If dairy farmer Bill O Keeffe were marketing his own milk, he would have the perfect slogan for promoting it. He breeds up to 80 racing greyhounds on his farm in the Irish countryside and the puppies are reared on milk from his herd of pedigree British Friesians.
“Race like a greyhound on a pint a day” might be good for sales but, since Bill isn’t in the business of direct marketing, he wisely separates breeding the fastest greyhounds from producing milk profitably.
The O Keeffe family’s association with breeding racing track greyhounds goes back three generations.
Bill’s grandfather made a name for himself in the industry as did his father, Philip, before he gave up the dogs to concentrate his time on farming activities.
But the greyhounds had left their impression on Bill and, when he was in his teens, he started to build up his own enterprise, at that time rearing for other breeders.
He found he was good at it and decided to focus on breeding his own. In 2003 there were 50 greyhounds on the farm and there are now 80. Numbers have just kept on growing as he has become more successful.
Success doesn’t come greater on the Irish greyhound racing circuit than winning the coveted top prize in the Irish Greyhound Derby at Shelbourne Park. This event is one of the richest such races in the world. It was a dream come true for Bill when in 2007 a dog he had reared, Tyrur Rhino, clinched that €175,000 (£154,000) first prize.
“That was a real high point; it’s the ultimate achievement for anyone who breeds and rears greyhounds,” says Bill. “A lot of very fast dogs come through here. We breed to a very high level and, when you get a winner in a race like the Irish Derby, people really sit up and take notice.”
That’s because there is more to breeding a Derby winner than sheer good luck. It starts with the basics of mating the very best bitches and dogs. “The bitch needs to pup down easily and the pups must be looked after well when they are young,” Bill explains. “If the pups are handled regularly it encourages good temperament and the final stage is training them to a high level with a professional trainer.”
Bill has built a successful greyhound business at Churchclara Farm, County Kilkenny, by investing in the finest breeding stock. Some of his greyhound families can be traced back 20 generations.
There are eight brood bitches on the farm and these are mated with mainly American or Australian sire families, including Brettlee and Tyrur Rhino, considered to be among the best in the business.
Bitches have litters averaging eight puppies, although they don’t have a litter every year. A break in between litters encourages longevity.
One essential job that must be done after the puppies are born is to give them a permanent identification with an earmark tattoo. This is a legal requirement, similar to ear-tagging calves, which prevents illegal activities at race meets.
Feeding the puppies is a pretty straightforward business on a dairy farm – their diet consists of cow’s milk, bread and some meat. They remain with the bitch for 12 weeks and are vaccinated and wormed before they are transferred to large outdoor exercise pens with shelters, split into groups of dogs and bitches.
Bill admits there is not much science to rearing the dogs in their first year. “We have to make sure they get the right nutrition so that they are fit and healthy when they are ready to be trained,” he says.
In a field close to the farmyard, the dogs use the runs to their full advantage, racing up and down to develop strong, healthy limbs and cardiovascular systems.
“If you give a greyhound space it will run, it doesn’t need much encouragement. There doesn’t need to be anything for it to chase, it’s just in its nature to run,” says Bill.
Although the pens are surrounded with high security fencing, theft has never been an issue. Watching the greyhounds leap around in their pens, the fencing is more a means of keeping the dogs contained than preventing people stealing them.
So excitable is one group when Bill enters their pen, in fact, that they accidentally tear his jacket. “They are very energetic, that’s what makes them such great racing dogs,” he says.
Rearing greyhounds on a dairy farm does come with one important rule that must be observed. Female livestock can’t graze on land previously occupied by greyhounds because of the risk associated with neosporosis which can cause cows to abort, but there is no issue with male stock.
Although there are plenty of pedigree bull calves on the farm, sheep loaned from a neighbour do a better job of cleaning up the grass in the pen area.
Breeding, rearing, schooling and training greyhounds is intensely competitive but not only is Bill ranked as one of Ireland’s leading breeders, his uncle, Paul Hennessy, is one of the country’s top trainers. So far this year the trainer has had 197 recorded wins.
Once the dogs are trained and fit to race, the greyhounds are sold to owners and are quite often exported to the UK. It’s a lucrative business if you get it right; Bill sold one dog for €15,000 (£10,700) this year.
Not every greyhound is valued so highly, making it far more accessible than owning a racehorse. While it’s in the nature of nearly every Irish person to want to own a horse, the figures involved mean it is out of reach for the majority, says Bill.
“It is very easy for people to get involved with greyhound racing, it’s the poorer man’s horse. It costs around €400 a month to keep a greyhound in training compared to thousands of euros for a horse.
“Greyhound racing is part of our heritage in Ireland, there are a lot of people employed in the industry and it is a good social outlet for many people.”
Bill isn’t just a breeder, he indulges his interest in racing as an owner too. He owns He Told Ted, the winner of this year’s €6500 (£5700) Munster Derby. “We were delighted, there was a lot of celebrating to be done that day,” he says.
The greyhound enterprise fits in well with the dairy farming business. “I have to be in the yard twice a day with the cows so it’s no problem to be in the yard twice a day with the dogs. We even buy our dog food from the same supplier as we get our cow feed from.”
As he heads off to give the dogs their afternoon feed his mobile phone bleeps. It’s a text informing him that one of his dogs has been entered in a race. “I’ve signed up to a service that gives me regular updates on the races,” he explains.
With the number of dogs that have been through his yard, there is little doubt that the sound of a pinging phone is a regular feature of his day.