Upon being named as the 2019 Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year, young Tipperary man David Russell was quick to point out that it was a team effort that contributed to this landmark national success, with his parents Loughlin and Antoinette instrumental in the evolution of Corbally House as a progressive dairy enterprise.
At the gala awards ceremony in the Sheraton Hotel, Athlone on Thursday night, November 14th, 2019, Thurles dairy farmer David Russell became the sixth and youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year award.
With the cream of the Irish agricultural industry present in force to honour the best farmers in Ireland, the judges pointed out that 24-year-old David – who puts environmental issues and quality of life to the fore in his dairying operation whilst running a best-in-class farm – was an outstanding and worthy winner, noting that Corbally House is “very much a family enterprise”.
This is a point that David is keen to emphasise: “My parents are so important and have played such a massive role in the expansion and success of the farm,” he confirms. “The last thing I want is to be taking all the credit and that was my first concern when I won the Farmer of the Year award – it really is a team effort here and my mother and father are both a huge part of that team.
“They have been so important in this whole process. Relationships between parents and their children are so important for the future of farms. We grew up in a great environment, that they created, and that’s what has enabled us to progress.”
A joint venture between Alchemy Event Management & Independent News & Media, the Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year Awards are all about recognising and rewarding the very best in Irish farming. At the 2019 finals in the midlands in November, it was a magnificent double success for the Premier County when David scooped both the Dairy Farmer of the Year and overall Farmer of the Year titles.
It was hard to take in… “I suppose it went over my head a bit on the night, to be honest, and I didn’t realise how big a deal it was until the phone started ringing. I know it’s my name that was put forward but this farm is a partnership and a family affair. You never think you are going to find yourself in this position because the reality is that we are no different to any of the other farmers around us and any of them could have been given this award.”
Success like this on a national stage represents a tremendous endorsement of what is essentially a modest, longstanding, traditional family enterprise. “Going forward, the reality is that small one-man family farms are getting bigger,” says David. “There are going to be more and more two-man and three-man farms and the link between parents and their children is going to be a very important factor in that. And, also, farmers will probably never be more motivated or ambitious than they are in their 20s, so partnerships between two generations are very important as they give you that ideal balance between ambition and experience.”
Indeed, having returned home from a stint in New Zealand the previous year, David brought more than a modicum of ambition to Corbally House when he joined forces with Loughlin in 2015. At the time, the enterprise comprised 100 cows and a five-year plan was gradually drawn up to treble this number by 2020. The Russells are on course to meet this target.
Five years ago, Corbally House was a beef operation. Cattle were being sold at two years old but a decision was taken by the newly-formed father-son partnership to opt instead for a completely streamlined dairy unit. Loughlin and David began by reseeding large quantities of the farm and installed roadways capable of taking 300+ cows, with an additional six acres purchased in October, 2015.
By 2016, they had 130 cows and groundworks commenced for the rapid expansion that lay ahead. Realising that this expansion would come at a significant cost financially, they visited many farms which had already expanded to work out what the precise cost was likely to be. Having initially set a target of 200 cows, in June 24th, 2016, they purchased a neighbouring block consisting of 60 acres and decided to further the expansion and eventually milk 300 cows.
Having grown to 160 cows by 2017, the Russells began work cleaning up and developing the new farm in January. A roadway was built through it and in March it was reseeded with a tetraploid mix.
As the milking platform was split by the Dublin – Thurles Road, a pressing challenge was to open it up by building a 4.5-metre underpass at a cost of €100,000. This work – alongside the construction of a cubicle shed for 164 cows – began on October 25th, 2016 and both projects were completed by December 1st.
A DeLaval rotary milking parlour was added in 2019 and milking began there last June, with cow numbers up to 240. The goal for 2020 is to milk 300 cows, with all replacements contract reared and a system in place that is easy managed, allowing the enterprise to generate tidy profits whilst also facilitating a nice lifestyle balance – something that is extremely important to David (who is a keen athlete) and another attribute that impressed the judges at the Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year Awards.
It is both interesting and refreshing to learn that David is not completely consumed by farming. To the contrary, he is focussed on ensuring that he has a good lifestyle balance, which results in more energy and enthusiasm for both farming and non-farming activities:
“We have managed to get the work – life balance right,” he notes. “We’re finished every evening at 6pm and each of us gets every second weekend off. When I was younger and I looked at my father on the farm, all I saw was work all the time and that wasn’t something that appealed to me.
“But, while I was in New Zealand, I saw that three people could comfortably work 800 cows and that sowed the seeds and showed me what could be done with proper organisation. It was so simple: feed the cows, milk the cows, get them in calf. After that, you can focus on other things in life.”
All the milk produced goes to Centenary Thurles Co-operative Society Ltd. The majority of the work on the farm, which grew 16.5 tonnes of grass this year, is carried out by contractors, which enables David and Loughlin to focus on their own area of expertise … the cows: “I believe you can have all your eggs in one basket… and hold it tight with both hands,” he concludes. “At the same time, you can’t do everything yourself.”
Russell Dairy Farm
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 8 No 1, February/March 2020