Being collectively a mum to four daughters, helping run a dairy farm and being a breed secretary is no mean feat. In his next exclusive interview for The Scottish Farmer, I chat with Gillian Steele, from Shamrock Vale Farm, in Glenavy, Co Antrim, about her busy life.


THEY say a woman’s work is never done but working on the family dairy farm, being breed secretary of the Irish Moiled Cattle Society, and a busy mum, keeps Gillian Steele out of mischief.

Outdoors or indoors, Gillian turns her hands to many tasks for the farm business that is run in partnership with her husband, David.

Tell me about your family farm?

Our dairy farm consists of mainly Holstein Friesian animals with around 340 head in total. We milk 140 cows and have an additional 60 maiden heifers, 80 young stock, a number of sucklers and breeding bulls.

Included in the breed mix are a few Ayrshires in the milking herd, some cross-bred sucklers and a special animal, our first ever Speckle Park bull.

What do you work at on and off farm?

After college, I worked in school finance for seven years until the birth of our fourth daughter when I chose to become self-employed. I now work alongside my husband, David, running our farm. That's as well as fulfilling my role as breed secretary of the Irish Moiled Cattle Society and looking after our family.

Running the farm involves a wide range of outside jobs, regardless of the weather, from operating machinery, milking, calving, feeding, cleaning and all the way through to the inside jobs of paperwork, software and farm records.

How long have you been involved with the Irish Moiled breed?

I became the breed secretary in September, 2010, and manage the daily running of the membership and herdbook for the RoI, NI and GB.

My role has grown and changed along with society needs. I handle all animal registrations from birth to pedigree certificate, organise society events, manage and attend meetings, promote the breed, advise and support breeders and all the other administration as expected of a breed secretary.

In more recent times our online herd book, AI catalogue, timed auctions, beef scheme, in-breeding coefficients, classification, EFS and online breeder resources have proved welcome and popular amongst the membership. Brexit has posed some changes that we are continuing to work our way through by working alongside Dafm (RoI), Daera (NI) and Defra (GB).

We are currently undertaking the change from micro-satellite testing to single nucleotide polymorphism testing. I have always worked remotely so, thankfully, Covid-19 did not pose any difficulties for me. In fact, it gave me the chance to move the society forward with technology, hosting online meetings and improving communications.

Is the breed popular today across the UK and Ireland?

Yes, the breed is becoming popular and in high demand. It’s a breed that ticks all the boxes. Historically, a dual-purpose cow, it's naturally polled, has excellent maternal instincts, is easily calved, plentiful in milk, medium-sized, docile, easily out-wintered, has high longevity, produces high quality beef and is uniquely marked, so it will add 'colour' to any pasture.

With around 500 active breeding females in NI, 250 in RoI and 125 in GB, our work is not yet complete. A substantial proportion of the GB Irish Moiled breeding females are in Scotland.

What were the best prices at your recent successful Irish Moiled sale in Carlisle?

Yes, our second Magnificent Moilies online timed auction was held through Harrison and Hetherington. Champions of the day were Curraghnakeely Gypsy King, bred by N and M Moilies (N Edwards and M McCauley), NI, a promising 15-month-old bull which sold for £2600; and Ballyreagh Lily 6737, a yearling heifer which made £3200 and was bred by W Edwards, NI.

Bulls had more than an 80% clearance, averaging £1500 and females had 100% clearance, averaging £2200.

How is life as a dairy farmer’s wife in Northern Ireland?

I prefer the term ‘dairy farmer’s life’, as David and I work as a team to ensure the success of our business for the next generation.

We have four daughters who are all still in education and show an active interest in farming. They are raised to be independent, hardworking and appreciative of the investment for their future.

We work long hours. It’s a joint effort and time off isn’t something we are used to. Women in agriculture are now, like myself, farming, managing self-employment/employment and raising a family. Covid-19 presented the added task of home-schooling to all of the above!

What are the main challenges facing dairy farmers in NI today?

Dairy farming in NI requires commitment. It’s made challenging due to ever changing regulations. We are passionate about food production and recognise what our great country has to offer.

The average age of a NI dairy farmer I believe to be 58 years old. This is alarming and speaks volumes.

I think the main challenges are investment and work commitment. Northern Ireland’s farmers need more representation and recognition to help encourage the next generation.

Have you any comments on the recent Climate Bill passed in Stormont?

I feel that such legislation could negatively impact our agri-food sector and rural communities. This legislation could be another unrealistic burden for NI farmers. New legislation needs to be manageable and achievable.

Was it a good idea for the Royal Highland Show to go ahead virtually?

Yes – the Highland Show has adapted as well as it was able to and I commend the RHASS for organising the virtual format to help reduce the spread of Covid-19.

The virtual format still encourages involvement with the farming industry whether it be social or financial – and I would be delighted to see Irish Moiled classes introduced at the Royal Highland Show.