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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
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.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

‘I first came to Ireland when I studied for a semester at UCD as part of my ag degree’

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Nikki Kennedy in this week’s Women in Ag segment. We discuss her non-farming roots, moving to Ireland from New Zealand, a passion for sheep farming and her current work as an assistant manager on a sheep farm.

“My name is Nikki Kennedy, a 25-year-old originally from Marlborough at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. I first came to Ireland in 2018 when I studied for a semester at UCD as part of my agricultural science degree at Lincoln University.

My time at UCD was awesome. I cannot say I did much college work, but I met brilliant people from all over the country, from Donegal to Cork.

I still keep up with a lot of them, and since we have all gone to work, we continue to bounce ideas off each other the whole time.

After my time at UCD, I worked on a farm sheep and beef farm in Roscommon before returning home to finish my degree.

But, I moved back last year with my boyfriend, Darragh, to his home farm here in Barrettstown, Newbridge, Co. Kildare.

He runs about 50 suckler cows with followers, but I made him active his flock number so I could buy store lambs, and I keep a handful of ewes to produce lambs for the freezer.

Darragh is a brilliant cattleman, and he has taught me a lot. He works full-time for a large beef farmer, and so I help him where I can at home throughout the year.

Non-farming roots 

I am not from a farm at home, but I have an aunt and uncle with a great farm nearer the bottom of the South Island.

My parents would put me on a bus for hours each holiday to spend it down there. They have 40,000 free-range chickens and about 1,500-acres of tillage to feed them all. That is where I got my grá for agriculture, and it developed from there.

I got my first milking job at 15 and kept putting my hand to anything people would let me do.

After school, I did my degree in ag science, as highlighted above, and had three summers of placements during that.

Moreover, I have worked on dairy farms, chicken farms and even for a beekeeper, beef enterprises, and for a silage contractor, but my real interest is in sheep.

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Assistant manager on sheep farm

Last year I started working full-time for the Fox’s at Ardrums Great, a sheep farm in Agher, Summerhill, Co. Meath, where I am the assistant manager.

The farm is 360-acres, and we lamb about 1,500, including ewe lambs. I work primarily with Willie Fox, but his father, Ian, is still a great man doing bits all over the place and keeps all the farm records.

Willie’s sisters and mother also help keep the ship sailing, especially during lambing, which is a team effort, as we all know.

The flock consists of Belclare-cross-New Zealand Suffolks ewes, and Belclare and New Zealand Suffolk rams are used across all mixed-aged ewes and with the ewe lambs.

We also tried a few Romney rams last year from Godfrey and Graham Pottertonwith the aim of a vigorous lamb at birth.

I was happy with the Romneys at lambing time and am happy with how the lambs are performing now. I find the ewes to be a great cross.

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Sheep breeds

Coming from NZ, I did not have much experience with Belclares previously, but I do not think their maternal qualities are rivalled.

They are great mothers with good milk and prolifically to ensure we drive output. Some people would not like them to finish, but we are seeing great lambs going for the factory.

The New Zealand Suffolks are great too. I was blown away when I was lambing on a farm at the performance of the Irish Suffolk lambs.

From my experience, they would be too soft at birth for my liking and too slow to get going, but the NZ Suffolks have been bred away from that.

They are hardy things and much lighter in the bone and head, so I think they kill out better. When you are lambing the number we are, it is no good having lambs that cannot get on with it themselves.

This year, I went ram shopping for Belclares and NZ Suffolks with Willie, and he let me pick a couple, backed up by their figures, so I hope they produce the same quality.

We lamb from the start of March, and last year, we scanned a litter of just under 2.1 for the ewes and 1.3 for the ewe lambs, which I was delighted with, and lambing went well this year.

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Grassland management

One of my main focuses on the farm is grass management. We have a paddock system in place and run five main flocks of ewes and lambs once grouped up after lambing and a group of 90 triplets with their lambs.

Even then, many paddocks are split with electric polywire to tighten up grazing to hit grazing residuals and keep sheep moving and grass growing.

We are part of a Teagasc grass10 group, and it is brilliant as you can bounce ideas off others in the group and our advisors, John and Edward, are really good.

Throughout spring, I would be walking the farm once a week, and when growth really took off in May, I was out probably every five days.

