That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with 24-year-old Niamh Igoe in this week’s women in ag segment. The Highland cattle breeder – who is based in the US – discusses her links with Ireland, how a gift of a Highland to celebrate her graduation sparked a new venture and how she developed a 10-strong fold.
“I am living in Chicago, IL, where I run what I call Niamh’s Ark with my parents, Margaret and Vincent.
Farming is a tradition going back three generations on both sides. My mother is from Laraghmore, Co Galway, and my father is from Castleconnor, Co Sligo. Both sides raised cattle and sheep.
They thought they had left farming behind when they moved to Chicago, but then they had me. I used to skip school to go to the mart, and every spring, I would take in orphaned lambs and goats to bottle raise.
Ever since I was very young, I have been madly in love with animals. I used to go farming with my family in the west of Ireland.
We always had horses for my siblings and I to ride growing up. I fell in love with cattle when we lived in Ireland. I used to milk cows with my neighbour, Gerry Costello, Co Galway.
Also, I would name all calves and feed them after school. After we moved back to the US, I started taking in orphaned goats and lambs, and from there, the farm grew.
I call my farm Niamh’s Ark as there is always quite a mix of animals such as goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, mules, cows, and pigs.
Highland cattle farmer
My farm is in Manhattan, IL, an hour south of Chicago. I ventured into Highland cattle in May 2020. I was graduating from college during the beginning of the pandemic, and my graduation ceremony had been cancelled.
My parents decided that I could get a Highland heifer as a way to celebrate. I had been obsessed with Highlands for years. My parents told me I could get one cow on a Wednesday, and that Saturday, I picked up my two first heifers. That has turned into my fold of ten highlands in just two years.
I got my first two girls when they were 6-months-old in May 2020. Rosie is red, and Clodagh is yellow.
They both had beautiful little heifer calves this January that I will retain for future breeding. One of the pictures included is me with Rosie, my first heifer, watching her newborn heifer, Scarlett, warm up.
This was a very exciting day as I saw Rosie, one of my first heifers, have her first calf.
I searched online and made some long road trips around the US, driving 10 hours each way for some. Moreover, I have done a lot of research on breeders across the US.
I actually made a Powerpoint presentation when deciding which bull I would buy for my heifers before selecting my bull JR.
Information about Highland cattle
I first saw pictures of Highland cattle online and instantly fell in love. Highlands are very docile and friendly. They have big personalities and love to be doted on. Many of mine love to be brushed and will come running to the gate looking for treats when they see people.
They are all pedigrees. Highland cattle are known for their small size, beautiful long woolly coats, and large horns. They come in a range of colours such as white, red, dun, grey, silver, black and brindle.
They are extremely docile and friendly. Highlands have big personalities and love to be brushed. Highland calves look like fluffy little teddy bears so quickly steal your heart.
Now, I have ten Highlands, with nine of these being cows and one is a bull. My herd bull is named JR, and he stands 38 inches high.
I strive to breed pedigree Scottish Highlands. While I normally sell progeny, I am keeping some heifers. Highlands are slow to mature and do not come into heat until they are 2-years-old.
Generally, Highlands prefer to be outside, based on my experience. With the harsh Chicago winters, I pulled mine in. The calf’s small size helps the cows have easy births.
In my view, there are a lot of scams and mixed bred Highlands out there. If you find a reputable breeder and are willing to travel, it is easy enough to get them.
I have not visited the breed’s ‘home’ but hope to do so in a few years. Alongside my Highlands, I have a White English Dexter heifer and then some donkeys, horses, goats, and a mule.
But, all in all, I am just getting started and have plans to keep increasing the fold.
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