May 27 – Day 6 – Sligo
First thing in the morning we left our hotel in Sligo to go to the Connacht Gold Dairy Ingredients plant in Ballaghaderreen. Connacht Gold is a cooperative that serves the producers and consumers in the province of Connacht and beyond. In addition to the dairy ingredients business they also have a livestock mart business (sale barns), a consumer food business, and 39 agribusiness retail stores.
The dairy ingredients plant contracts with farmers in the area to process milk into fat-filled dry milk and butter. Their primary work is getting water out of milk to get the dairy fat. Their marketing scheme consists of a complex relationship between with the Irish Dairy Board where Connacht Gold produces the product and the Irish Dairy Board does further value added processing and marketing.
When this Connacht Gold plant receives milk they weigh it then test for water and solids to determine the quality of milk in regards to the amounts of fat and protein. The summer months is when they receive seven times more milk than other parts of the year and the plant operates 24/7.
The chemical lab technicians do herd tests on the cows so the plant and the farmers know the performance of the cows and can keep or cull cows based on their performance in milk production characteristics. These characteristics include yield per cow, as well as the amount of fats, proteins, and lactose. In addition, the farmers are penalized on white cell count (amount of bacteria). The machinery that performs these tests are very accurate and are calibrated between each sample. To further control the quality of milk from producers, each farmer is checked twice a month for antibiotics in the milk. If there are antibiotics in the milk, they identify the farm and will not purchase milk from that farm until that farmer brings in samples and they are cleared for antibiotics. This is a serious matter in Ireland, because there is a zero tolerance for antibiotics.
We were able to go through the processing facilities where there are six stages of evaporation before the milk that is made into fat-filled dry milk is put through a large dryer. In addition, the milk is processed into butter that they make into salted, unsalted and lactic butter. Some of us even got to taste the butter! Yum! They sell the majority of their butter to the Irish Dairy Board, which processes the butter into different package sizes to export to Germany and other countries. Connacht Gold also keeps some of the butter to be processed into their local brand at a nearby sister plant.
Packaging is a huge cost incurred during this production process and they are in the process of identifying ways to reduce these costs. After being packaged, the finished products (butter and dry milk) are stored in a blast freezer. The products are transported frozen in non-refrigerated trucks.
As we have learned from the dairy farmers there is huge growth potential when the quotas are lifted in 2015. From the processors perspective this is also a huge opportunity, but their expansion will depend on the scope of the farmers’ expansion. In future years, we will see expanding Irish dairy production.
Following our visit to Connacht Gold we had lunch then drove through a few small towns to get to the townland Townaghmore near rural Culfadda where Dr. Fox grew up. We made it down the narrow roads with our big coach to the Fox family home. Marty and May were very welcoming and showed us around their farm before serving us tea, coffee and pastries. We all enjoyed seeing pictures of Dr. Fox in his younger years and listening to stories of his childhood.
Our next stop was Ballymote to see some graves of tinkers, also known as the traveling community or gypsies. They were very shiny and showy and we can’t imagine how much it costs!
After dinner at the hotel we were back out to another farm. But this time we got to see a beef farm! It was Dr. Fox’s cousin, Damien Carty, who owns 145 acres, a pretty big amount of land for Ireland. He shared with us his production and marketing tactics, discussing his newness to the industry. His farm had been a dairy until 2009 when he decided to switch to beef cattle. Since it is a grass based diet and all growth implants are prohibited, heifers are preferred for their faster maturing characteristics. He had a group of heifers going to mart next week that were pinned up in the barn so we could see them. In fact, we got the opportunity to judge them based on the Irish grading system Damien taught us about. It brought back memories of livestock judging in the states for many of us, but it was a little challenging to adapt to their system, which focuses on rewarding lean animals since they are on a grass-based diet.
After our grading exercise we went into Culfadda to the local pub to experience some authentic Celtic music. One of Dr. Fox’s neighbors growing up is the National Bodhran Champion so he and a friend played some tunes for us and taught us how to play some of our own Celtic music with the bodhran.
It was quite a long day, but it was great to see Dr. Fox’s hometown and meet his family and friends, as well as hearing some authentic music.