do,” they said.

So what comes next? The family is excited to keep the wheel turning, especially as a female-dominated farm. “This was our granny’s farm and she was one of four girls, then it passed on to dad and he has four sisters, so there’s always been loads of women around running the show,” said Ava. “So, we didn’t realise that we were different to anyone else until we started doing all this stuff and saw it was a unique thing.”

“We’re not the only women in dairy,” added matriarch Yvonne, “but we would like to see more spotlighted. Meanwhile, we will keep trying to improve; there’s always something to learn in dairy.”

The commitment of these farming families to deliver world-class quality milk, coupled with Ireland’s grass-based farming systems, enables Ornua to produce and promote Irish dairy products in over 110 countries around the world. Visit ornua.com for more.

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