“If you at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.” That was the phrase that sprung to mind when That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, interviewed farmer and ag student, Katie Costello recently.
Although the sixth-generation farmer, who hails from Ballyhaise, County Cavan, has been passionate about agriculture from a tender age, she adopted the scenic route to her desired course.
The family’s return to farming in recent years influenced the six-generation farmer’s career path.
“I remember going to the Ballyhaise College open day in 2015 when I was in fifth year to see what courses they offered, and since then, I knew that was my aim after school,” the 22-year-old told That’s Farming.
“Loreto College Cavan did not have agricultural science as an option as a Leaving Certificate subject until the year after I had chosen my subjects in fifth-year.”
“I remember picking chemistry, biology and accounting and thinking that science subjects would help me gain knowledge for the course and accounting would assist with the business side,” she added.
However, Katie repeated fifth-year to change her subject choices to agricultural science, biology and geography for her Leaving Certificate.
She had selected DkIT’s agricultural science degree programme as her first CAO choice, followed by similar courses at GMIT/Mountbellew and UCD.
Katie did not secure sufficient CAO points for her first choice, but she had a plan ‘B’. She had already registered and completed an entrance assessment exam before receiving her Leaving Certificate results for the Green Cert course at the college as another option.
“As I got accepted into this one-year course, I completed it, gaining so much experience as the course is very practical, which suited me brilliantly. Once I completed the one-year course, I approached the vice-principal about my options on how to further my studies.”
“Oliver Tierney (vice at the time) explained to me about the interview option that I could potentially get straight into the second year of the course I always wanted (sustainable agriculture in DkIT/Ballyhaise).”
“So, I went for the interview, got my place and started in second year of the course that September.” the sheep and dairy-calf-to-beef farmer added.
The Cavan native is now a fourth-year student, having enrolled in its BSc Hons in sustainable agriculture degree programme in 2017, and will graduate in May.
She had two stints of 12-week placements and intended to complete a third placement, but Covid-19 restrictions brought these plans to a halt.
She carried out her first year Green Certificate placement on a 300+ mid-season lambing flock in Redhills, County Cavan.
“This was probably one of the best farming experiences I had. I gained so many skills on this farm, from lambing many ewes a day to driving tractors, diggers, you name it.”
“I always had trouble reversing trailers and could never get the hang of it but, this particular farmer had plenty of patience, and I just kept trying.”
“Some days, it would take me ten or twelve attempts to reverse the straw blower into the shed passageway, but eventually, I got there.”
Her second-year placement was also meant to be farm-based; however, she used this opportunity to gain experience with Lakeland Dairies in its microbiology lab on-site on Killeshandra, County Cavan.
“I was also due to go on placement for the summer months in third year. Students can go abroad to work on farms or in industries. However, Covid-19 cancelled our placements, but I was due to return to Lakeland Dairies again.”
“I am enjoying the course, and it has lived up to my expectations from going to the first open day in 2015. There is a lot of practical learning in first year. You are out and about on the farm almost every day of the week in Ballyhaise, but there is also lots of theory work to be covered when you reach your final two years.”
“I have not found remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic bad. It is nice to take a break from the laptop to go down to the farm and get a bit of fresh air, even if it is only checking stock for a few minutes. However, sitting in front of a laptop all day every day can be tiring, but I get on with it.”
Furthermore, in spring 2020 and 2021, she worked at the college through FRS, covering calving and lambing season for evening/night shifts.
“Caring for new-born calves and lambs, ensuring they get the best start to life was the aim every day. This was a life-changing experience as I had a lot of responsibility. It was a brilliant opportunity as I got a feel for running a busy farm.”
Katie can now spend more time assisting with running the family farm with her father, Seamus, who works full-time in construction, mother, Anna, and two sisters, Emma and Laura.
The family operate a mid-season lambing flock and farm a calf-to-beef enterprise. Their sheep farm comprises Charollais ewes and pedigree Galway ewes, a rare breed they ventured into by purchasing 16 ewe lambs.
A Charollais is their ram breed of choice, with mature ewes lambing from mid-March followed by ewe lambs in April.
“Dad and mam were working full-time with three young children. They found it difficult to find time to farm, so sold the last of the bullocks and rented the land for a few years,” she told That’s Farming.
In 2009, they bought store lambs for the winter to sell the following year. From there, they purchased ewes with lambs at foot at Carrigallen Mart and have sheep farmers ever since.
“We only started back farming cattle in the last three years. When I started going out with my dairy farming boyfriend, Stephen, I developed a passion for calves. He taught me a lot about good calf rearing practices, so I asked dad could we get calves and convinced him.”
The family rear dairy-bred beef calves on milk replacer and winter them for the first year, to sell them the following autumn.
Women in ag
When discussing her diverse role on the farm, the sheep and dairy calf-to-beef farmer shared her thoughts on women in agriculture.
“I think women in agriculture are getting a lot more recognition now but have always been doing the work in the background. I know for sure that grandad depended a lot on granny, Gretta, when they were farming at home.”
“She would help milk cows and walk them down to the river every day for a drink while grandad went to work in the Mineral Waters in Cavan.”
“She was the backbone of the farmer himself and to this day, has many traditional cures for any sick animals about the farm. We always light a candle on the day of the herd test reading.”
“If the farming sector interests you at even the slightest level, you should give it a try. There is never any harm in trying; that is what life is for. No one knows what their path in life is until they create it themselves.”
And what is next in store for the Cavan native when she graduates in May of this year? She is considering carving a career in sales, advisory or a laboratory-based environment.
Besides, she may undertake a masters/postgraduate diploma in agricultural Biotechnology through DKIT for one-year full-time or two years-part time, but said she “will see what the rest of this year brings first”.
“I am constantly learning new and old skills. As my grandad, O’Neill would say, ‘every day is a school day’. I am enjoying where I am in life and the opportunities an agricultural path has given me already in life.” the sheep and dairy calf-to-beef farmer concluded.