Growing up on a dairy farm led Emma Gilsenan to develop a keen interest in agriculture from a young age: “My interest in ag definitely came from growing up on a dairy farm on the outskirts of Virginia, Co Cavan. I was always out on the farm, helping dad.”
This large-scale dairy farm is milking 200 cows on a spring-based calving system. Emma jokes: “When I tell people we are milking 200 cows in Cavan, they’re a bit like, ‘Where are you milking 200 cows in Cavan?’ But it is not typical Cavan land; it’s very dry and we actually struggle with draught during the summer as well.”
Although Emma had an interest in agriculture, she hoped to do veterinary in college. “I did ag science for the Leaving Cert, but to be honest, when I was in secondary school, I wasn’t going to do ag – it was more veterinary. I always wanted to be a vet.”
Emma was only 17 at the time she did her Leaving Cert and didn’t expect to get the points for veterinary science, so she looked into studying abroad, in Budapest. As she was so young at the time, Emma decided against studying internationally, knowing she would be away for five years. Instead, when she finished school, she decided to go to Galway to study science.
“At the time I didn’t see the career [prospects] in ag,” she says. “When you’re young and that age you don’t always see [what’s] ahead.”
Emma spent three months in Galway before she dropped out. She then worked on a dairy farm for the spring with FRS (Farm Relief Services) . She tells Irish Country Living: “I think that drove me on [to realise] that I really do like ag. I think going to Galway firmed it up in my mind that ag science was what I wanted to do.”
Differences in farm practices
Emma went back to college and studied Dairy Science in UCD. During her degree, she travelled to New Zealand to complete a six-month placement on a 1,100 cow dairy farm.
“I think nearly my whole course went [to New Zealand], so it was like having a big family out there,” Emma says. “I suppose you learn a lot about how to manage a large-scale dairy farm with minimum inputs. A lot of people say New Zealand is like Ireland, but it’s not in a lot of ways. Cows aren’t housed during the winter; they’re out on kale or redstart. It just gives you exposure to another system of production in another country and how they work around managing staff and big herds.”
Once finished in UCD, Emma went on to work within agri-journalism with AgriLand. She says: “It was a fantastic experience. I got exposed to loads of different areas of the industry.”
After a year working as their dairy technical specialist, she returned to UCD to do her masters in Agricultural Extension and Innovation. Of this masters, Emma said: “I met loads of people and we completed great modules around project management and knowledge exchange.”
Her thesis focused on multispecies swards and what was influencing and hindering their adoption at farm level and how they were being managed.
She started working with MSD Animal Health while finishing her masters. “MSD were really good and accommodating; they gave me loads of free time to finish up my thesis and masters,” she says.
Emma is now the ruminant product manager in MSD Animal Health and works in the marketing department. She says: “I have exposure to so many different areas of the business. It is very diverse, which I love. Anything could come across my table at any time – around supporting the team, working on specific campaigns, helping with new project launches and working on digital projects.
She became aware of MSD while working as a journalist and thought of the company as progressive: “They are constantly looking for new opportunities, new innovations and ways of developing synergies across the industry. They really look after their staff, and anyone I ever met was really approachable.”
She continues to farm in her spare time: “I would do a bit of farming at the weekends, when I get time. It is hard – you need your free time as well. In the future I would love to be more involved in the farm.” Her brothers are currently working the family farm in Virginia.
Advice to students
Emma gives the following advice to students: “I would probably say don’t be afraid of opportunities that come your way. You never know what you could learn from it. What’s the worst that can happen? If you don’t like it, you can move on. When you’re young, it’s all about gaining experience and learning from it. It’s all about meeting people in different parts of the industry and what might suit you as a person.”