Business Articles




Fresh from winning the Northern Ireland heat of the First Trust Bank Farm Business Management Competition, Joe Milligan a 23 year old student, tells us what it’s like to study agriculture at CAFRE and how the Farm Business Management Competition has helped his understanding of farming.


“Although I’ve been working on our family farm outside Castlewellan since a young age, I recently moved into partnership with my father and now manage the business with him. We have a suckler and sheep farm; this includes 75 cows that calve in spring and autumn and 280 ewes in lamb. We tend to buy 30 – 40 dairy bred calves and take them through to beef each year.


Having worked on the farm during my teenage years, I decided to leave school at 16 and pursue a more focused education in agriculture. I am about to finish a Foundation Degree and I also have a Level 2 and Level 3 Workplace Diploma in Agriculture from CAFRE.


CAFRE provides you with a range of opportunities that you might not get through school or other universities. For me, the most enjoyable modules have been those that provide insight and advice on every-day farming – from grass systems and ruminant production to farm business management. I’ve found that advice on the simple things help improve processes the most and ultimately contribute to farm growth and success.


Meeting like-minded people has also been a big bonus of studying at CAFRE. Between the friends I’ve made and the courses I’ve studied, my confidence has been boosted. So much so that I am hoping to go on and study for a BCS Degree in Agriculture next year.


While many of those studying agriculture tend to come from a farming background, work placement opportunities allow us to experience different farming methods. I have just finished a placement on a beef and cereal farm in Swords outside Dublin. With 250 cows and over 600 acres of cereals, they were on a completely different scale to anything I had worked on before. From joining a large farming team with dryer land and a huge grass based system, it was a great learning experience.


Creating a farm business management plan was one of the most useful - and one of my favourite - assignments that I completed during my degree. In my plan, I analysed our business, plotted out our stocking and profitability rates and then analysed the findings to come up with objectives to make the farm more efficient. I factored in the volatility around red meat pricing and how a transition to dairy might affect profitability over time.


I was delighted to be among one of the six students shortlisted in Northern Ireland and was pleased with the feedback from the judges First Trust Bank. Ahead of the final later this year, I may include additional cost projections given fluctuations in milk prices.


As well as competing in the all-Ireland stage of the Farm Business Management Plan competition, I was recently selected to join the National Sheep Association’s Young Ambassador Programme. This scheme is designed to provide young farmers with technical and personal development opportunities and allows you to network and learn from other progressive farmers. From this, and together with the experience I’ve gained from CAFRE, I hope to farm full-time at home at Castlewellan and continue to grow the business there. Given the ongoing uncertainly being felt in the farming sector, I’m glad that I’ve been able to further my studies and will always have additional qualifications should I decide to branch out into other aspects of agriculture.”



Why do you need a Farm Business Management Plan?

“A farm business plan is an essential tool for organising the direction, operational management and ultimately the growth of your business,” says Eoin Donnelly, Specialist Agri-Advisor at First Trust Bank and a judge of the Farm Business Management Competition. “The business plan should determine how a farm owner or manager intends to organise their operations and implement actions needed for the business to succeed.” Eoin adds that a plan isn’t just for businesses starting out, but is an evolving working document. He explains; “A farm business management plan should not just be composed when seeking financial assistance but should be reviewed regularly and adapted to the business circumstances and when the internal and external environment changes. The old adage of ‘fail to plan is plan to fail’ is certainly one applicable to businesses right across sectors – including agriculture.”

Top tips for developing a good Farm Business Management Plan!


  1. Give an overview of your current farming business and the reason why you are farming.
  2. Include strategic objectives and goals. What is it you want to achieve? Think S.M.A.R.T! Make your objectives Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.
  3. Plot out the products you sell and prices.
  4. Specify your target market. Who are you supplying, what is your competitive advantage and who are your key competitors?
  5. Lay out your funding and investment requirements and get advice if you need it.
  6. Include financial details such as your current farm performance, cash flow information and financial projections.



Joe Milligan



Farm Business Management project winning students with the First Trust Bank judges. From left: Kyle Weir from Enniskillen (3rd place), Eoin Donnelly, Specialist Agri-Advisor at First Trust Bank, Joe Milligan from Castlewellan (1st place), Karen Kidd, Manager at First Trust Bank and John Gilfillan from Limavady (2nd place).




Eoin Donnelly, Specialist Agri-Advisor at First Trust Bank