That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation, with Kerry farmer, Katie McCarthy, in this week’s women in ag segment. They discuss running a suckler and sheep farm, her studies at CIT and her outlook for the industry’s future.
“I am 21-years-old and from the hills, just outside Kenmare in County Kerry – it is a beautiful part of the country.
My grandfather, Dan, is a second-generation farmer. The farm has been in the family for 100+ years; however, the type of enterprise has changed over the years.
Years ago, my grandfather farmed milking cows, pigs and goats. Currently, we have a herd of suckler cows and sheep. In 2021, my father got his herd number, and I am farming alongside him.
We sound like big farmers, with a home and out-farm. We are leasing ground in Kilgarvan, where we keep a few bullocks. So, we are only getting started and hope to expand.
It is a tradition, but no one would be forced to do the work. If I did not have any interest, it would be no bother, but I love it.
I have always been on the go; ever since I was small, I loved being outdoors and working with animals.
From a young age, I reared many pet lambs. My fondest memory is walking the fields with my grandfather during lambing to check on the ewes and spot any lost lambs.
During my Junior Cert year, I reared 18 lambs, and I still have 2 of the ewes I reared, which I am proud of.
We are farming in the home place in Fustane, Kenmare, where we have lowland ground and commonage.
We have about 25 cows and 18 calves/weanlings and 90-100 ewes, including replacements. In 2021, we had an inconclusive result for the first time since 1968.
My grandfather, Dan, is the main man; however, I like to think I can persuade him to do things my way.
The running of the farm is very much a family thing. My father, Donie, is involved, and my youngest sister, Maggie, is always there to call on!
Our sheep are mainly Blackface Scotch ewes or a cross-bred; you would find the odd Cheviot-cross from when the neighbour’s ram broke in!
We need good hardy sheep to withstand living on the hill for most of the year.
In 2021, we lambed down 82 ewes from March to the start of May. The majority took place indoors as it was easier for me to watch them between classes.
The last few lambed outside. In 2022, we will lamb down about 100 ewes as we kept 40 replacements.
In terms of suckling, we split our calving into 50% in spring and 50% in autumn.
We house cows until nearly May as the ground conditions are poor, and it is hard to get grass growing during cold springs. So our housing period is rather long.
Autumn-calving cows calve outside, and most would clave themselves. They are grazing near the shed just in case they might need assistance.
All cattle are either Simmental or Simmental-crosses. And they are all home reared. My grandfather never buys heifers; we change the bull. So it is very much a closed farm.
In spring 2021, we had our first C-section on both a ewe and a cow. It has never happened before on the farm.
We feed ewes nuts coming up to lambing and afterwards to keep lambs growing.
We have very little farm work to do during the summer months besides shearing, dosing and dipping. 2021 was the first year we did our own silage, which was a huge change.
The most enjoyable part for me is that I can farm alongside grandad & dad. I look up to them both. While I have learned a lot from college, my grandfather still has this whole wealth of invaluable knowledge.
While sometimes I disagree with his ways, I like to know his reasoning. My father is the hardest worker I know, which has rubbed off on us.
I love working outdoors and am very fond of animals; I always have been. Sometimes I get too attached, but that is all part of it.
My favourite part of the farm is the top of the mountain, where you have views of Kenmare Bay, Kilgarvan and the Macgillcuddy Reeks.
On a clear day, you can see the mast over in Ballyvourney. I am very lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country, and while sometimes you do not want to face the hill, that feeling when you reach the top is great.
Machinery work and other responsibilities
I used to find machinery that bit more challenging. However, I think that was because I never pushed myself to learn anything new.
I would stick to the basics of the bale handler. Whereas now, I would pull the dump trailer and I have recently started using the baler.
My father bought a small Gallignany baler for the out-farm as the entrances are small and narrow. I have taken to it and do some baling.
I do the day-to-day jobs on the farm, and I have started doing a lot of the paperwork. So, I would register calves online, record the sheep tag numbers and apply for farm schemes.
There is not too much work to do during the summer, just daily checks on the cattle and ewes.
At the moment, my grandfather does a lot of that as he likes to get out on the quad.
During winter, I do the majority of the feeding. During lambing season, I was responsible for ewes; I was up all hours on watch, but I did not mind because it is my favourite time of year.
I am a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture student at Cork Institute of Technology, Bishopstown. I started in September 2018 and am in my fourth year.
This was my first choice, and ag science in Munster Technological University (MTU) – Kerry was my second. That is as far as my CAO courses went.
Firstly, I chose this particular course back in 2018 because I knew I wanted to work in agriculture.
Also, I knew a few people years ahead of me, and they said it was a good choice. And I knew no different.
And to be honest, I did not do much looking as to what else was out there. I just knew from others there was an agriculture course in Cork.
I had looked into going to Darrara full-time, but when I compared the two courses, I had more options after I finished. This is important because I had no clue what I wanted to do afterwards.
With the course in CIT, you have the option to go home farming or work in agri-business. I liked the option of not being tied down to one thing.
In my course, students complete a placement in second-year. You have the option to go farming in Ireland or abroad or go into agri-business.
I was very lucky to get a place in the Macroom Teagasc Office, where I got to see all aspects of agriculture. I worked inside the office alongside the advisors and saw the work involved in derogation applications.
Also, I was fortunate to get out and about to farm visits/events, farm walks, soil sampling and discussion groups.
Furthermore, I gained an insight into both drystock and dairy enterprises. Unfortunately, Covid-19 cut my time short. I finished my placement at home, where we covered weekly diaries on jobs we completed.
It was great timing because we had ewes lambing at the time, But if I had the option, I would go back again on placement as I loved every minute, even the desk work!
Overall, I have enjoyed many aspects of the course and am fortunate to have made great friends.
