If ever asked to write a CV, most suckler farmers wouldn’t be short of variety when it comes to employment. That’s certainly true of Lahardane resident JP Leonard – suckler farmer, shopkeeper, publican and undertaker. If that doesn’t sound busy enough, he has completed a season as coach to Ballina RFC’s U15 squad.
That’s just him easing off with age he says – previously he was lambing ewes and also coaching the senior rugby team in Ballina, as well as local GAA club Lahardane MacHales. Following a heart attack at the age of 45, the ewes and lambs got the road.
Farming about 80ac spread over five blocks ranging from at home in Lahardane to Ardagh on the Ballina side of Crossmolina, JP runs a suckler-to-store system.
“I’m running 40 cows and take their calves through to stores. I’d mainly have a Limousin-cross Salers cow and there’d always be five or six replacement heifers go in every year. The cows are calving from December onwards and the older calves can get out early to grass over the winter and come back into the cows to suck. The younger calves would be on the cows only until February and can get out to grass from then.”
JP sells the stores sold as yearlings in April or May the following year.
“Usually, I’d sell in one or two to either Balla or Ballina mart, depending on what I’d have to sell. I finished young bulls twice and I said never again because I wouldn’t be geared up properly for it.”
A busy off-farm life saw a change of direction in 2021 when JP purchased a bull for the first time.
“It was all AI up to then, but things were busy and cows weren’t going in calf fast enough. I could have a funeral on or something and I just didn’t have the time to be watching them enough, so got a Charolais bull from my brother Tommy. Cilin Pete is his name and he’s working well so far, I’m happy with his first crop of calves.
“I scanned recently and had 13 of 15 in-calf in that particular group. That wouldn’t be as high when I was using AI. We never had a bull around before last year and I’d still be that bit wary of having one around. I just wouldn’t be used to it I suppose.”
The presence of a bull means JP may have to revaluate his replacement policy.
“With the bull now, it’s going to be a different situation because I never carried a Charolais-cross cow in my life. I used to calve the heifers in September or October but I found they were too hard to get back in calf, so now I calve them in June.
“I have heifers calved now in late June that were bulling within a month, because they’re getting grass straightaway.
“The faster you can get them back in calf the better. You’d see 365 days calving interval and you’d wonder is it possible, but if your cow is right and your bull is right, it can be done.”
Situated in the centre of Lahardane, Leonard’s pub and shop are a throwback to a different time.
“We kept it old style, the grocery and bar are across from each other. My father bought it and we hadn’t as much land then. We live over the pub and I reared my family here with my wife Helen. We have three daughters, Niamh, Aileen, Mary Margaret, and one son, Laurence. We have one granddaughter as well, Betty.
“Laurence is a project manager working in England, but the company is based here as well. He worked for the two pandemics from home. He was between Mayo, Dublin and London. He’d be the organiser when it comes to grass management. He set up paddocks in the ground at Ardagh and it’s unbelievable what it’s done.”
Balancing time between the shop, pub, undertakers, GAA and rugby means there are times when the farming has to fit around the other businesses. This is especially the case when it comes to the undertaking.
“There’s no control with that, so you have to drop everything and go when you have a funeral and look after everything. It’s not a two-day job anymore, there’s four days now with a funeral until it is completely finished.”
Technology on the mountains
Because of the time demands, technology has helped JP use his time well.
“We used to have a camera with cows when they’d be calving, but I got a Moocall and I think it’s the finest thing ever invented for a farmer. You can’t go wrong. You get the message to your phone that your cow is calving and I can go a half hour later and she’s progressing away. With the camera you could be watching the whole time and not much might happen.”
Nephin Mountain has an imposing presence in the area and has an influence on the rainfall, meaning some of the land can be challenging to farm.
“As north Mayo land goes, there’s a good vein of ground from here down into Ballina and a bit beyond. I’ve one portion of land there above the village and I just cut silage off it and run a few sheep on it. I buy in 70 or 80 crossbred cull ewes and fatten them over the winter – you just couldn’t afford to put cows on it. When you do cut silage, you just have to hope that the weather is right to suit it or you’re in trouble.”
A firm believer in giving back to both the community and sport organisations he was involved in, JP gives the local school the use of a field across from the pub to fundraise at the annual fair day.
“That’s on August 15 and is a big day in Lahardane’s calendar. The dealing of cattle is gone now, but a lot of people come back to the area for that day. The pull of it is still there.”
Sport has played almost as big a role as farming in JP’s life. Indeed, on occasions the two intertwined – after his car was knocked out of action, he drove his tractor the 25km into Ballina twice a week for rugby training for a whole season in his playing days.
A teammate of former Irish international Hugo MacNeill in his school days, JP’s version of slowing down in sport was when he moved from wing forward to tight head prop when he was 31. He played both rugby and Gaelic football until he was 37 before getting involved in training teams.
“I run a pub but I’m a teetotaller. When I was younger, I never had an interest in drink, I preferred sport. I was mad into it. You’d meet people from all walks of life in it and it’s the best thing anyone could be at.
“We had John Maughan involved training Lahardane MacHales back in 2017 and we won the Connacht championship. He did it as a favour to his brother who was chairman of the club. Such a favour, but it was class to watch how he got such buy-in from the lads.
“When I was 45, I used to be gone training, now I’m 65 and I’m more content to go to the farm. That’s my relaxation now. The circle of life is an education in itself. I’m watching my son when he’s on the farm and for certain, you cannot beat youth.”