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Taking firm hold of family farm’s reins

With her husband working off-farm during the day, Northern Ireland’s Caryn Webster has her hands full running the farm and managing the couple’s three young children. Chris McCullough reports.

Caryn Webster with six-month old Tilly at the family farm at Islandmagee.
Caryn Webster with six-month old Tilly at the family farm at Islandmagee.

Dairy farm succession can be a touchy subject among families and usually involves a son taking over the operational duties from his father.

 

However, more females these days are stepping up and running the family farm, with some managing to mix farm management with raising children.

 

One female farmer busy balancing family with farm work is Caryn Webster, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland.

 

Mum of three young children aged between six months and five years old, Caryn runs the family dairy farm down at Brown’s Bay, near Islandmagee, while husband James works full-time in nearby Kilroot power station.

 

The farm has been handed down to Caryn by her father Jack, who still helps out with milkings and feeding young calves, while mum Caroline helps with babysitting duties.

 

It may be a lot of hard work for Caryn basically managing two jobs, but she has plans to enhance the farm and make it more efficient.

 

She says: “I wake up at 5.30am every morning to milk cows just like most other dairy farmers have to do. The kids are prepared for school on weekdays and after dropping them off I continue working. But that’s farming life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

Caryn runs 65 Holstein cows on-farm and came home to work there after studying for a degree in agriculture in England and gaining work experience for a year on a dairy farm in New Zealand.


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Caryn pushes up silage for the cows as part of the daily round.
Caryn pushes up silage for the cows as part of the daily round.
The parlour was installed five years ago.
The parlour was installed five years ago.

Fourth generation

 

She says: “I have been at home farming since 2008. I am the fourth generation on-farm with my great grandfather and his brother moving here in 1876. Although the farm has been split up over the years, it now comprises about 47 hectares of land.

 

“Dairying started to be more of a focus on-farm around the 1930s with Dairy Shorthorn cattle, changing in the mid-1950s to the British Friesian breed, then progressing to Holstein-Friesian as it is today.

 

“We are currently milking about 60-65 pedigree Holstein-Friesian cows under the Bayends prefix twice-a-day and they are averaging 7,000 litres at 4.62% butterfat and 3.73% protein.

 

“We milk cows in a 10-point swing over parlour and all milk is sold to the Dale Farm processor.

 

“There are about 25 in-calf heifers and a further 25 maiden heifers and calves all bred from artificial insemination in the herd each year, which is too many for our replacements and means we could be in a position to sell some in the future.”

 

Caryn’s cows are grazed as one group for as long as possible during the year and could be put out to pasture as early as February and kept out as late as December.

 

On a normal day, Caryn gets her two oldest boys, Benjamin and William, ready for school, before taking over the milking from her dad. Once the milking is over, there are other mouths to feed before Caryn can have any breakfast herself.

 

She says: “Mum looks after our youngest daughter, Tilly, which is a super help. I always liked farming and it was a bit of a surprise to Dad that I wanted to take over the farm instead of my brothers.

 

“However, I enjoy working with cows, even though it can be somewhat of a lonely existence being a farmer.

Looking to the future, my plans are to increase cow numbers very slightly to 70 and continue as normal.

 

“Although we are not currently investing in new technology, we are putting up a new dry cow shed under a grant scheme, which will improve cow welfare and hopefully make them more efficient and easier to manage by one person.

 

“We have already invested in the past five years in a new milking parlour and upgraded the cubicle house for the main milking herd.”

 Plenty of heifer calves coming through for replacements and for sale.
Plenty of heifer calves coming through for replacements and for sale.

Coast

 

The main issues Caryn faces dairy farming in her location are mostly weather-related, which is the downside to living on the coast.

 

She says: “As with anywhere, the main problems are weather-related. Being situated on the coast we get quite strong winds which are laden with salt.

 

“This tends to kill off the grass and make it harder to manage. This also plays a large part in the design and strength of our buildings, so they tend to cost more.

 

“Being coastal also means a greater chance of the land burning up during a dry summer, although thankfully we have a mix of soil types on-farm which are easily accessed, so the grazing and silage platforms can be readily switched around if necessary.

 

“The system we currently run is working well and hopefully with continued investment we can improve on what is already there and this puts us in good stead to be able to weather the volatility of the dairy industry and allow us to continue to farm in future generations.”

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