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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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‘If someone told me I would be living in Ireland on a dairy farm, I would have never believed it’

In this week’s Women in Ag segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Vicki Watt about her venture into farming five years ago, moving from her home soil to the Emerald Isle and her passion for dairying. 

Vicki Watt, a horse enthusiast, embarked on her farming journey four years ago and has moved to ‘dairy country’ in recent months.

In December 2020, she made the journey from the UK to farm alongside her other half, who owns a 60-cow enterprise in partnership with his uncle and brother.

She farms on a part-time basis, with primary responsibilities including milking, general animal husbandry and machinery work, among other duties.

“There is no farming at all in my family. My mum was a teacher, and my dad worked in London before they both retired. I have always loved horses and farming but have no idea where I get it from,” she told That’s Farming.

“I remember being taken to Old Macdonald farm in Essex, England as a young child and getting to feed the animals. Honestly, I loved it so much so that I wanted my mum to take me back every weekend.”

“I have always loved animals, horses, in particular. I started riding at the age of four and have always gone down the path of horses rather than farming until I worked at Wimpole Home Farm in Cambridgeshire.”

“My main job was with horses, but I got to learn from some amazing farmers about cows, pigs, sheep and chickens we had.”

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“Over time, I realised that I loved farming just as much as working with horses. So, I would say I started on my farming journey only about four years ago,” Vicki added.

Changing the way they operate

The 115-acre farm (89-acres owned and 26-acres rented), where she now works part-time, is home to their other half’s year-round-calving herd of Friesian/Holstein, Friesian/Jersey and Fleckvieh cows.

The farm has been in the family for generations and has maintained cow numbers in recent years, but changes are on the horizon.

Shed space is a limiting factor in expansion, but they intend to grow their herd next year on the back of the construction of a new slatted house to accommodate a further 72 cows.

“We have an 8-unit herringbone parlour which was upgraded in 2018. We milk twice a day, and it takes about one hour and a half.”

“The upgrade has allowed us to milk more cows at once and upgrade the system with an automatic headlock, a much more modern feeding system and better technology.”

“There are going to be so many changes to the way we work, especially in the winter, once the new house is built. We all can’t wait.”

Along with pushing cow numbers, they also intend to move more towards a spring-calving system.

“We are currently trying to change our way of working here from all-year-calving to an early calving season. Currently, we have milk going into the tank all year.”

“So, we start calving around February, and the majority of cows calve by April. However, we still have a handful that calves all year round.”

Breeding programme

The family strive to breed high-yielding, fast milking cows with high solids, a docile nature and structural soundness.

“We have selected these breeds due to good milk yields while still being easy to handle. We introduced Fleckviehs this year in the hope that we will be able to sell bull calves for more than Friesian bulls.”

“On another note, we use a combination of AI and stock bulls. Our best cows go to Friesian or Fleckvieck bulls, and the rest go to good beef bulls.”

“We have two home-bred bulls this year to try and see how they worked. We have one in with the heifers to save us from AI’ing them. The other is with the main herd to catch any we may have missed in heat.”

Subsequently, they sell all bull calves and beef-bred progeny privately to other farmers while retaining superior heifers as replacements as part of a 24-month-old calving system.

“We do not use sexed semen. However, I would like to try with the best cows in the hopes they produce some good heifer calves.”

“But because it is not as good for holding, the general consensus is that it is better to get a calf of any sex so long as it is on the first try.”

“We do farm walk grass measuring to keep track of the growth. We spray off and reseed fields and spread fertiliser to ensure we always have a good grass supply in our fields.”

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I love learning new things but having never worked on a dairy farm before, there is a lot to not only learn but master. Calving especially is something I still have so much to learn with.”

“The biggest challenge I have had to overcome is learning where I fit into the farm. Before moving to my boyfriend’s family farm in Ireland, I lived in England all my life.”

“Working out the dynamics of where I fitted into the farm, how I could be useful and learning all the new skills I needed was very hard. I had never milked before December. I was used to cows but beef cattle.”

“Also, going from the farm I worked on before to this one was a very big change. Therefore, adapting my ways of working and getting used to life here was certainly a challenge.”

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Short-term, Vicki intends to continue working on the family farm and long-term, plans to seek additional land to either expand the family farm or to establish her own enterprise with Stephen.

“If someone had told me five years ago that I would be living in Ireland on a dairy farm, I would have never believed it.”

“My life has certainly gone in a different direction to what I was expecting, but I am happy about that.”

“I owe so much to some incredible colleagues from my old job who helped me to learn and realise that I loved farming. I could never see myself living a non-farming life now,” she concluded.

Read more Farm Girls stories.

Are you involved in dairying? To share your story, email – [email protected]

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