Thinking Outside the Box

Name:

Rory O’Reilly

Location:

Woodford, Co. Galway

Farm Type:

Organic Suckler Beef

Participating Schemes:

Basic Income Support Scheme (BISS), Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) and Agri Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES)

Farm Size:

75 ha of grazing ground (50 ha owned, 10 ha leased plus 15 ha of rented commonage) and 12 ha of forestry

1. Overview of Rory O’Reilly

The most important thing on this farm is the soil that you are standing on”

Rory O’Reilly lives in south Co. Galway with his wife and 4 children.  He is an organic suckler beef farmer who has found innovative ways to make a living from heavy marginal land while also protecting its ecology.  He has a herd of 42 cattle comprising of 15 suckler cows with calves.  The rest are yearlings or 2-year-olds.  Rory has developed a new market for his beef by selling directly to his customers via a box scheme (Loughmountain Farm – Organic Beef & Lamb Co. Galway).  The farm is in an ACRES cooperation area and has recently been accepted in to the new agri-environmental scheme.

2. Introduction

Rory grew up on the farm where he lives today.  Even though he emigrated to the USA in 1994 he always had the intention to return to the farm someday.

“I always knew I wanted to farm, always loved being on the farm, always loved being outdoors.  It took longer than I expected to get back but when the time came, we took the jump.  It hasn’t always been easy but now we’re making it.”

Rory returned with a young family in 2010 when his father became too elderly to manage the farm on his own.

He already had a plan in place to commit to beef production and sell the produce directly to his customers but the priority upon returning was finding a place for his family to live.  Therefore, in accordance with his environmental principles, Rory built an eco-friendly straw house by himself.  It is conveniently located on the farm and the family are happily living there to the present day.  It meant, however, that it was 2014 before Rory finally had the time and energy to develop the farm business and sell his first box of beef directly to a customer.

3. Organic Farming

Converting to organic farming had always in the plan for Rory.  He had observed farming and the food production system during his time living in the USA.  It was the quality of food available on the supermarket shelves that first pushed him toward organics.

Coming back, I always knew in my heart that I was going organic the first chance that I got.  In 2015 the Organic Farming Scheme opened and I was straight in.

The journey to organic farming has been mostly straightforward for Rory.  Even before joining the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS), he was avoiding chemical sprays and was limiting his use of chemical fertilisers.  He began the certification process with the Organic Trust in 2015 and sold his first certified organic animal in 2018.  Rory found the entire application process to be manageable.  “You nearly have to have paperwork for no matter what you do these days,” he reasons stoically, and he found there was a lot of overlap in the paperwork for Bord Bia and the OFS.  He also did not find the training involved to be particularly onerous.

Rory’s focus on extensive and self-sufficient farm management has helped his business to weather the recent inflation in input prices.  He was already avoiding the use of concentrate feeds because there was an abundance of grass across the farm waiting to be utilised.  To facilitate that grass utilisation year-round, Rory invested in roadways so that during the winter months the cattle can go out to graze but come in to lie down when they want.  He feeds silage to the cattle in the shed during the winter but because he does not have enough lie back area in the shed, he strip grazes the paddocks over the winter. “I’ve never had a bother from inspections about poaching and because I leave the gate open, the cattle always have access to outside, more often than not they will spend the night outside.  Unless it’s a really hard night then you’ll find them in around here (the shed).”

Rory has also attempted to branch out into rearing his own lambs in the past.  “But you can’t fatten lambs on rushes,” he smiles, “the few that I have are more of a hobby at this stage.”  For this reason, he brings in lambs from another organic farmer in Banagher and sells them directly to his customers.

4. Developing a New Market

The cattle born on the farm are usually killed between 22 and 28 months.  They are killed in May after being at grass for a while in the spring and have put on enough flesh.  A couple of heavier animals are carried over the winter as well.  Thanks to his box scheme market he does not need to rear his cattle to the usual 300kgs – 350kgs range.  Instead, he can finish his cattle between 240kgs and 260kgs.  Many modern customers do not have the necessary knowledge or cooking facilities to deal with large cuts of meat. “With a big animal, the steaks are too big,” he explains, “with fat animals, you’re losing a lot to waste.  Up to 40 kilos could be trimmed off and I don’t have a market for that waste.

The meat is presold before the animal is slaughtered and processed.  “I have it set up that way so I don’t have to store any meat on the farm.  So there is no need to have expensive refrigerated storage equipment or have to worry about food hygiene inspections.  It’s nice and cheap for me.  Michael has a well-run abattoir so he has everything up to code.”  The nearest organic butcher is Michael Healy in Banagher, Co. Offaly who does the processing.  “I’ll bring an animal up to him, he’ll hang it up for 21 days.  Then I’ll go up to him and box the animal up and then take it to the courier or deliver it myself on the way home.

His main market is selling to households all over the country.  He does all his direct sales and marketing through social media.  He now also has a very impressive website with information about the farm, the produce and suggested recipes.  Interested customers generally ring him to order a box of beef.  The boxes can be shipped to anywhere on the island of Ireland.  He sells two different types of 10 kilo boxes.  “One has steaks and one doesn’t basically.  I find that is a good balance to get rid of all the animal.

He currently has up to 200 customers.  Some will buy one box of beef or a side of lamb in a year and others could buy 4 or 5 boxes in a year.

The main thing is, they keep coming back,” says Rory, “on the beef side of things, the customer is the most valuable asset there is.  It’s very hard to get them.  It’s very easy to lose them.  So the ones that come back, you treat with kid gloves and do everything you can for them.

5. Agri-Environment Schemes

The O’Reilly farm has long been involved in good environmental practice.  His father had entered the farm into the Hen Harrier scheme which Rory then inherited.  The Hen Harrier scheme subsequently evolved into the Hen Harrier Project.  Rory believes that the Hen Harrier Project set him up nicely for ACRES because it was also a measures-based payment system.  It finished last year so ACRES will now take over as his main source of agri-environment payments.  Rory has also participated in REPS and GLAS in the past.

The whole farm is in a designated ACRES cooperation area.  His advisor came out over the summer to score the farm and he is now accepted as a Tier 1 farmer because he is an organic farmer.  He does not yet know which measures he will be offered but he believes he is already doing many of the measures that will be suggested.

6. Conclusion

Sustainability and resilience are the two words that come to mind when considering what Rory O’Reilly has achieved.  His extensive production system provides resilience against rising input costs.  Developing his own market for his beef provides financial stability.  His involvement in various agri-environment schemes over the years has helped him to put the measures in place to protect the ecology on his farm and in the area surrounding his farm.

His commitment to environmental sustainability is again evident with his involvement in an action group for protecting the local lake, rivers and water courses.  He has been fencing the cattle away from water courses on his farm and soon he will plant trees along the edges of the watercourses.  He is happy to be involved because he believes it is the right thing to do.

“The most important thing on this farm is the soil that you are standing on,”

Rory states passionately,

“you have to rewild the soil. A part of rewilding the soil is that you have to have your field boundaries, your edges and biodiversity. You have to have habitat, soil microbes, worms, invertebrates, all the way up the food chain to wildlife and birds and then us as the dominant specie. It all needs looking after. Doing your riverbanks, doing your field boundaries, looking after your ground, it’s all part of it.”

For customers of Lough Mountain Farm, the best part is that they can consume high quality beef products safe in the knowledge that they are contributing to the sustainability of a family farm that has environmental protection at the core of all its managerial practices.  A win –win situation for everyone involved.  Long may this positive relationship between Rory, his customers and the ecology of Lough Mountain Farm and its surrounding area continue.