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HomeBeef‘I intend to stay in suckler farming’ – 30-cow farmer
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.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

‘I intend to stay in suckler farming’ – 30-cow farmer

 That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Frank Whitney of PortShan Shorthorns in this week’s Suckler Focus segment. We discuss his passion for the breed, carrying on a long-standing family tradition, working off-farm and potential opportunities for suckler farmers.

“I run PortShan Shorthorns in Port House, Leitrim Village, Co Leitrim, alongside a team.

Our herd manager is Colm Moreton, while our herd advisors are Bernard Whitney, Brendan Brennan, Joe Farrell, and John Farrell; our vets are John McCourt, John Farrell, and Michael Hunt and cattle judges Bradley, Flynn, and Noah.

The farming tradition of the Whitneys at Port Shan began in 1898 when Patrick Whitney acquired the 70-acre farm.

His nephew, Jimmy Whitney, inherited the farm in 1926 and ran the enterprise until 1970. Bernard Whitney (Jimmy’s son) took over the running of the farm up until 2008.

I am Bernard’s son and took the reins in 2008. I am married to Grainne and have two daughters: Helen and Frankie Rose.

Family tradition

Port Shan was a dairy farm up to 1970. Port Shan farm supplied the hospital in Carrick-on-Shannon with milk and ran a 20-cow Friesian herd.

Once Ireland joined the EU, suckler farming became a more attractive enterprise, and Bernard switched to suckler farming and began the early foundations of the Shorthorn pedigree herd.

I farm part-time on the farm and work full-time with Payac, which provides current account financial services to Credit Unions.

I was always involved with my father on the farm. Firstly, I was introduced to the fork and wheelbarrow at the age of five and served my apprenticeship on the silage pit by cutting out the silage with a hay knife in the winter.

Then, I went on to serve as a silage pit engineer under the guidance of Pat Earley, Michael McCaffrey, and Paddy Guckian during the summer months.

I loved silage pit making during my childhood, and it is some of my fondest memories.

Silage-making went on for a few weeks, and we would sit in listening to the silage men tell yarns and laugh along at their stories.

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Pedigree Shorthorn herd

We now farm 30 pedigree Shorthorn cows across 110-acres. My dad started the herd, and I love the tradition of continuing the breeding programme and aiming to improve the herd’s standing. I believe we have achieved some success to date.

My father started the Shorthorn breeding programme in the 1970s, but he never registered stock. When I took over the herd in 2008, I had to register all the eligible stock with the Irish Shorthorn Society.

I received great support and encouragement from the society, and I am now involved with the local Croghan Shorthorn Breeders’ Club as secretary.

Recently, as reported by That’s Farming, I hosted a Youth Development Programme event for prospective Shorthorn farmers.

There were 60 young people there to learn all the skills required for show handling, grooming, halter making and stock judging. The future for Shorthorns is bright, and the future breeders are showing huge interest.

Shorthorns are renowned for their excellent nature and temperament, and I love the colours they throw, from blood red and roan to whites.

Some of our most influential cow families include Port Shan Blueway – winner of the Shorthorn Championship at Tullamore Show 2022, and Port Shan Huny – a prolific breeder.

I have mainly used stock bulls but have introduced Napoleon of Upsall into the main herd this year. But I also use AI as, in my view, it is important to try to use the best genetics available.

I took embryos off Portshan Huny and Chapelton Typhoon but have not yet bred with a recipient, so that is part of the 2023 plans.

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Ideal cow

The herd is mainly spring-calving, which works with cattle in the shed over the spring period.

My ideal cow is a 600 kg roan Shorthorn that is docile, milky, good-natured, strong frame and well fleshed.

I sell all bull calves as weanlings, both on and off-farm. I aim to have them up at 400kg.
Heifers are held on and reared for maiden heifers. Interestingly, I have pedigree heifers for sale now with Pedigree Sales via this link.

I like to sell my stock, so they continue to be used for pedigree breeding. Of those that do not make the mark, I sell them commercially in the mart, and they will still do well.

I base culling on productivity and age – anything over ten is gone, and if a cow is not back in calf, she gets the gate.

I enjoy the calving season and the rewards of turning out the herd to grass in Spring. You must put a lot into the care of cattle, but you reap the rewards from both the physical work and the satisfaction of seeing your animals mature into fine breeding stock. I love turning out lovely maiden heifers to the market.

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Dung sampling and weighing

I dung sample cattle with my vet to make parasite control-related decisions, and that way, cows and calves are getting what they need rather than blanket dosing.

Moreover, I disinfect the shed and power wash out in the spring and whitewash walls. I use straw for calving pens and creep young calves.

I have my own scales and weigh as part of BEEP-S. Calves are weaned after the introduction of meal and are weaned in small batches and left in a paddock beside the shed.

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National herd reduction

The main challenge these days is the mixed messaging from the government and the EU. On the one hand, they tell us we need food security, reduce food miles, and we will not cut the national herd.

On the other hand, they are introducing eco schemes, which require us to cut herd numbers, which will reduce food production.

The most ironic thing is that the EU will buy food from Brazil, knowing that meat has no traceability and is detrimental to the lungs of the planet and the rainforests of the Amazon, which are being cut down at an alarming rate to feed the EU cheap meat.

Environmental and carbon eco measures will reduce farming or push some farmers out of business.

Work-life balance

Personally, the main challenges for me are the balance of working full-time and tending to the farm part-time.

I use MooCall and calving cameras for calving. I calve down 75% in spring and 25% in summer. Outside that, I try and let the grass do its job.

I would bring a few replacement heifers through every year and calve them down at the 30-month mark.

The herd’s calving interval is 350 days, and I wean at eight months and aim for a 55% weaning efficiency rate.

On another note, I try to exhibit at the local Mohill, and Elphin shows every year. I love meeting Shorthorn breeders and discussing the best traits of winning animals.

I exhibit when I can, but time is tight with work and farming, and I have two young girls, but I aim to attend national shows with more cattle in the near future.

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Goals

My main aims are to increase the star ratings of my herd.

Euro-star ratings are positive and a good indicator of where we need to be. I am fortunate to have females with four and five-star rankings. I still like to judge by the eye.

My area of focus will be enhancing female improvements of the Shorthorn breed, and part of this strategy will be to deploy sexed female semen in the herd.

I intend to stay in suckler farming. I believe there will be some great opportunities for farmers with renewable and environmental programmes and foresee a big appetite for quality cattle, and my focus will be there.

Reflection

In my lifetime, we have been suckler farmers, and when I looked at other enterprises, sucklers suited my full-time job.

I love farming and the chores that go with it. I grew up where we did everything by hand, and machinery was something you read about.

It was a character-building exercise, and back then, many hands made light work as my four brothers, Shay, Bryan, Fergus, and John, always pitched in.

We got to know our neighbours, and if they needed a hand, we just went and helped. I still believe in helping my neighbours and family out with chores. It is social, rewarding and takes your mind off some serious things in life.”

To share your story, email – [email protected]

See more Suckler Focus profiles.

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