Mena McCloskey juggles her studies whilst assisting with the operation of her family-run beef and sheep enterprise.
She oversees the running of the mixed farm with her father Eamonn, who is a civil engineer by trade.
“My family has always farmed in Dungiven, Co. Derry; however, my father established a civil engineering business with his cousin at the age of seventeen.” the 22-year-old explained to Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming.
“The only farming he helped with then was lambing and calving. We started farming again in 2007, quite unexpectedly, when mum came home one evening with eight Aberdeen Angus-cross-Friesian dropped calves.”
“Feeding and bedding those calves before school in the morning are some of my earliest memories of farming.”
Over the years, the farm has grown to become home to a suckler herd, dairy-calf-to-beef enterprise, and flock of sheep.
The Ar Dubh Aberdeen Angus herd consists of twenty spring-calving pedigree breeding females with a number of Angus-crosses and 100 Texel-cross ewe lambs to found throughout the farm.
Bullocks are reared as stores (400-450kg) and sold privately to a finishing unit in Portrush, while heifers are sold for breeding at 15 months.
30 Aberdeen-Angus-cross-Friesian dropped calves are reared every year.
These are sourced from two dairy farms to reduce the incidence of disease and are kept at a different yard from their suckler herd. All are taken to stores and sold through marts at 400-450kg.
“Numbers fluctuate throughout the year. There is usually 70-80 head of cattle on the farm during the spring and summer months. This decreases during autumn when we start selling the stores.”
Highs and lows
Mena and her father farm part-time, so responsibilities are shared. She tends to the herd in mornings during winter before attending university, while her father does so during evenings.
“I love that no two days are the same and I am thankful that I can farm alongside my dad.”
“There is a strong sense of community among the farmers in our area and I think everyone is appreciative of that. There is always someone to talk to, laugh with and rely on.”
“It isn’t always easy working with family – Someone has one idea and someone else has another, which results in some kind of tiff, but these are short-lived, and we always find a way of working around problems.”
“I am all for sustainability in agriculture and try to integrate it in every aspect of our farm.”
Central to this, she explained is grassland management and operating a rotational grazing system. Paddocks are grazed for 3-4 days and rested between 18-20 days to maximise productivity and utilisation, she explained.
The 22-year-old is incorporating knowledge that she is learning from her further studies into the running of her family farm.
Being exposed to farm life at a tender age influenced Mena’s decision to pursue her studies in the agricultural field.
She left secondary school after she completed her GCSEs in 2015 and moved to Greenmount Campus, Antrim that September to begin a Level 3 Extended Diploma in Agriculture (EDA).
After graduating in summer 2018, she began a BSc (Hons) in Agricultural Technology with Professional Studies at Queen’s University Belfast/College of Agriculture, Food & Rural Enterprise.
“Going to university was never my intention but I am glad I decided to do it. A degree is easy carried once you have it and I realised in my final year of EDA, I wanted to do livestock nutrition, in particular, ruminant.”
“This course has given me the opportunity to expand my knowledge in this area.”
“The course is jointly run by Queens and CAFRE. Students have the opportunity up until second-year to decide if they wish to do a short (16-weeks) or long (52-weeks) placement.”
“I opted for the long placement because, although I have already done a 12-month placement on the EDA course, I did not work within an industry environment,” she added.
She is completing placement at Clonleigh Co-op, Castlefinn, Donegal, where she is rotating between their different departments and gain an insight into the nutritional aspect of the business (silage analysing and building formulations based on customer requirements).
Women in ag
Reflecting on her journey to date, Mena feels she is treated the same as her male counterparts in the sector.
“Growing up, I was always referred to as the son my dad never had and was expected to do the same work as any son would; livestock husbandry tasks and driving, they were all my jobs regardless of my gender.”
“I believe women in agriculture are getting the recognition they deserve at farm and industry-level.”
“There are so many social media influencers who have brought about this recognition and rightly so. Women are just as capable as men at getting jobs done and running a farm as a business.”
“Agriculture is an incredibly diverse industry that offers something for anyone with an interest in farming.”
“The sector embraces cutting-edge technology that offers unique opportunities and various career options from research and development of new products to primary producers of meat, milk, eggs, pork, and lamb.”
Set to graduate in summer 2022, Mena, ideally, would like to return home to farm and work at industry-level.
She relishes the idea of establishing her own pedigree herd but would still like to produce prime cattle.
“I plan to get better before we get bigger – something I heard and have remembered from university.”
“To date, being a young person in agriculture has been incredibly rewarding. We have grown our farm and established strong connections throughout the supply chain.”
“I, myself, have made some amazing friends by studying agriculture and that takes the lonely aspect out of farming.”
“Farmers are a resilient bunch with a hard exterior, but we have all experienced the pressures of agriculture – weather, Brexit, prices, and now Covid-19.”
“I would ask farmers to continue being resilient but acknowledge when, perhaps, you are struggling. A lot can be said for a cup of tea and conversation to get however you’re feeling off your chest,” Mena concluded.
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