Catherina Cunnane in conversation with Ciara O’Donovan in this week’s women in ag segment. The 29-year-old Whitegate, Cork native, discusses running a dairy farm in partnership with her parents, studying ACP and a masters at UCD and her career so far.
“My parents both grew up on farms, and I have aunts and uncles who are still actively farming or retired. One of my earliest farming memories is helping my parents with jobs around the farm, such as feeding calves.
I remember wanting to camp out in the calf shed with calves and curl up in the fresh bed of golden straw. It looked so cosy I did not want to leave.
Cork dairy farmer
My parents, Pat and Renee, and I run the farm in a partnership. I am involved on a part-time basis as I also work off-farm.
We have a split calving herd of Holstein Friesians and milk all year round with about 70-80% calving in spring and the rest in autumn.
Our aim is to produce as much milk solids off grazed grass and home-grown forage as possible, i.e., grass & maize silage.
We have a dry farm and can get livestock out to grass quite early. The calving season starts here with a bang in early January.
We use mostly AI during the breeding season. Also, we have a few bulls on hand to help with heat detection and to mop up a few stragglers towards the end.
Furthermore, we have also used AI on our maiden heifers over the last two years, with good success. I do a grass walk at least once a week and make out the grazing plan for the week ahead.
Our farm is prone to drought, and we fed a lot of silage this summer. We do a lot of our own tractor work on the farm, but we also have some excellent contractors that we rely on for making silage and putting out slurry and fertiliser.
The most enjoyable aspect of farming is the variety in the job and working with animals. Every day is a school day. There is nothing more satisfying than managing animals that are healthy and thriving.
Challenges and responsibilities
Farming is not a walk in the park by any means. What I find quite challenging is when things go wrong mechanically, or there is an animal health issue.
That can be quite stressful, and there is so much that is out of your control. The workload, at certain times of the year, is a huge challenge too. It is hard to keep on top of it all, and the to-do list can feel never-ending.
I have gotten into the grassland management side of things more over the last couple of years. I enjoy doing grass walks and keeping track of progress using the Teagasc PastureBase programme.
Also, I have found that to be quite rewarding and using the data then to make decisions about reseeding etc.
I have been left to do the grass walks and make out the grazing plan for the week ahead. However, because I work off-farm full-time, I would do more work at weekends then and try to give my parents an evening or a morning off.
I was always drawn to the animal and plant sciences from a young age. When selecting courses on the CAO form back in the day, I selected culinary arts as my level 7 option.
However, I aimed to study veterinary medicine for a long time before changing my mind at the last minute and opting for agricultural science at UCD.
I enrolled at the college in 2011 – following my Leaving Certificate – and graduated in 2015 with a degree in animal & crop production.
The undergraduate agriculture course at UCD was top-class. You get an excellent grounding in a range of subjects, and the lecturers were very good.
This was my first choice thought it was the best option to combine my love of science and farming.
The highlight of the course was the Professional Work Experience module in my third year.
I worked in a range of different enterprises and won a bursary to complete part of it abroad. I did some really interesting placements in the UK.
Also, I spent about a month working on an organic sheep dairy farm and spent a few months with an agronomy company, which was very enjoyable.
Looking back, I am very glad that I had the opportunity to travel and experience agriculture outside of Ireland. Also, looking back, I wish I did more of it during the summertime off after my first and second year.
Malting barley company, college and Teagasc
I worked with a malting barley company for nearly a year after graduating college, and then I went back to college again.
That is when I completed a research Masters in Agricultural Science in 2018 as part of the Teagasc/UCD Masters in Agricultural Innovation Support programme.
I have been working for Teagasc for the past three-and-a-half years.
I taught at Clonakilty Agricultural College for three years. Recently, I changed roles and took up a tillage advisory post in the Cork East region during the summer.
Apart from scheme work and dealing with various random queries, knowledge transfer is the key part of the job through discussion groups and one-to-one consultations.
Fertiliser planning is an important part of the job and organising public events like crop walks and seminars.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed working life for me. A significant amount of coursework and assessments moved online because of Covid-19.
A lot of core advisory work moved online, too, with virtual webinars replacing events that would normally have been held in person.
I like helping people. It is a very enjoyable occupation; it is very varied. I enjoy working with farmers; by and large, they are salt of the earth people.
Women in Ag
I am treated the same as my male counterparts. If someone in agriculture feels that their contribution is not being properly recognised or rewarded, they need to make a change. No one should ever feel at a disadvantage because of their gender.
In my opinion, positive encouragement of young women at home and school towards a career in the agriculture sector would be the best place to start.
Children will make up their minds about their attitude towards farming at a young age.
More people are growing up removed from farming as generations pass such education. It is vital to make people aware of their options.
Getting some work experience in the sector would be a key step; let people get a taste for it.
If you would like to have an active job, work outside, or work with animals, then there is nothing standing in your way from pursuing a career in agriculture.
Depending on the stage you are at in life, and if you have off-farm commitments, the system is flexible if people want to combine it with other part-time work.
Life as a woman in agriculture is not challenging/tough for me. It is annoying when you are not physically strong enough to lift something, and there’s nothing we can do about that, but we have to get more creative. Work smarter, not harder, I say!
Every day is a school day. If I have the right attitude, stay committed and work smart, I will get to where I want to go.
I choose to have a positive outlook on the future of agriculture in Ireland. There is a bumpy, and some bit uncertain, road ahead with markets the way they are and with the new CAP coming down the tracks.
However, there will need to be substantial and sustained support schemes in place to allow farmers to produce sustainable food and be part of the solution for renewable energy production on Irish soils, so we are more self-sufficient.
My advice to younger people who are considering pursuing a career in agriculture is this: get some experience and have an open mind.
Always be willing to learn. Rome was not built in a day; you need to be patient,” the Cork dairy farmer concluded.
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