When Mike Pearson became principal of Gurteen College in Ballingarry, Roscrea, Tipperary, in 2000, the agricultural educational scene was going through a sticky period. The Irish economy was in the midst of a period of rapid growth during the Celtic Tiger era. There were about 70 agricultural students and a dozen equine students at the college.
The agricultural educational landscape has changed drastically since then, with upwards of 500 agricultural students enrolled in Gurteen College in 2019. There are numerous factors that contributed to this resurgence in interest in agriculture.
The downturn in the economy and crash in the construction sector was the first obvious one but incentives to encourage participation in agricultural courses teamed with a much wider offering in course options along with the abolishing of milk quotas has certainly helped.
Mike has seen similar swings in interest during his time working as a sheep specialist with the Meat and Livestock Commission from 1985 to 1990 and as a senior lecturer training shepherds in an agricultural college in Northumberland from 1990 to 1999. He says it is possible there will be more swings in the level of interest but stresses that it is vital that a good educational offering is maintained for those interested in all sectors.
This is particularly important with growing competition and some unrest recently between sectors such as beef and dairy, for example.
“We have seen a big increase in interest in dairying since quotas were removed and while dairying is proving to be the best revenue-generating enterprise, it cannot be a case of funnelling everyone down this avenue or putting all our investment capacity into teachings in this area. We cannot forget other sectors and at Gurteen College we are lucky enough to have a 400ha farm and facilities that allow all enterprises to coexist. Yes, the dairy herd has expanded since the abolition of quotas from 100 cows to 250 cows but there have also been exciting developments in other areas.”
Mike highlights the sheep flock and a recent focus on making the college more sustainable in terms of energy use as two areas he is particularly proud of.
“I am a sheep man at heart; always have been and always will. People say that there are no young people interested in sheep farming any more. This is not the case. There may be fewer students specialising in that area but those who have in recent years will make excellent sheep farmers and serve the industry well.”
Adopting the latest technologies and focusing on reducing labour are seen as two critical areas for demonstrating best practice in the sheep enterprise. Mike explains that he did not want to have a legacy on leaving the college of the sheep flock not being in the prime position to demonstrate best practice to students.
“When I joined the college, I was lucky that our shepherd Ger Carey joined at the same time and had such an interest in sheep. The sheep flock is run extremely well with support from our farm manager Kenneth Flynn and I am delighted we have been able to make a substantial investment over the last 18 months in new sheep housing and handling facilities.
"For me, the future of sheep systems will be based on low-labour units run efficiently, whether operated on a full-time or part-time basis.”
The investment in housing and handling equipment cost in the region of €100,000 but the flock of 450 ewes run at 11.7 ewes/ha (300 mid-season lambing ewes, 80 early lambing ewes and 70 yearling lambing hoggets) has the potential to generate a similar sales figure annually.
“Take that investment of €100,000. Yes it is sizeable but with some funding it can be less than half of that for young trained farmers. We are not saying that every young farmer should be running out to build such developments but if those responsible for teaching are not in a position to show these opportunities then it is very hard for the sector to advance.”
“Sheep farming is the one area where you can enter with a relatively low capital investment and a quicker return on investment. There is also a good opportunity for those interested in sheep farming but maybe not possessing the scale to offer a service to other farmers.
"For example, we teach all students how to shear and have three recent graduates who have come together to shear as part of a team. There are similar opportunities to carry out tasks on a contract basis and such skills are in demand all over the world. Other students have gone to New Zealand or Australia and been able to shear for some time to earn a living while getting a totally new experience of farming.”
While great emphasis is placed on practical experience, Mike says that it is important for the next generation of farmers to blend these with scientific principles. “There is pressure coming on the agriculture industry from a number of areas, with antimicrobial resistance and climate change attracting more attention. Sheep systems fare well under both of these headings but there are improvements that can be made on every farm. The use of management tools such as faecal egg counts will reduce the rate of anthelmintic resistance developing, while flock health planning and the strategic use of vaccinations can help reduce an already typically low usage of antibiotics.”
“We have also progressed down a route of trying to reduce our energy use through initiatives such as installing over 180 photovoltaic panels and a wind turbine, growing willow to fuel high-efficiency biomass boilers and generating hot water for dairy washings through plate cooler heat recovery to name a few. These are all initiatives that may become more commonplace in the future so they serve a double purpose of reducing our energy bill by over 30% while also demonstrating the technology to students.”
While some sectors of agriculture may be going through a difficult period Mike says there will always be a requirement for food which is produced to high standards and as such it is the responsibility of the agricultural sector to ensure the best possible educational facilities are available across all sectors.
The search for a new principal in the college will close to applications on 3 May but Mike explains that he will remain in position until the post is filled and then act as a support facility to allow the selected candidate to transition into the new role.
Watch: 400-ewe shed with impressive handling unit for Gurteen College