Sligo dairy farmer Christopher Tuffy makes history

19 Apr , 2023  

Progressive dairy farmer Christopher Tuffy wrote a special piece of history for himself in late November, 2022, when he became the first Sligo man to be crowned FBD Young Farmer of the Year. We interrupted Christopher’s busy schedule to find out what it means to him to take this prestigious award home to the Yeats County.

At a celebratory dinner in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Little Island, Cork on Tuesday, November 29th last, Christopher Tuffy – a spring-calving dairy farmer from Sligo, who milks 150 cows on a leased block at Doonally – became the 24th recipient of the prized FBD Young Farmer of the Year award.

Being named as the first-ever winner of the Young Farmer of the Year title from the North West represented a huge achievement for Christopher – not least because this is an award that he has always had an eye on: “I am absolutely delighted. It’s something I always wanted to win and to get this opportunity to compete for it – and then actually win it – was brilliant,” he enthuses.

“It was an unreal experience. I went down to Cork with the expectation of hopefully making the Top Six and the semi-final. I was more relaxed once I got there and the final interview went as I wanted it to go.”

The Sligo man, who leases 150 acres and farms alongside his parents (Tom Joe and Catherine) and partner Eimear prevailed in the Dairy Category before also scooping the overall Young Farmer of the Year accolade – “the one I really wanted”. Remarkably, by taking the top prize, Christopher – whose son Iarlaith had the distinction of being the only baby in attendance at the awards ceremony – became the fourth winner from the high-achieving expansion-based West Awake discussion group.

Having made the Top Six the last time he entered the competition, when he was 21, the now-30-year-old comments: “I always knew that the standard was extremely high and when you get down there you really see that. I was delighted just to win the dairy award and then to hear my name called again was unbelievable. To be honest, if I’d won the Dairy Category and made the Top Six, that would have been my day made. Winning the overall award was the icing on the cake.

“This is a very, very prestigious award and one of the first things I said in my acceptance speech is that it was something I always wanted to win. Sean O’Donnell from Ballina and Dara Killeen from Meelick (Galway), who won it in 2014 and 2020 respectively, were two lads I always looked at – as well as another Connacht winner, Timmy Quinn [the 2008 winner from Claremorris], and it is a real honour to follow in their footsteps,” continues Sligo’s first Young Farmer of the Year.

“It was a good night all around for the North West as Andrew McMenamin from Donegal, who I was at college with, won the Biodiversity Award. It was great to have two winners from the North West at the same time.”

Indeed, this is a sign of the times and it’s great to see counties like Sligo and Donegal finally getting due recognition for the high standard of their farming methods. “I remember when I first went to college and I said we had calves out in the springtime people thought we were stuck farming back in the ‘80s,” Christopher recalls. “Thankfully, there doesn’t seem to be that stigma about the North West anymore and it is widely accepted that we are as good as anybody in the West of Ireland. The stigma is gone now, although of course you will always have the occasional farmer who plays on it a bit…”

Christopher grew up on a small dairy farm on the west coast, where his father milked 60 cows, with only 20 acres around the milking parlour and an additional two blocks further from home. The home farm had Holstein cows producing liquid milk, with a split calving system (calving 20 in autumn and 40 in spring). Tom Joe Tuffy was renowned for breeding good stock and ran a very efficient one-man operation.

Upon completing his Leaving Cert in 2008, Christopher spent a year at Mountbellew Agricultural College, where there wasn’t enough focus on dairy farming for his liking, so he switched to Kildalton Agricultural College for his second year and completed the Dairy Herd Management course. From there, he accepted a life-changing placement in New Zealand.

“When I came home and got off that plane, I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to go milking cows,” he recalls. “The home black wasn’t big enough and, even though I was a home bird, I was thinking I’d either have to go back to New Zealand or down the country.”

When an opportunity came up to lease a block near Sligo town, Christopher’s father backed him and the rest is history. “In 2011, a farm of land with 150 acres, an old slatted shed and loads of slurry storage came up for lease 35 miles from home.”

By the spring of 2012, the farm was reseeded, fenced and fully converted over to dairy. “On the last Tuesday of April, we brought the cows down from the home farm and started milking them. We had 96 cows in year one and, between buying and breeding, we were up to 150 by 2015.

“We started with Holstein but it was a heavy farm and I wanted to change the cow type and also to expand at the same time,” Christopher adds. “It took six or seven years to get the cow I wanted and the performance I needed to make real money. But we got there and it has been a great success.”

None of this would have been possible without the support and help of Christopher’s father, who is still actively involved in the enterprise today, rearing all the calves and heifers on the home farm in Enniscrone, enabling the business to remain a close to self-sufficient as possible.

Working off a fully grass-based system (the farm grows 14.8tonnes of grass), with 100% spring calving, the herd produced 500kg of milk solids for Aurivo Co-op in 2022, with 3.85 protein and 4.80 fat and is in the Top 10% of herds in the recently-introduced carbon index. Christopher embraces the latest technological efficiencies (including the use of cow collars for heat detection and a new Lely automatic feeder) and going forward he intends to increase the clover content of the grazing platform to at least 40-50%.

He spreads fertiliser himself but the remainder of the machinery work is contracted out and the 2022 Young Farmer of the Year notes that “we are very lucky to have very good contractors on both farms”.

“I am always looking for labour efficiencies and use an automated system to make things easier,” Christopher concludes. “I’d do 80% of the milking myself but I want to make sure that it’s as straightforward as possible when the relief milkers come in for the other 20%.

“The system is very easily ran and very efficient. I’m very lucky to have great young lads who come in and help me, and without them I’d be lost. Keelan McLoughlin, Kevin Harte and Colm Parke are great lads. We all play football [Christopher goes home to tog out for Enniscrone / Kilglass GAA] and we’d have good craic together as well as getting the work done.”

First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 11 No 2, March/April 2023