This allowed me to take out excess grass for really high-quality silage. I would like to think I did not waste much in this time, and we had all our winter requirement stacked away by the end of May. Everything after that has been a bonus.

I have really embraced the grass side of things, and I enjoy discussing with Willie, grazing and silage plans and getting to make those decisions with him.

We cut, ted and rake our own silage and have a great local contractor who comes to bale.

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Finishing lambs

Moreover, we finish all lambs on the farm and have nearly 1,000 gone at the end of August now. We use tyfon to finish lambs, and are seeing them thrive on it is amazing.

We weigh weekly now, so it is easy to see the gains they make on it.

Each week, we are getting a great pick of lambs off it. Last year, Willie bought a direct drill, which works well with the tyfon, reducing tractor hours and conserving moisture.

It is a New Zealand machine and is dead easy to operate with great results. After much discussion, we have decided to try some multi-species pasture mix, and that also went in with the direct drill, so I am looking forward to seeing its performance over the next couple of seasons.

Animal husbandry

Apart from grass management, I love stock work in the yards. I would happily drench lambs all day. Also, it is a great time to really look at stock.

I get great help from my dog, Bug, in the yards; he is a confident dog that loves getting right up sheep and keeps them moving well.

He is young and is only in his first six months working, but he is coming along nicely.

We have a lot more work to do out in the field, but hopefully, we keep getting better, and next year he will be a good dog, and maybe then I will get another pup.

Just out of interest, I am learning to shear. I did a course with the shearers’ association, and then the guys that shear our sheep at work have taken me a few times.

I would not be breaking any records, but I have got a few wee jobs myself for small farmers doing 50 or so sheep, and as long as they are clean, people seem to be happy.

Pushing numbers

This year, we are going to keep a few more ewes, and this is down to grass management and utilisation.

My focus going forward with the flock is improving the performance of the ewe lambs and reducing the number of empties we carry.

Also, there will be just a slight focus on their condition leading up to tupping and nutrition throughout pregnancy, so they hold.

Also, we will try teaser rams to get them cycling better and tighten them up. Time will tell how successful this is!

Challenges

Where we are in the country, we have been hit by the dryness that many have. It is a challenge but one you just have to face front on.

We have started some lambs on meal, which they would not normally be, but grass is scarce, so we had to do this.

Dry weather looks to be more frequent, so I may look into more drought-tolerant options.

It may just be what some areas have to look at in the near future. Obviously, prices are a big talking point, both inputs and outputs.

When you are dealing in world market commodities, though, it is hard to have an input on price, so systems have to adjust to make things work.

Sometimes I think people get caught up too much on individual aspects of a farm when they are such multifaceted businesses, and the overall system needs to get the most out of available resources.

It is not always about having the best-looking stock if it does not add up at the end of the year.

But with not being from a family farming background, particularly Irish farming, I know I am removed from that traditional aspect.

Satisfaction

I love my job and am excited to turn up each morning. I think everyone would agree that whilst there are jobs that you have to do every day, no two days are the same.

Things going wrong are just challenges looking for a solution, and I like trying to come up with one.

Willie and Ian are better at coming up with them, but I will put that down to experience. They are great to learn off, and Darragh too. I am sure I annoy them all with questions, but it is the best way to learn.

There is a farmer from home, Doug Avery, who has a brilliant book, The Resilient Farmer.

It is the best book I have read, and I would recommend it to everyone.

He farmed through some of the worst droughts in NZ and has a fantastic approach to farming, problem-solving and life.

Own farm

I have got my degree from Lincoln recognised now to be able to get my Green Cert.

When an opportunity arises, I would like to start a flock of my own on the side, but the margins on rented land are tight.

Still, I think I would enjoy the challenge of all decisions and consequences ultimately coming back to me.

We will see how that goes in the future. For now, though, I take each week as it comes, and I look forward to the rams going out and the start of the next season on the farm.”

Outside of farming, I took up camogie last year with Éire Óg Corra Choill. I took a while to get going, but I am flying now.

We won the Kildare Junior championship last year, so that was brilliant, and we are going well again now this year.

It is a great way to be involved in the local community and take your mind off work and the farm.

To share your story, email – [email protected]

See more Women in Ag profiles.

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