That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Noel McGonagle (23) in this week’s Student Focus. The final-year Donegal veterinary medicine student discusses his farming roots, venturing into sheep during lockdown and his studies in the capital.
“I am from a place called Trillick, a small townland just outside Buncrana, Co. Donegal.
Farming is a big thing on both sides of my family; I could not even begin to hazard a guess at how many generations it goes back on either side.
As my father would always say, when it is bred into you, it is hard to leave it.
Growing up with the farm around you, it is hard to pick a stand-out memory. I suppose the stand-out memory that started a proper interest in farming when I was actually old enough to be some help was buying my first suck calf.
While the rest of my classmates were sensible in putting their birthday and communion money in the Credit Union, I pooled it together and went off to buy a calf, the start of my own mini-herd within the main one.
I think I was about 10 or 11 when the thought of being a vet first entered my head.
We had just been after the second section of the summer (in the weanlings caught by the bull calves the year before), and I remember having a great interest in what was happening and thinking this surgery was the best thing to happen here in a while – probably the only person there with that thought!
I could not really say anyone, in particular, influenced my decision to go down this career route. But I suppose I was always big into my animals.
Round the family farms at home, the cousins would have always been more into the machinery side of farming. In contrast, I could not care less if there was a tractor or not, and it became clear to everyone there would be animals involved in some way or another in my line of work.
From there, then, anytime the vet would come, or there was one on TV, it was always, “sure, there is a great job for you now when you are older”, and evidently, it started to stick, so here I am just months away from graduating as a vet many years later.
We do not have a huge farm, and farming is only part-time, so it is just ourselves, with the main man on the farm being my father, Patrick, and then I would be the main help then.
With studying, especially this year, I have been home to help less and less. My older brother, Caolán, would never be shy to lend a hand either if he is not tied up playing county.
I cannot forget my mother or sister either; they are always on hand to stand in a gap or get something from the co-op when needed.
My uncle has a farm just over the road too, so between him, the cousins roundabout and the neighbours, there is always help to be found when it is needed.
The farm at home is around 40-acres (some planted in Forestry) and, until very recently, was a suckler-only herd. In the summer of 2020 then, I am not sure if it was lockdown driving us mad or not, but we decided to start keeping pedigree Texels.
The suckler herd would mostly be composed of Simmental cows, although there are a few other breeds such as Salers, Stabiliser and Blonde d’Aquitaine thrown in for good measure.
These are mostly crossed onto AI Charolais sires, with a couple picked to be served with Simmental and, this year, Shorthorn in the hope of getting future replacements.
Replacement heifers are usually served with an easy-calving, Simmental or Saler. We usually calf down 12 animals each year, with the cows being autumn-calving and mostly calving in august and September, typically outdoors.
When housed, calves are on a twice-a-day sucking routine, reduced to once a day around February and weaning in late March.
Most of the calves are then sold before going to grass, with only the heifers kept for replacements turning out at home.
We bought seven pedigree ewes in June 2020 and have been building up the flock with our own replacements since.
Lambs are born in early January, so the ram lambs are old enough to be sold for tipping in August.
We have been having a good run of ram lambs from what’s been born, so the flock’s growth has been slow.
The aim is to grow the flock to a manageable number we can comfortably keep along with the cows without a grass shortage and continue to breed rams for the breeding market.
Currently, I am a final year veterinary medicine student at UCD, Dublin, having enrolled in the course after my Leaving Certificate in 2018.
The course is something I have always wanted to do, and I chose the college because it is the only place on the island you can do it.
At 18, I would not have been away from home very often, so I definitely have been very comfortable heading off abroad alone to study. I came to college straight after doing my Leaving Cert.
I have completed work placement in numerous places, some near home and some not so near.
The places I have been are Whitehouse Veterinary Clinic in Co. Derry, Mulroy Veterinary in Milford, Donegal, Parklands Veterinary in Cookstown, Tyrone, Riada Veterinary Clinic in Ballymoney, Antrim and WVS in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Each of these places offer something different, and it is great to learn different tips from different places. Being fairly local to Whitehouse and Mulroy has allowed me to see practice there, often seeing mostly farm animals but occasionally small animals too.
Parklands allowed me the opportunity to see embryo transfer work and other reproductive technologies in cattle, an area I have a good interest in.
