Women in Ag: Caryn Webster

Dairy farm succession can be a touchy subject among families and usually involves a son taking over operational duties from his father

However, these days, more females are stepping up to run the family farm, with some opting to mix farm management with raising children at the same time.

Caryn Webster with six-month-old daughter Tilly on the family farm at Islandmagee

One of those female farmers busy balancing a young family with daily farm work is 34-year-old Caryn Webster from County Antrim in Northern Ireland. The mother of three young children (aged between six months and five years), Caryn runs the family dairy farm at Brown’s Bay, near Islandmagee, while husband James works full-time in nearby Kilroot power station.

The farm has been handed down to Caryn by her father Jack, who still helps out with some milkings and feeding young calves, while mum Caroline helps with babysitting duties.

Balancing act

Caryn pushes up silage to the cows as part of her daily chores

It may be a lot of hard work for Caryn basically managing two jobs, but she is the first to admit that she wouldn’t have it any other way and has plans to enhance the farm and make it more efficient.

“I wake up every morning at 5.30am to milk the cows just like most other dairy farmers have to do,” says Caryn.

“The kids are prepared for school on weekdays and after dropping them off, I continue working. But that’s farming life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Caryn runs 65 Holstein cows on the farm and came home to work there after studying for a degree in agriculture in England and gaining work experience for a year on a dairy farm in New Zealand.

“I have been at home farming since 2008,” she says. “I am the fourth generation on the farm with my great grandfather and his brother moving here in 1876. Although the farm has been split up over the generations, it now comprises around 47 hectares of land.

The herd

Around 25 maiden heifers are kept each year

Dairying started to be more of a focus on the farm around the 1930s with Dairy Shorthorn cattle, changing in the mid-1950s to the British Friesian breed and then progressing to Holstein Friesian, as it is today.

“We are currently milking approximately 60 to 65 pedigree Holstein Friesian cows under the Bayends prefix twice a day and they are yielding an average of 7000 litres at 4.62% butterfat and 3.73% protein.

The parlour was installed new five years ago

“We milk the cows in a 10 point swing over Fullwood parlour and all the milk is sold to the Dale Farm processor,” says Caryn.

“There are approximately 25 in calf heifers and a further 25 maiden heifers and calves all bred from AI in the herd each year, which is too many for our replacements and means we could be in a position to sell some in the future.”

Heifers are in good supply on Caryn’s farm

Caryn’s cows are grazed as one group for as long as possible during the year and could be put out to pasture as early as February and as late as December, though not necessarily in the same year.

Future plans

On a normal day, Caryn gets her two oldest boys, Benjamin and William, ready for school before taking over the milking from her dad. Once the milking is over, there are other mouths to feed before Caryn can have any breakfast herself.

“Mum looks after our youngest, daughter Tilly, which is a super help,” says Caryn.
“I always liked farming and it was a bit of a surprise to dad that I wanted to take over the farm instead of my brothers.

“However, I enjoy working with the cows even though it can be somewhat of a lonely existence being a farmer.

“Looking to the future, my plans are really to increase cow numbers very slightly to 70 and continue as normal.

“Although we’re not currently investing in new technology, we’re putting up a new dry cow shed under a grant scheme, which will improve cow welfare and hopefully make them more efficient and easier to manage by one person.

“We’ve already also invested in the past five years in a new milking parlour and upgraded the cubicle house for the main milking herd,” says Caryn.

Weather woes

The main issues Caryn faces dairy farming in her location are mostly weather-related – a downside to living on the coast.

Caryn says, “As anywhere, the main problems are weather-related. Being situated on the coast, we get quite strong winds, which are laden with salt.

“This kills off grass very easily and is hard to manage.

This also plays a large part in the design and strength of our buildings so they tend to cost more.

“Being coastal also means a greater chance of the land burning up during a dry summer although thankfully, we have a mix of soil types on the farm that are easily accessed so the grazing and silage platforms can be easily switched around as necessary.

“The system we currently run is working well and hopefully with continued investment to improve on what’s already there puts us in good stead to be able to weather the volatility of the dairy industry and allow us to continue to farm in future generations,” adds Caryn.

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Photography: Chris McCullough

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