Little did Maeve Hickey know when she embarked on a career in media that she would become a full-time dairy farmer.
The Ardmore, Co. Waterford native – who grew up on a farm with her parents and five sisters - completed a general media studies course after her Leaving Certificate.
She obtained a diploma in broadcast journalism before undertaking a level-8 in Media Production Management at DCU. “I made the big move to New York City on an internship program for a year...I hated it!” she told Catherina Cunnane – That’s Farming.
“Although I loved the city so much, a quick reality check hit that the office life was not for me.”
“I quit the job, made money as a waitress and travelled around the U.S, which was an incredible experience,” she added.
In February 2017, Maeve embraced an opportunity to help her father with the running of the farm. “The rest is history. To everyone’s shock, I haven’t looked for other work since.”
“Even though I initially started farming through default, I never thought it would help me as much as it has,” explained Maeve who studied and worked in an office environment for over five years.
Growing up, Maeve and her siblings spent some time on the farm, helping out. “We were rallied together to feed calves, clean sheds and we were partial to standing in a gap or two.” the fourth-generation farmer said.
“My great grandmother lost her husband (my great grandfather) young and lost her son too when he was just 15, so she and my nanny Hickey ran the farm together.”
Maeve’s grandmother married a local carpenter and they then operated the family farm with their six children. “My dad’s older brother, John, was gifted a farm over the road so, in turn, my father helped on the home farm when he left school at fourteen.”
“When he married my mother, my grandparents took a step back, leaving dad to take over, and now, I help him full-time.”
“My mother is great to pitch in at busy times and she is the backbone behind my dad and I (and the filing cabinet).” the young farmer added.
The family milk 96 spring-calving cows, with a further nineteen females earmarked to join the grass-based herd next year.
The Holstein-cross-Jersey, Holstein-cross-Montbeliarde and Holstein-cross-Norweigan Red cows pass through an 8-unit herringbone.
All heifer calves are retained, while bull calves are sold between 2 and 6-weeks of age, usually at their local mart.
“We AI milkers for 10 weeks; we AI our heifers for two weeks and then introduce a stock bull, usually a Friesian, for the remainder.”
“We cedar non-cycling cows and cull a selection of older cows/poor milkers.”
Maeve – who has recently completed her Green Cert at Kildalton Agricultural College - has been farming under three years, so her responsibilities are building slowly.
Her duties include milking, calving cows, calf-rearing, animal husbandry and other general tasks; she is also upskilling mechanically and in grassland management.”
“I guess it’s the variety of the work that each day brings. I know there’s a certain routine to each day such as milking, fencing and feeding.”
“I love how the year rotates from season to season. I enjoy working with cows, especially - there’s something quite calming about them.”
“Every job has its challenges and farming is no exception. Seven days a week can be tough, especially during busier times, but that’s why you really have to love it,” she added.
Maeve swapped life on the family farm in Waterford for a position on a dairy farm in Canterbury, New Zealand seven weeks ago.
“The herd on the farm I am on consists of 1500 cows, 15 times the size of my home farm, so, overwhelming, to say the least.”
“It was a very last-minute decision. My Mam had to give me a little nudge to go for it,” she admitted.
Maeve felt this was a golden opportunity as she has a short window before her Green Cert will be certified in February. “From then on, I will need to be on the home farm, once a partnership kicks in."
“It is also winter at home and the work is limited so what better time to learn how things operate here and to maybe pick up a skill or two.”
When she first arrived on Kiwi soil, she was assigned calf-rearing duties; however, she has since moved to its 80-bale rotary shed. “There are two people cupping on at all times. I’ve also been trained in how they treat their ‘red herd’. This is the last herd that comes to the parlour.”
Maeve explained that cows are treated for mastitis, E-coli, lameness, abscesses etc; there is a strict treatment protocol for each sick cow. "It’s breeding season here now too - it's interesting to see them pick bulls for 700 cows.” she outlined.
Getting the opportunity to work with different cultures on this farm in New Zealand has been the "biggest eye-opener" for the young farmer.
"I work with Sri Lankan and Nepalese people here on this farm and they’re flocking to NZ just so they can send money home to their wives and families."
"They’re amazing people and I am learning so much from them. So, I think travelling really helps young people to toughen up and find themselves. Life is too short, just go for it!" she added.
Women in Ag
Maeve acknowledged that the number of women involved in agriculture has witnessed a notable increase in recent years. “Women have been farming for years and years. Who ran the farms when men went to war?”
“I don’t know who came up with this ideology that women don’t or shouldn’t work on a farm.”
With agriculture advancing in terms of technology, and labour being less intensive, she believes there is no reason, why women can’t be part of the industry.
“Women can bring our intelligence, our drive, our maternal instincts (and stubbornness), lots of TLC for animals, as well as determination and passion to keep the future of agriculture in full swing.”
“To be honest, the only male counterpart that I work with is my father. He's working in this job for more than fifty-five years. He is a fountain of knowledge and is the most intelligent person that I know.”
“I just count myself lucky to be able to learn everything I know from him.”
With intentions to return home to Ireland next spring, Maeve’s main objective for the future of the farm, aside from some minor infrastructural changes, is to keep the legacy "alive and well".
“The plan is to keep farming, keep learning and progressing towards a bright future in Irish agriculture.”
“I’ve met some of my best friends through farming, at home and abroad, who are also young women in agriculture and it’s so refreshing to have them.”
“It is true what they say, farming isn’t just an occupation, it’s a way of life, but it’s the most liberating job in the world,” Maeve concluded.
If you are a woman in agriculture and you want to share your story, email – firstname.lastname@example.org – with a short bio.