Similarly, in Riada, with Adam Conn, I saw a lot of fertility and pre-breeding scanning work, which is again something I really enjoy.
WVS in Chiang Mai was a spay and neuter clinic which allowed a great experience to learn surgery in a hands-on way which I find much easier, and it also allowed the excuse for a big trip abroad.
Last year, I was involved in the VetSoc college society within the vet school. I was the Vetball rep and had the role of organising probably the main social event in the school calendar, the annual ball.
It was a surreal experience to see the night come together so well after all things covid and everyone having a great time.
The course has its challenging moments, but I have managed to make it this far, so I must be doing something right.
The course definitely lives up to expectations, but there were some elements in it. I nearly wondered why we had to learn it, but as I progressed through the years, I can now see why and how it is relevant.
Veterinary was always going to be my first-choice course. I cannot even remember now what else I had on the CAO, but I do remember thinking to myself the day after the change of mind closed there was nothing else on that form I actually wanted to do, so if I had not got in, I do not know what would have happened.
The first years are pre-clinical and broadly speaking, it is about learning what is normal. Then in the clinical years, you firstly learn about the organisms that can cause the abnormalities and then in the later years, you learn about diagnosing and treating these.
Final year then, is all about tying this information together and applying it in practice as you work your way through the rotations in the various departments of the UCD Veterinary Hospital.
For me, at least anyway, the practical hands-on experience of final year is making the theory previously learned much clearer, and it is a lot easier to see how the information is relevant now.
The mandatory weeks of placement are also carried out in your own time between the second half of third year and graduation, which again allows you to see the application of the theory we are learning and, for most, is a very enjoyable part of the course.
If you are planning to study vet med, I would say just keep working towards that goal.
It takes a bit of work to get into the course, and you sometimes question why you are putting yourself through it, but it pays off in the end.
If you get the chance to go and see practice with a vet before even applying to college, take it – seeing the work first-hand will spur you on to get into the course even more and remind you why you are working so hard.
It is hard for me to go and advise on in some cases as I was only of the lucky ones who got the pointed the first time around.
But I suppose I would say take some time to decide your next move; do not rush to accept another course offer if you do not think you will enjoy it.
Talking to friends in the course who had explored other routes with a career guidance counsellor, the benefit of having a good one is clear, so if you can, I would recommend discussing your next move with one too.
Highs and lows
To date, there have been a lot of highs throughout my whole journey through vet school. I have made some great friends in the course from all over, and the craic we have within the course and outside travelling the country to meet up is unmatched and makes the whole experience more enjoyable.
The lows in the experience mostly come from outside the college. Given the length of the course, a lot can change along the way, and unfortunately, there are a few people who are not here anymore to see me make the end of it all.
Losing them just before entering and during the course was a low point for sure, but I hope at least I am making them proud.
The main disadvantage I faced in the course was the whole Covid-19 saga and the torture of online college.
It is tough enough to keep focused when you are staring at a laptop all day. Some of the ones who have gone through the course before us would maybe claim it an advantage as well that we had some of the exams online and might have gotten off handier than them.
All things animal and animal-related farming has all I have ever been interested in, and I suppose a career where that is what you are working with and what usually anyone ever talks to you about seemed the ideal choice.
Combining that with the sense of satisfaction, you feel if you are able to mend a sick or injured animal or end an animal’s suffering is why I went down this career route.
Questions about future plans are always a hard one to answer as I never tend to think too far ahead. I suppose initially, anyway, I will work in Ireland for a while and gain some experience, and who knows then, I could end up tempted by life abroad for a while.
Honestly, I enjoy both large and small animal veterinary, so a mixed animal position would be ideally what I want.
I have always had a great interest in fertility and repro work in cattle, so I would, at some point, like to go further into that and maybe get involved in embryo transfer work.
Ultimately, I would like to one day maybe be a partner in a vet practice, but I will be happy to be working as a mixed animal vet with a decent work-life balance.
Life as a vet student can definitely be tough, and there have definitely been times I questioned my choice, but nevertheless, I would not change it.
Plenty have said it before, and it is very true; it would be very easy to let veterinary take over and become your whole life, especially when studying.
But on the flip side, everyone gets on so well in the school; it is very easy to have a conversation or craic with anyone and have a balance between study and living.”
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