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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
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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‘I aim to show my journey a farmer with her own flock of pedigree sheep’

In this week’s Women in Ag segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Katie Shanahan, beef and sheep farmer, who explains how Covid-19 lockdowns have inspired her to reassess her life goals and career aspirations.  

“I have always helped out at home on the farm, but being in lockdowns the last year made me realise I love being outdoors, and thoroughly enjoy the work that comes with farming.”

“Honestly, I was always scared of taking a career in agriculture seriously, so only for the push this last year; I do not know where I would be.”

Those are the striking words of Katie Shanahan, who claims Covid-19 lockdowns have earthed her newfound determination for carving a career in agriculture. She leads a diverse life as a sheep and beef farmer, social care worker and the owner of Shanahan School of Irish Dance.

The 25-year-old, who hails from Cork, works on her parent’s, Raymond and Sheila, farm, which they have owned for 30 years.

They farm beef cattle, commercial breeding ewes (Suffolk, Texel, Cheviot and Charollais-cross) and a flock of pedigree Charollais under the Turrett prefix.

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Growing up on a farm, Katie has have always had an interest in working with animals but “never intended on making a career out of it”.

“I was very unsure what I wanted to do after my Leaving Certificate. I never intended to do the Green Cert as taking over the family farm was never a career I foresaw for myself.” Katie told That’s Farming.

women in ag, women in farming, cattle shed

Social care’s crossover with farming

However, Katie opted for a different career path and studied social science at Waterford Institute of Technology. She graduated from the three-year degree programme in 2017 and began working in the disability sector the following year.

She worked in the children’s sector before moving to the adult’s sector in 2019. The work she undertakes in this discipline has proven to be beneficial when it comes to her farming life.

“This job challenges me daily. It has taught me that patience is very important, which I have adapted into my farming practices.”

“Patience is key when rearing weak or pet lambs. I also enjoy making a difference in people’s lives which I have also tried to implement on my social media platforms.”

“Even if it means that a handful of young girls feel motivated and inspired to follow a career in agriculture, it is a job well done,” Katie added.

Dance school and farm life

The Cork native previously worked as a teaching assistant for Kiely Walsh Academy of Irish Dance before establishing her own dance school in 2019.

Katie travels between venues in West Cork; however, due to Covid-19 restrictions, she delivers all her classes virtually, through Zoom.

“In one sense, I prefer Zoom. It gives me extra time to be at home on the farm, especially during lambing season.”

“Without my family’s support, I would not be able to do it all. We all chip in at home, and during lambing season, we take turns doing the night shift.”

“A popular saying in our house is ‘many hands make light work’. This year, especially, I had no choice. I am a woman amongst men in my house. I have three brothers, all of whom are working elsewhere.”

Her eldest brother, Patrick, trains racehorses in the UK, while Eamon is completing his agricultural science placement on a dairy farm, and Ray, her younger brother, is a first-year agricultural science student.

“I am beginning my Green Cert in Clonakilty in September and have decided to head down the path of pedigree flocks. I have always bought and sold animals under my father’s name and never thought I would establish my own flock.”

“Alongside my brother, Eamon, I hope to introduce new breeds such as Beltex and Texel to the farm. It is an exciting time for me, and I am looking forward to expanding and improving the family business.”

family farm, Charollais sheep, sheep farming in Ireland,

Switching focus to sheep

The family have begun downgrading the suckler herd in recent years to concentrate on breeding pedigree sheep with 140 ewes in total. Besides, on the beef front, they purchase heifers at approximately 300kg and slaughter these at 20-months-old.

The Shanahans lamb all pedigree ewes indoors from January 1st to “optimise our chances in the show ring and pedigree sales”.

From mid-February to early March, lambing occurs outdoors as they find “there is less disease and the lambs thrive in a sheltered field”.

“Apart from our pedigree Charollais flock, we have a mixture of Suffolk-cross, Texel, Chartex and Sufftex ewes. We have a few rams that run with commercial ewes each year.”

“Furthermore, we cross most of our ewes with Charollais, with a few to Texel and Suffolk rams. We sponge all the ewes every year and carry out AI on the majority of our pedigree ewes.”

They sell pedigree ram and ewe lambs privately or at Irish Charollais Sheep Society sales. Besides, they sell commercial lambs at Fermoy Mart at Easter. They select approximately 65% of pedigree and commercial ewe lambs, which are turnips and a silage-based ration over the winter.

“Due to our early lambing schedule, we believe grassland management is key. We find it is an excellent boost to the ewe’s milk yield when we let them out after lambing, which, in turn, transitions to a thriving lamb.”

“We reseed approximately two fields every year as we feel it benefits the quality of stock we produce for sales. Reseeded ground, to us, is as good as any ration for fattening lambs.”

“I feel to run a successful enterprise, a farmer’s ram choice is extremely important. As well as this, you need a good ewe who can independently rear a pair of lambs without losing condition.”

sheep farming, sheep farmer, farm girls

Women in ag

Katie commented that the aspect of being a woman in agriculture has its own challenges. She said this is “something new” as her father and brothers have always appreciated any of her ideas regarding the farm or future expansion plans.

“This challenge came about when I joined the agricultural world on social media. I have received massive support. However, you will always get the odd ‘women can’t farm’ or ‘get back in the kitchen’ comments from some users, which can be very difficult to read.”

“Joining the online agricultural world, I have been overwhelmed by all the women I see in farming daily. These women are very inspirational to me and motivate me to pursue a career in sheep farming.”

“I have always enjoyed travelling and have done a lot of it in the past. Once lockdown lifts, I would love to meet some of the inspiring, young farmers I have met in the online agricultural community.”

“I aim to show my journey as a farmer’s daughter to a farmer with her own flock of pedigree sheep and to be taken seriously by other farmers in the industry. I am 25-years-old and starting my farming journey rather late, but it is the best decision I ever made.”

“Although I am 25 and have a degree under my belt with two thriving jobs, I want people to understand that it is never too late to follow your passion and have a change of career,” the beef and sheep farmer concluded.

Are you a beef and sheep farmer? To share your story, email – [email protected]
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