When Aurivo Ballinrobe Mart holds its weekly sheep sale, Anne Biggins can be found in the centre of its yard, where she works as a drover.
The 20-year-old, who hails from The Neale, a rural village in south Mayo, juggles this position with her agricultural studies whilst assisting with the running of the family farm.
“I am the only girl working in the sheep yard in Ballinrobe Mart. I weigh all sheep in the morning and then scan EID tags,” she explained to Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming.
“Ballinrobe Mart uses a dedicated sheep ring, meaning we have to bring the sheep to and from the ring with sales held under strict Covid-19 restrictions.”
“When we have 2,000 sheep it is a lot of work, but it’s great craic and the lads don’t treat me any differently,” added Anne, who secured the part-time position earlier this summer.
Farming is a strong family tradition, as both her parents are from agricultural backgrounds. “They work on the farm so since I was a toddler, I went farming with them.”
“I remember chasing lambs with our sheepdog and rearing pet lambs. Dad used to bring me herding in his van. He got an old car seat and set it up so he could get some jobs done whilst minding me.”
Suckler and sheep enterprise
With both her parents working off-farm, running the suckler and sheep enterprise is very much a family affair.
Her father, Joe, is a gardener by trade, while her mother, Breege, runs the Lake District Sheep Producer groups in Ballinrobe; Anne and her brother, Patrick, lend a helping hand with daily farming tasks.
Their farm is home to a flock of 180 lowland sheep and 10 suckler cows and calves, with 75-acres owned and an additional 10-acres leased.
Their flock comprises of a mixture of Suffolk, Bluefaced Leicesters, Texels and Mayo Mules with a Texel ram. “My favourite is definitely the Suffolk ewe crossed with the Bluefaced Leicester ram.”
“As part of starting my own flock, I bought five Suffolk Leicester ewes off my grandfather at a very reasonable rate. I let them out to a Texel ram, and they had their second set of lambs this year.”
In terms of their suckler enterprise, they have mainly Hereford cows, which are bred to a Charolais stock bull. Subsequent male progeny are sold as weanlings to a neighbouring farmer, while heifers are slaughtered under 18 months.
“For my 18th birthday, my parents bought me my own Hereford calf who had her first calf this year.”
“She was AI’d to an easy-calving Aberdeen-Angus bull and calved down in February. She has a lovely bull which I plan to sell in the next few months.”
The Biggins family are always striving for improvement, with a focus on the implementation of time and labour-saving practices.
“Our farming system is based on rotational grazing. We usually sponge 30 ewes in August and they usually lamb down in January to take the pressure off the main flock which lambs in mid-February.”
“Every year, we reseed one field and sow forage rape in year one and in year two, we sow new grass. We find this system is great for finishing lambs and heifers without the use of concentrates.”
“The most enjoyable aspect of farming for me is definitely the lambing season – it may be tough going, but I love spending every moment I can down at the shed.”
Anne’s striking passion for agriculture led her to Waterford Institute of Technology where she is studying a formal degree.
She listed the IT’s agricultural science degree programme as her first CAO option and began her studies in 2019, following the completion of her Leaving Certificate.
The course is delivered in conjunction with Kildalton Agricultural College where students undertake numerous practical modules.
“I am starting second-year later this month and all going well, will graduate in 2023. I selected this course because I love farming and I felt it was just the perfect course for me considering I am a practical learner.”
“The highlight of beginning this course was definitely the animal biology module in Kildalton last January – I love learning about how animals work,” added Anne, who will complete placement in third year.
“Even though heading to Waterford by myself was very daunting, it was definitely the best thing I have ever done. I have friends from all over the country and I share the same interests as them.”
“The lecturers are all so approachable and know us all by name which helps a lot, especially at exam times.”
Looking ahead, Anne has expressed an interest in branching into animal nutrition or animal genetics, with a view to possibly furthering her studies in one of these fields.
She intends to venture to New Zealand to gain experience on large-scale sheep enterprises and to perfect her sheep-shearing skills.
“I’m definitely no professional, but this year I decided to learn the skill from my father who has been in the trade for years.”
“I loved it from the moment I started, so, I hope to buy my own machine in the next few years so that I can shear alongside dad and my brother.”
“I’ve loved farming for as long as I can remember, and I never let anything or anyone stop me. Take every chance of learning you can and always ask why things are being done – that is my motto.”
“My goal is to be running my own farm of Blue Leicester-cross-Suffolk ewes along with Hereford cows and to be working in agriculture day-to-day,” Anne concluded.
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