Ireland is renowned for its high-quality, grass-fed dairy production. With this focus on quality and innovation, it has opened doors to a broad range of careers and opportunities in the sector, both nationally and internationally. From farming and processing to research, development, marketing and distribution, there are opportunities across a wide range of skill sets.

Ireland’s dairy industry is a key component of the economy providing €16bn of economic value and an estimated 85,000 jobs.

According to Bord Bia, the average size of an Irish dairy farm is 32.4 hectares or 0.32 square kilometres with 83 cows as the average herd size.

In 2022, Irish dairy farms produced over 8.7 billion litres of liquid milk. Although dairy faces many environmental challenges, it remains a prosperous sector on a national and global scale.

Four professionals speak to Irish Country Living. The diversity across their roles highlight the variety of career pathways and job opportunities available.

Miriam Ryan - Head of Specialised Nutrition & Food Policy, Dairy Industry Ireland

Having completed an undergraduate degree and PhD in Nutrition at Ulster University, Miriam now works on a global scale representing Ireland’s dairy industry.

Miriam’s career started in a clinical area as she spent six years at the University Hospital of Angres in western France, working on clinical trials in diabetes, obesity and malnutrition.

In 2007, she returned to work in academia at University College Dublin (UCD), where she remained for nearly a decade.

“Working in the agri-food sphere, it was great to be exposed to that cutting-edge research,” Miriam says.

Taking on her current role with Dairy Industry Ireland in 2016, Miriam is now the Irish national representative on the European Union (EU) and international industry committees. She directs matters of specialised dairy nutrition across partners in the industry, EU and international trade associations, government departments and key opinion leaders in academia and research.

“My role is very reflective of the dairy sphere itself, there is such a wide breadth of aspects to it.

My focus is on specialised nutrition in the dairy industry including instant and medical nutrition as well as the nourishment we derive from our dairy product,” she explains.

Throughout her work, Miriam focuses on future prospects and opportunities within dairy nutrition. Although dairy production in Ireland has a strong heritage aspect, it is important to look towards the future and develop new ways of getting value out of Irish milk.

“That’s where I come in and identify those opportunities where we can represent dairy processors worldwide and connect up that discussion on dairy nutrition,” says Miriam.

For new dairy science graduates, industry partners or those looking to upskill, there are a vast number of opportunities that exist.

“I hope that new graduates and people in other sectors can see the breadth of scope across the dairy sector, although sometimes that is forgotten. I think within that skillset can be several folds. It has a wealth of opportunities and it’s important that people can see that,” says Miriam.

Ruth Kerrigan - Dairy farmer from Newcastle Co Dublin

Ruth Kerrigan, Dairy farmer from Newcastle Co Dublin.

Ruth Kerrigan isn’t your typical dairy farmer. Growing up in Newcastle, Co Dublin she has no farming background but she completed a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Science at UCD.

During the third year, while carrying out dairy placement, Ruth discovered a grá for the industry.

“I just fell in love with cows, I loved the work and every aspect of working on the farm. From there I went looking for a more practical way into farming.”

After graduating in 2012, Ruth started the Professional Diploma in Dairy Farm Management with Teagasc.

During the programme, Ruth carried out her placement with Mitchell Hayes in Blarney. Eleven years later, she is still there. It wasn’t just the work that kept her in Cork.

“I fell in love with his neighbour Frank. We got married and recently had our son, Frank,” says Ruth.

“It has been absolutely brilliant, Mitchell is a great employer and it’s a nice place to work. I’m currently on six months maternity leave,” she says.

When it comes to opportunities in the dairy industry Ruth says, “I am in a young discussion group and I find farmers across all age groups are looking to forge opportunities for themselves but also for anyone else that is coming up the ranks.

“It is tough work in the spring but outside of that, there is good flexibility.

“I am looking forward to seeing how family life fits into that,” says Ruth.

Noel Dempsey - Dairy Farmer, Minane Bridge, Co Cork

Noel Dempsey, Dairy Farmer, Minane Bridge, Co Cork.

Noel Dempsey grew up on a dairy farm in Minane Bridge, Co Cork. However, he went on a bit of an international journey before returning home to milk. He completed a Construction Management degree at Dundalk Institute of Technology.

When Noel graduated in 2007, the building industry in Ireland was in recession so he moved to London and worked as a project manager on building sites before doing a stint labouring in Australia.

In 2010, Noel’s girlfriend at the time and now wife Beth got a job nursing at Cork University Hospital which helped Noel decide to return home and farm with his parents.

“It was a big change; the biggest difference was the social side of it. It’s not fair to say you’re working on your own but that’s what I noticed the most,” explains Noel.

Noel went on to complete a green cert in Clonakilty in 2012.

“I don’t think I would have been mature enough to do it straight after college. This way I got a degree, I got some great life experience and I gained the knowledge that being at home farming isn’t all that bad,” he explains.

Today Noel is milking 120 cows on a calf spring system. He shares an employee with another farmer locally as they were both looking for part-time help.

When it comes to opportunities in the sector Noel says, “Education is everything. Along with education comes a network and along with that network comes opportunities. Knowing the right people does help in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t rush home to the family farm. It is important to gain some life experience, get different perspectives and work outside the industry.”

Helen Burke - Relief milker and student, Ballylooby, Co Tipperary

Helen Burke, Relief milker and student, Ballylooby, Co Tipperary.

Coming from a contract-rearing farm, Helen had an interest in agriculture from a young age.

While Helen was in secondary school, she started milking for a local farmer, which developed her interest in dairy production. After speaking to her school guidance counsellor, she decided to study Agriculture Science at Munster Technological University.

“I am enjoying the course, although third year is definitely challenging. I enjoyed placement last year. I worked for Eurogene in Cahir. It’s an AI company so I was packing the straws and delivering them to farms on the road,” explains Helen.

Helen started relief milking part-time, on holidays and over the weekends to get some money while in college.

Working on farms in the Ardfinnan, Ballymackey and Clogheen areas, she could be milking anywhere from 100 to 180 cows.

“I am relief milking which offers great flexibility. I milk in the morning and I can go home throughout the day and during college time, I can study. I play a lot of sport and during the summer when there are lots of matches and training, I can tie it in around that.”

She encourages anyone to give milking a go, “It’s not for everyone but with the right training, you could surprise yourself.

“I feel like people are crying out for milkers. If you go looking for work, it wouldn’t be hard finding it,” says Helen.