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Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a fifth-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 company in 2015.
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‘I am an all-rounder on the farm’

In this week’s Women in Ag segment, That’s Farming speaks to Denise Barber about sheep and beef farming, exhibiting cattle at agricultural shows, working as a veterinary assistant, and establishing Swarber Photography during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Denise Barber is immersed in farming life as the wife of a beef and sheep farmer, veterinary assistant, and agricultural photographer.

She grew up on a farm in Riverstown in County Sligo, owned by her father, John Sweeney, and now resides in Grange, where she assists with the running of her husband’s farm.

Denise, her husband, Jason, her father-in-law, Bill Barber, and his wife Florence, Jason’s sisters, Karen and Leanne, and his aunt Ethel “all help out equally on the farm”.

Denise Sweeney, cattle ring, mart ring 

Beef and sheep enterprise

Collectively, they operate a mixed beef and sheep farm, comprising approximately 200 ewes and 80 cattle. They run a CF52-bred Charolais bull with mainly Simmental-cross cows and Suffolk rams with half-bred Hilltex and Borris and Zwarbles ewes.

They calf cows both in spring and autumn to “try to keep a balance in the shed” and sell subsequent progeny as yearlings at Manorhamilton Mart.

Besides, they lamb ewes from mid-February through to mid-March before creep-feeding progeny for the summer and selling these as fat lambs and forward stores.

“Herd health is very important to us; we find it crucial to keep cattle and sheep well-dosed for fluke and worms. We give them vitamin and mineral supplements, along with a good quality feed. They thrive quicker, resulting in better quality stock.” Denise told That’s Farming.

“I enjoy springtime the most around the farm; it is always a busy time of year for us between cows calving and ewes lambing. Some days, there are not enough hours in the day. It can be like Jenga trying to organise calving and lambing pens; there is never enough space.”

Denise Sweeney, agricultural shows

Varied role

The most challenging aspect of farming for Denise is the loss of livestock.

“You can do everything 100% and still get up in the morning and find a lamb stretched in a pen. It can put a black cloud over you for the day and make you feel very disheartened.”

“I am an all-rounder on the farm and get stuck in where I am needed, wrapping bales, fencing, cleaning out sheds and dosing. However, at this time of year, you will generally find me in the lambing shed. My father-in-law says I have great wee hands for the job.”

Furthermore, Denise exhibits commercial cattle, Limousin-cross and Charolais-cross heifers at agricultural shows and assists Inismurray Pedigree Charolais and the Liscally Herd.

“Agricultural shows can be great days out and are a fantastic way to get out and about and meet people. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, all agricultural shows were cancelled in 2020. I think we are all hoping to get to some later in the year.”

Denise Sweeney, farm girl, tractor

A typical day in the life

Denise has worked in Inishfree Veterinary Hospital, Pearse Road Sligo, as a veterinary assistant for the last twelve years.

She works mainly on reception dealing with clients, arranging appointments, scheduling farm visits, filing pet insurance, and assisting vets with consults in the mixed practice (75% small animal and 25% large animal).

“My alarm goes off at 6 am, and I head to the farm to check the lambing shed. I arrange new pens for ewes that have lambed and check on the lambs for the previous day.

“Then, I help feed and muck out the cattle. I run in and change for work, grab something quick to eat, and then head to work to open up for 8.30 am.”

The practice’s morning consists of a small animal clinic, followed by operations and procedures until lunchtime, with another vet on large animal calls for the day.

“We have a busy afternoon clinic followed by hospital discharges in the evening. Then, I go back to the farm to repeat the morning’s routine, usually getting home around 10 pm or 11 pm.”

“I enjoy the variety of the job; no two days are the same. We could have puppies in for vaccinations one minute, and then we could have a ewe section the next; you never know what is going to come through the door.”

Denise Sweeney, Swarber Photography

Fitness and photography

When she is not working, Denise enjoys hiking across mountains in her home county and further afield. She is also a member of Crossfit Sligo, which her friend, Edel Fitzpatrick, owns.

“I find it is great to keep me fit and strong, which stands to me on the farm, from calving cows to running after ewes and lambs; it is a healthy balance.”

Besides, her main passion is photography, and she has previously completed courses, both presented by Peter Wilcock, in Connacht College in Tubbercurry and METLB in Sligo.

Towards the end of 2020, in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, she established Swarber Photography, specialising in farm photography; cattle, sheep and working dogs.

“It is a sector which has become very popular in the last few years. Covid-19 has made it very hard on farmers to sell their stock.”

Sheep, sheep farmer, sheep farming,

She highlighted that the cancellation of agricultural shows, coupled with the move to online-only mart sales, lending to the absence of buyers ringside, have created challenging circumstances for farmers.

“It is up to the farmer to showcase their stock. Good-quality photos and videos help to catch the buyer’s eye. I enjoy meeting new farmers; it is great to see them so proud of their animals. It is up to me to ensure I present them the best I can.”

“My plans include breeding my own herd of commercial or, perhaps, pedigree cattle someday. I hope my career in Swarber Photography grows with every new farmer I meet, and to win the lotto because let’s face it, there are not too many rich farmers out there.” she laughed.

“Farming is a very male-dominated sector, but over the years, I find more and more women are joining it, especially agri shows; it is great to see the younger generation getting involved.”

“When I was a child, I was the only girl at the mart and would get a few stares; I never let it bother me. If you are confident enough, you can put your mind to anything.” Denise of Swarber Photography concluded.

To share your story, email – catherina@thatsfarming.com  

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