Teaching the lay of the land

Posted on: 9th March, 2018

Category: Farming

Contributor: West Cork People

Clonakilty Agricultural College at Darrara has been educating some of our finest farmers since 1905 and, since 2012 the college has also been undertaking research in dairy production systems and breed comparisons.

College lecturer Karen O’Connell is the course coordinator for the Advanced Certificate in Agriculture Dairy Herd Management at Clonakilty Agricultural College.

Karen comes from a strong farming background. Her family in Mallow are pedigree beef breeders from the Raceview Simmental herd.

After marrying an auctioneer from Dunmanway, she moved to West Cork where they run a mixture pedigree Herefords and Limousins under the Kilronan prefix.

Karen has three children and works full-time at the college.

After secondary school, Karen did a Bachelor of Agricultural Science Degree at UCD and then a PhD on non-ruminant nutrition at Moorepark Animal and Grassland Research Centre in Fermoy. “I was formulating different diets for feeding pigs to minimise nutrient excretion and optimise growth,” she explains.

On completing her PhD, Karen was employed as a researcher at Moorepark. “We were looking at other feeding strategies, mainly amino acid nutrition, and developing optimisation models for pig production.

In 2007 Karen applied for a job as a lecturer at Clonakilty Agricultural College and got the position.

Although a suckler farmer at home, Karen’s main expertise is dairy farming. “I have been involved in the beef and sheep side of things in the College, but it’s mainly cows and grass that I teach here,” she explains

Keeping material fresh and her students motivated is one of the most important and challenging aspects to the job. “I’m always looking at ways to see how the students will understand the information I’m giving them better or how are they going to use it at home or in a job down the line. It’s about trying to make it relevant to what they’re doing at home. The basic fundamentals of cows and grass haven’t changed but I want my students to question and query whatever topic we’re talking about,” she says passionately.

At present, Karen is encouraging her students to assess grass covers. “I want them to know how much grass is in the paddock and how long to leave the cows there,” she explains, “and I’m encouraging them to tweak things in order to bump up production from the pasture. It’s about trying to maximise quality and therefore sustainability. If cows are grazing paddocks with too much or too little grass, then they generally won’t graze them out as well as they should.”

Ireland has almost four million hectares of grassland and Teagasc’s Grass10 programme is encouraging Irish livestock farmers to optimise grass production and utilisation. “On average everyone across all enterprises could do with improving a little bit,” says Karen. “The National Farm Survey indicates that farmers are utilising just shy of eight tonnes of grass and the Grass10 programme wants to increase that significantly, pushing it up to 10 tonnes. For the farmer that means that the quality of feed for the cows goes up and the cost of feeding them goes down. That’s generally what we’re trying to get across with the students as well. Better quality grass equals better quality milk out of the cows.”

“I love working here in Clon,” says Karen, “there’s a great team and always someone to bounce ideas off. But the highlight really is the students. When you’re in the same job for a few years, there is always the danger of it getting a bit stale, but they always bring some new aspect to it. They’re a great bunch, curious and always ready to interact and question things. I enjoy them.”

Clonakilty Agricultural College provides training in association with Cork Institute of Technology. Students can also progress to graduate from WIT or UCD.

Currently the college is providing training for 240 students – a mix of school leavers and mature students – between all of its courses.

Students are trained in the theory and practice of Agriculture and business and get an opportunity to work in a practical way on farms as part of their training.

Graduates of the courses not only return to farm the land but also contribute in many sectors of the agricultural industry, including co-ops, trade suppliers, agricultural consultancy or agricultural businesses.

“There is a huge opportunity for non dairy people to get into the industry,” says Karen. We’re delighted to see non-dairy people coming through the door here, as all it takes is an interest. Dairy cow numbers are going up and there is a requirement for skilled labour on dairy farms so there are lots of opportunities.

“The students also gain a network of people through the college, which is very important in farming, as it can be a lonely occupation if you let it be. We really encourage our students to get involved in discussion groups. It’s really important that farmers get to talk to farmers and hear of the developments and progress being made on other farms.

“And we have an open door policy at the college so students know they can come in and ask a question at any time.”

An open day for all prospective students takes place at Clonakilty Agricultural College on March 9, from 11am to 1pm.

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