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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: 9 minutes

‘I would rather be out in a howling wind than sitting in front of a computer’

In this week’s Women in Agri series, Michelle O’Brien discusses her passion for sheep farming, her stint with Teagasc after graduating from Waterford Institute of Technology, placement on an 850-cow farm in New Zealand, and life as a full-time farmer.

My name is Michelle O’ Brien, I am 24 years of age, and I am from Burncourt, near Cahir in Co. Tipperary.

I was born and reared on my family farm, mainly a hill flock in the Galty Mountains, with a few lowland ewes. I am a fourth-generation farmer and am incredibly proud to be so.

There is a long tradition of hill farming on my father John’s side of the family. He and my uncle Ger are third-generation hill farmers.

The hill farm has been in the family for roughly 100 years when the English landlords divided up the land. I was always mad to be outside when I was small, and not much has changed.

I could not see myself in any other field now, but I had no idea when I was in sixth year. My CAO form was varied  – I had ag science, nursing, Irish and German courses down.

Every career I envisioned for myself during sixth year always came down to would I be able to farm part-time.

When I realised that was what it came down to every time, I changed it to ag science, and it was the best thing I ever did.

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Home farm

My dad, John, farms full-time, as do I for the moment and we both help run the farm. My mam, Gretta, is also a great help too. She looks after the pet lambs and is always there if we need a hand putting in sheep or to catch a ewe in trouble lambing, amongst other jobs.

My uncle, Ger, also has a hill flock, and we carry out a lot of jobs together – gathering ewes on the hill, shearing and dipping, to name a few.

The hill flock comprises Scottish Blackface ewes. These ewes are perfect for the hill as they are extremely hardy for the conditions up on the hill.

They are also great mothers with a great maternal instinct. The lambs are very hardy when they are born and are fine and woolly, which is ideal since we lamb all ewes outdoors starting on April 15th each year.

Our lowland ewes consist of Texel and Charolais crossbreds and Mules. Texels and Mules would be my favourite breeds; they have a lovely temperament.

My own flock started when I was still in secondary school when I received an in-lamb ewe for Christmas. She was a beautiful Suffolk crossbred, and the following April had a healthy set of triplets – 2 ewe lambs and a ram lamb.

I still have those two ewe lambs in my flock today, and they produce great lambs for me every year.

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We do not use any camera or the likes to assist with the lambing because all we lamb all ewes outdoors. We walk around them doing checks looking for any ewes starting to lamb or any that might need a hand to lamb.

Once I see a ewe starting to lamb, I will take note of the time and give her half an hour max to lamb. If nothing has happened by then, there is something wrong, as they lamb in minutes if everything is as it should be.

We lamb from April 15th onwards as the majority of hill flocks. Weather in April is usually a mixed bag.

This is important when lambs are being born outdoors. To note, we keep all hill ewe lambs as replacements and sell all hill ram lambs either as stores in August in Cahir Mart or fat them for Irish Country Meats in Camolin.

We sell most of the lowland lambs as stores in the mart and keep some ewe lambs as replacement every year.

Each year, I aim to keep on all my own ewe lambs; however, dad has me put into derogation for the moment; my stocking rate is too high, apparently! We aim to breed good hardy ewes with a good mothering ability and plenty of milk.

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There are many enjoyable aspects of farming. However, the part I enjoy the most is working outside all day. I would rather be out in a howling wind and being pelted by rain than to be sitting at a desk in front of a computer.

I could not think of anything worse than being stuck inside on a fine day. One challenging aspect is the weather conditions. There has not been much growth in the last few weeks, and we haven’t seen a bit of heat compared to this time last year. We cannot change it, so we just have to bear it and hope for a better day.

I have an interest alright in grassland management. Our last soil samples are nearly four years old by now, so it will be time to take new ones at the back end of this year.

From my work doing derogations with Teagasc, I can analyse the soils myself, which is fierce handy.

I am also very interested in bringing in breeds we have not had before. I would love to bring in Zwartbles or Border Leicesters to the lowland flock in the future.

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Responsibilities and highlights

As I am full-time at home, my responsibilities range from day to day jobs such as feeding ewes, maintaining flock health, assisting ewes, lambing to shearing, and gathering ewes on the hill with my sheep dog, Nell, alongside dad and my uncle.

There is no job I do not do, really. Dad taught me to shear with hand shears years ago, but this year I hope to buy an electric shears and get going with that now this summer.

As a sheep breeder, one of my highlights was when my favourite ewe lambed for the first time. I was in New Zealand at the time, and my twin sister, Aine, Facetimed me at some ungodly hour during the night.

I was immensely proud of this ewe as she was a tiny little lamb when she was born two years previous, and we did not expect her to survive.

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Education and stint with Teagasc

I went to college at WIT in Waterford, where I studied agricultural science. I enrolled in 2015 and graduated in 2019, selecting this course as it was closer to home than the capital.

Besides, the practical elements in Kildalton College appealed to me very much, and my cousin, Bertie, was in his first year when I was in sixth year.

After a few chats with him about the course in Waterford, I changed it to the top spot on my CAO, and I have not looked back since. To note, I went into this course straight after my Leaving Certificate.

I completed my work placement on an 850-cow dairy herd in New Zealand’s South Island. I had not much experience working on a dairy farm beforehand. However, this did not bother me in the slightest I was no stranger to hard work, nor was I afraid of it.

I was working in a pub when I finished college in May 2019, and I was there until I started with Teagasc as a derogation support advisor in their Fermoy office in December 2019.

This position is perfect for me as it ends at the end of March, just in time for lambing, so it suits me down to the ground. I held this position again this year (December 2020-March2021). I am currently at home full time, which I really enjoy.

Women in agri

I feel I have always been treated the same as my male counterparts in any ag-related job I have had. I have gotten both given out to and praised the same way.

Largely, I think the days where women were discriminated against are gone; this is going by my experience.

I feel women in agri are getting the recognition they deserve at farm and industry level. If you look at Instagram or TikTok, a lot of farming accounts are operated by women in agri, which are enjoyable to follow.

Maybe women are more inclined to use social media to showcase their farms and their work every day; I am not sure. These accounts would help encourage more women into ag as they showcase daily life on farms.

I would not say life in agriculture is challenging because I am a woman. I have never had any bad experiences regarding my gender.

Also, I worked in Cahir Mart as a sheep drover for summer whilst still in college, and the odd time you would get a comment alright like: ‘Oh, aren’t you a great girl to be helping your daddy?’ I would only laugh and walk away.

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Career-wise, I would love something part-time as I would like to be at home farming a good bit. I am happy out now with my degree as it is a good degree; I do not see myself doing a Masters or a PhD.

My ultimate goal would be to establish a pedigree flock in the future and to attend agricultural shows.

However, I would not rule out any travel in the future. I would love to go back to New Zealand and work on a sheep station.

It is hard to know about the future of agriculture in Ireland. There seems to be more and more red tape being added every year and real problems emerging like antimicrobial resistance. However, I am sure this generation is up to the challenge.

In conversation with Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming. 

To share your story, email – [email protected]

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