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HomeBeef‘There is a relentlessness in the Irish farmer to keep moving forward’...
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘There is a relentlessness in the Irish farmer to keep moving forward’ – suckler farme

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Ryan Prendergast (24) in this week’s Student Focus. We discuss running a suckler farm in partnership with his father in Mayo, his undergraduate studies at Letterkenny IT, working with Lely Center Mullingar and his PhD.  

“I am 24 years of age; I live at home with my family in a small village called Kinaffe, just outside of Swinford in Co. Mayo.

There is a long tradition of small-scale farming on both sides of my family. My mother’s father in Belmullet milked cows for years, whereas at home in Kinaffe here, we have always been a suckler-beef enterprise.

My earliest memories have always been deeply entrenched in the farm and the responsibilities that it entails.

I have always been following after my father or grandfather to play my small part. From standing in gaps, mending walls, holding tools, picking stones, fencing, I just always wanted to be a part of it. I was just drawn towards the engagement of it.

It is mainly my father, Michael, and I involved in the running of the farm, but my grandparents, Annie, and Ned, to be fair to them, are always willing and able to give a hand. We own roughly 60-acres and rent an additional 30 odd acres.

We typically run a herd of 25 suckler cows, with the predominant breeding in them being Limousin. They are a very modular breed; they cross quite well with everything.

We have Charolais, Simmental and Angus-crosses with them, and they all bring unique traits and attributes to the table. We run a Limousin bull with them as we both work off-farm, but if we have an opportunity to AI a cow for a potential breeding heifer, we will.

Calving is mostly March to April, but we have a few during November and December as well.  We sell weanlings in mid-October and generally creep them onto fresh grass coming after silage with some crunch.

Farm partnership

I farm in partnership with my father. It is a dynamic that works well for us; we can always throw ideas at each other for what we could be doing.

It could be from the simplest things like fencing to reclaiming land. It is far easier for us to work with each other than against each other.

He has allowed me to bring whatever I have learned from my agricultural science degree to the table, yet at the same time, I am always consulting him and his experience for our next approach.

It is hard to pin down what I enjoy most about it. Despite all the things that need to be done, year after year, the farm at home has always been a place for me to disengage.

I suppose I look forward to this time of the year when cows go in for the winter.

The whole yard then is suddenly dressed in golden silage and fallen leaves; your breath condenses with the frost, and you slowly fall into rhythm with the daily patterns of feeding and cleaning and wait in anticipation for the calvings to come.

It is the autumnal shoulder of the year where we can rest when we have completed all the hard work.

Teagasc PhD student, Ryan Prendergast (24), on suckler farming in Mayo, undergraduate studies at LYIT & working with Lely Center Mullingar.

Challenges in farming

There is a myriad of things I could list out that I find challenging about farming. However, these challenges can often be opportunities to learn a new skill, to improve in a certain area, to know again for the next time.

The challenges in farming, however, can often be uniquely generational as well. For our grandparents, the challenge was entirely based on sustenance; that enough would be provided from the farm for the family.

As time went on and Ireland entered the EU, the generation before us would have engaged with challenges regarding increased production on their farms to provide for this new market and the regulations that would have gone with it.

Now, the challenge facing this generation of farming is that we will have to work in tandem with growing environmental concerns so that we are mitigating agricultures impact on climate change.

Education

After I did my Leaving Cert in 2015, I went on to study animal and crop production in Letterkenny IT. I was very apprehensive about going there first as I did not know much about LYIT, but my college experience was excellent.

We had loads of on-farm exposure, which allowed us to relate what we had seen on the farm back to the classroom.

It was a brilliant course, and I would recommend it to anyone considering studying animal and crop production.

My work experience consisted of spending time with a local dairy farmer. Here, I learned about the milking process and what is involved in running a dairy farm in the early springtime of the year. From milkings, calvings, bedding, feeding, cleaning, I was kept busy.

Teagasc PhD student, Ryan Prendergast (24), on suckler farming in Mayo, undergraduate studies at LYIT & working with Lely Center Mullingar.

Lely Center Mullingar

I spent some time with Lely Centre Mullingar, which was a massive development for me.

It was incredible to go from a small-scale farm at home to suddenly seeing milking robots in action, what is involved with their instillation, and then successfully getting them going for farmers.

It really opened my eyes to the agri-tech industry and the research and business that revolves around it.

I could never underestimate the learning influence and development that my time with them had on me. I was very fortunate to continue working with the company for about a year after graduating from LYIT.

PhD student

I began my PhD with Teagasc Moorepark in 2020 and am currently working under Dr John Upton.

My research is focused on the milking process for herringbone and rotary farms and how we can use automation or management strategies to achieve a more efficient milking time.

Honestly, I feel exceptionally privileged and lucky to be carrying it out. I have been able to meet and talk to farmers all over the country with a massive range in herd sizes and systems in use, get their inputs for the study and hopefully return results to them that they are pleased with.

So, I hold great respect for them. The PhD itself so far has been a long journey of personal learning; it is challenging but very rewarding at the same time.

Travel

Regarding the future, honestly, I have no idea! I want to get some travelling done, get some experience on other farms across the world.

Saudi Arabia and the scale of their farming enterprises out there has always had my curiosity.

I want to continue with the sucklers for the home farm, maybe experiment with the breeding profile as years go on. Furthermore, I would like to produce maiden heifers and springing heifers if we can get more time for effective AI use.

Of course, these are all plans, and I will need to consult with management (i.e., dad).

Teagasc PhD student, Ryan Prendergast (24), on suckler farming in Mayo, undergraduate studies at LYIT & working with Lely Center Mullingar.

Reflection

Farming is a very challenging industry with many contesting factors that are currently at the forefront of everyone’s mind – issues regarding environmentalism, climate change, economic sustainability, market exposure, succession, and access to labour, to name but a few.

I go home to Mayo every weekend after working in Cork, so I can often find myself meeting farmers from either end of the spectrum in a few days.

I can meet two farmers from very different walks of life, with very different challenges on their own farm.

However, the commonality among them is that they want to farm and continue with their way of life. They have never shied away from challenges; they want to play their part as they always have.

Regardless of the looming challenges that may come, in whatever form they may present themselves, I will always maintain faith in the indelible and unwavering spirit of the Irish farmer. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit to them that I have always found inspiring.

There is a relentlessness in the Irish farmer to keep moving forward, to ebb and flow in cycle with the seasons of the year,” the PhD student concluded.

To share your story like this PhD student, email – [email protected]

Read more Student Focus profiles.

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