My favourite part of college every week probably had to be the trip to Darrara. I enjoyed classes, practicals but their dinners are the best. That is one thing; I miss, is sitting down with the girls eating dinner!
I love the course because it has a mixture of the practical side of agriculture and the science behind it.
The course covers sections on business so we could manage a set of accounts if we wanted.
Also, there is an area focusing on science, so we did some chemistry, biology and food science modules, which I found interesting.
A lot of the animal-based modules were covered in Darrara Agricultural College.
We were in Clonakilty a few days per week in my first and second year; that was my favourite part of the course because it broke up the weeks.
We covered animal husbandry, mainly dairy but drystock and sheep too. Also, we looked at crop production and land mechanisation.
To be fair, the course hits the basics in nearly every aspect of the sector that you could end up in when you finish college.
Options for graduates range from farming at home to selling machinery; the course covers everything.
The Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on student life
For my first year of college, I lived in Cork, and I would say I spent more time at home than there.
My third year in college was tough. I have not seen any college campus since Christmas 2019 because I was on placement when Covid hit in March 2020.
I just found it slightly difficult to manage farming and college. Because I was at home, you nearly felt you had to be out doing all the jobs. I would often be in lectures, and the phone would ring to go out to grandad to help him.
I did not mind; it showed me that farming at home and working in the industry is what I want to do in the future.
Projects and assignments started piling up around the end of March through to May. That was when I was busiest on the farm with ewes lambing and a few cows calving.
But I managed, and I found that managing your time was essential for staying on top of the college work.
I suppose I am fortunate that grandad can still do most things himself. It might take him longer, but he would manage, and dad would always be around as well.
So between the three of us, we get the work done. Being at home for college in 2021 was helpful because I was around to lamb ewes and keep an eye on cows.
I think we manage because teamwork makes the dream work.
Grassland and soil
Grass and soil I have a bit of an obsession with grass and soil – interests that placement sparked.
I mapped out numerous farms for grass measuring and did a few walks. I find it interesting, and I could talk about the soil and nutrients all day!
Honestly, some people think I am raving, but if you do not have your soil right, the grass will not grow no matter how much fertiliser you apply.
In 2020, I got grass shears in a local store, and my dad made me a quadrat. I started training my eye again by using the cut and weigh method and would walk our fields weekly.
Hopefully, this will help us make decisions on improving our grass growth for the next year.
Macra na Feirme
On another note, I am Macra’s biggest fan and am a very proud Kennmare Macra na Feirme member. After attending one of its tractor runs, I joined the rural youth organisation back in 2018, and I have not looked back since.
It has bought me out of my box, and I have made so many new friends for life. Our club were runners up in last year’s club of the year finals which was so exciting, and I wish we could have all celebrated together!
Furthermore, I have participated in many competitions, from quizzes to sports, from Capers to stock-judging and the farm skills competition.
It is currently a bit different as the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in many competitions moving online and the cancellation of festivals.
I am currently the club & county PRO, which I enjoy. Macra is a brilliant organisation for all young people, not just young farmers.
There are so many different activities, and there is something for everyone. I would encourage everyone to give it ago, even if you show up to a club’s next event; I am sure you will love it.
Women in ag
As a woman in the sector, I would like to think I am treated the same as my male counterparts. You would have the odd individual look at you twice, but I work away and mind my own business.
I have noticed that more people think I am capable of doing farm work in recent times.
There will always be that difference between men and women that will never change, but, in my opinion, it is there in every sector.
I think it is the way you see it in your head. It is better to plough on with what you are doing and prove people who think you cannot do it wrong.
There has been a change, and I think that is because farming women share their stories through social media.
But at the end of the day, we are all farmers, male or female, and we all deserve the same recognition as we are doing the same thing – feeding the nation.
There was never any doubt in my mind that I would work in any other sector. I enjoy this work, and I remember one of my college friends said: ‘love what you do, and you will never work a day in your life.’
People have often asked me: why did you choose this work? Why did you not consider something inside an office?
Everyone has their own passion. I was the only girl in my class in school who had any interest in farming, and I used to be very conscious of that.
But there came the point where I did not care anymore! I loved what I was doing, and I was always at ease when doing it. I would say whatever it is you are passionate about, take it on head first.
The main aim is to get my level 8 degree and continue farming as long as my grandfather is!
I would like to work in the industry and continue to farm with my grandad and dad.
I love learning, so maybe down the line, I would look into a masters. However, I will get as far as a level 8 degree for now, and we will see where that takes me.
I am a home bird, so I am not too eager to travel just yet.
But, in saying that, I would love to see the farms out in New Zealand or work on a sheep farm in the UK for lambing. But they are not really on my mind at the minute as I am petrified of planes!
Own herd flock
At the moment, I want to expand my own herd. On the outfarm, I have two weanlings, so I aim to hold onto them until next year and put more weight on them.
This spring, I will buy my own suck calves and try to rear them as cheaply as possible while keeping animal health a priority. This was an experiment I wanted to do in 2021, but we got our number too late.
I have kept six ram labs from my grandfather’s flock to rear for the next year. Honestly, I still have more to learn, and with farming, you nearly learn something new every day.
In terms of agriculture’s future, you have to be some bit positive anyway. Changes are coming with the new CAP, with a significant focus on the environment. But I think that is a good thing.
Moreover, I believe the majority of changes will benefit farmers long-term. For example, with less of a focus on chemical fertiliser, it will help reduce a farm’s running costs.
However, the important thing here is that farmers are provided with the information to make better choices for their farms.
You cannot expect farmers to change to ways without knowing what impact it will have on them in the long run. I think that plays a huge role in farmers being reluctant to change,” the Kerry farmer concluded.
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