In the midst of the rich fertile farmland of Barryroe, surrounded by dairymen, Barbara O’Donovan (nee Wycherley) has a small holding of 42 Limousin cattle on 75 acres of land.
Suckler farming is not an easy business to be in. According to the Teagasc National Farm survey, 38 per cent of Irish suckler farms are economically ‘vulnerable’. However, once there is an off-farm income, farms like this one are considered sustainable. Barbara and her husband Colm also run a successful construction business in the area, Fortfield Construction.
“Farming is simply a way of life for us,” Barbara explains “something our kids have developed great patience from. They’ve also learned that although money may be tight sometimes, it’s an obstacle you can always get over…and that hard work, whatever the weather, gleans results and rewards.”
Barbara is dealing with the added challenge at present of her herd being locked up with tuberculosis (TB). Three years ago, 16 of the herd were taken away after reactors were found. Apart from the financial loss, there is huge emotional trauma for a farmer when this happens.
“They took eight cows and eight weanlings, which was very upsetting, as I’d spent a long time breeding those animals,” explains Barbara. “And then when they were killed and tested afterwards, there was no sign of the disease.”
The badger population is thought to be the main cause of TB spreading. Vaccination of badgers has now become an integral part of the bovine TB eradication programme, which it is hoped will help to reduce infection in cattle.
Barbara is hoping that her herd will be given the all clear before September so the calves can be sold in October.
“It is getting harder and harder and margins are very tight,” she says. “We certainly couldn’t live on what we make from the farm. A lot of suckler farmers can’t afford to keep reinvesting in facilities, housing, new animals and so on. We’re lucky we have another income so we can maintain and develop the farm. However, if things continue the way they are and the suckler farmer doesn’t get any help, the quality of beef will keep going down.”
Although not from a farming background, when Barbara was growing up her mother kept a couple of cows and some sheep and pigs. One of 13 siblings, Barbara was the only one who married into farming. “I think the cows went when I was about six or seven,” recalls Barbara “my mother had her hands full enough with 13 of us to rear.”
Barbara’s mother had a big influence on her love of animals. “I remember her bringing young lambs into the kitchen when they were sick,” reminisces Barbara. “She’d place them in the bottom drawer of the range with a blanket and a bottle. When I was three or four, I’d take my empty bottle out to her when she was milking the cows. She’d fill the bottle straight from the teat of the cow. She also used to make her own butter.”
Barbara and Colm got married in their early 20s and started farming together when Colm inherited the family farm in Barryroe from his mother. The couple have two grown-up children.
Barbara laughs, “After I married Colm, my mother-in-law advised me not to go down the yard if I didn’t want to go into farming.
Needless to say, Barbara went down the yard!
The couple started with eight suckler cows and then decided to get some pigs. “We ended up with 15 sows, all outdoors, which was hard going,” says Barbara. “We had to draw the food out to them and sometimes you might get a sow having a baby outside. Then the price of pork dropped drastically so we got out of pig farming. We also did some tillage farming, barley and wheat, but the margin was very tight on that so after six or seven years we decided to concentrate on the suckler cows and breeding.”
The farm is registered with Bord Bia and although the audits are rigourous, Barbara feels it’s important to be inspected every 18 months. “Everyone’s on the same playing field,” she says.
After completing a course in Construction Studies by night, Barbara now helps Colm with the construction business as well. ‘We’re partners in life, building and the farm,” she says smiling.
The suckler farmer doesn’t own a passport. “I’ve no interest in going further than West Cork; maybe to Killarney for a couple of nights or up to Athlone to the Walderstown road races, as we both love motorbike racing, but that’s as far as we go usually,” she says.
Recently however the couple did invest in a two-person caravan and the plan is to make use of it this summer.
“Some people go golfing or have the GAA but Colm loves the farm,” says Barbara. Sunday is our busiest day, as the two of us are at it…cleaning yards, tagging, dehorning calves, checking the cows feet, tails etc.
“We’d like to retire on the farm… I can see the two of us pottering away over in the yard, hand in hand!” she says smiling.