Angus Girls, looking on the bright side of the beef business

Competition encourages second-level students’ understanding of and interest in beef production

This week it was pretty evident that relations between livestock farmers and the meat industry had hit an all-time low.

It was a week when feelgood stories relating to Irish beef were in short supply. And that was no great surprise, with thousands of protesting beef farmers demanding an immediate and substantial increase on the price we are paid for our finished stock. It just wasn’t the week for happy stories.

However, we do have a positive story emanating from our besieged beef industry. A story of meat processors and farmers of the future working side by side. Working together in harmony, if you can believe it.

On a week when tempers soared on the picket line, the upbeat story of the Angus Girls from the Sacred Heart School in Clonakilty and their involvement in the Certified Irish Angus Beef Schools Competition might just be the story we so badly need.

After all, when the placards are finally put aside, when the forceful voices on both sides subside, the only way the farmer and beef processor can confidently move forward is by working together.

The story of Angus Girls Laura Clancy, Clionadh Condon, Aoife Dullea and Meabhdh Sexton, all fifth year students at Sacred Heart Secondary School, Clonakilty, Co Cork, began earlier in the year when they entered a farming competition that had been advertised in the farming papers.

The Certified Irish Angus Beef Schools Competition is all about encouraging second-level students to gain a greater understanding and interest in beef production.

And this understanding is developed by rearing a bunch of Angus cattle from calves to slaughter.

The Irish Angus Producer Group, ABP Ireland and Kepak Group, are the key players behind the competition and they are the ones supplying the stock. The students’ job is in looking after the animals from beginning to end.

So how did it all start for the Angus Girls of Clonakilty? Well, fifth year student Aoife Dullea told me all.

“After seeing the competition advertised, we started talking to our teachers here in the school about it, and about our interest in taking part.”

“And we got great encouragement and support from all the teaching staff, in particular from Economics teacher Brid Hennessy, who has been a great help to us from the beginning.”

The first part of the competition involved writing a 200-word proposal in which the students outlined how they would be the perfect candidates to rear a bunch of lively young Angus cross calves.

Next, a 15-minute presentation was given by the students to a panel of experts in the beef business. Then the students were quizzed on their knowledge of farming.

So, clearly the girls needed to know their farming stuff. But with all four having a good knowledge of farming, and all coming from a farming background, they were up to the task.

Over 60 secondary schools initially entered the competition back in early 2014, however, by the end of the summer, they had been whittled down to five. The other four finalists are Heywood Community School, Ballinakill, Co Laois; Coláiste Bhríde, Carnew, Co Wicklow; and the CBS and Presentation Secondary Schools in Thurles.

These five groups were each given five six-month-old Irish Angus cross cattle, which they could keep and rear, right through to slaughter.

This of course would be an exciting challenge, and a challenge made all the more exciting with the knowledge that the profit would go into the pockets of the students.

So, for the next year and a half, all the students involved in the Certified Irish Angus Beef Schools Competition will become very knowledgeable on the care and management of livestock.

During this time, each of the five student teams will also complete a project relating to beef, demonstrating their understanding of the production system.

And in March 2016, the results of their work will be presented to a panel of agricultural, beef and food industry experts, who will select an overall winner.

The winning student team will come away with a further prize to the value of €2,000.

But for now it’s all about looking after the young Angus cattle.

For the Angus Girls of Clonakilty, it’s on the farm of Christy Condon, Ballinascarthy, that their focus is. Christy, Clionadh’s father, kindly offered his farm as a place where the Angus cross calves could be reared, and he has been there to help or advise whenever they need it.

So how, you might wonder, are the Angus Girls managing the task of looking after their five heifers?

I asked Meabhdh Sexton. “We dosed them last week for ringworm, as they will be out for the winter, and we don’t want them to be picking up any illness like that,” Meabhdh explained.

“We will keep them outdoors for the winter, as long as we don’t get the white Christmas that is being mentioned.

“If snow arrives, of course, we will bring them in. If the temperature drops too low, they won’t be performing to their maximum ability.

“Angus are a hardy breed, and provided the weather doesn’t get too bad, they can be very content outside,” Meabhdh tells me. “Our focus is really on the sustainability of Angus beef production on Irish family farms.

“What we want to do is raise our calves without too many costs. So out-wintering is the best option here, we feel,” says Laura Clancy.

“We can dose them and weigh them ourselves; of course, help is there on the farm if we need it. But it’s our responsibility, we are the ones who are going to be learning from it.”

The Clonakilty group meet twice a week to plan for the days ahead. Arrangements are made on feed, dosing and the moving of their stock. And as you might expect, their Irish Angus cross heifers have become very placid.

“Yes, they come to us now, because we are around them so much,” Clionadh Condon tells me.

“The Angus is a very, very calm breed, they are very docile. They are very easy to handle, a very good gentle breed.”

“Have ye names for them?” I enquire.

“No, not yet. We are still thinking about names, they are going to have names with special meaning, so we are taking our time in choosing them.”

And for the Angus girls, the journey will finish in the spring of 2016 when the heifers will be slaughtered at ABP Bandon.

“Will ye miss the heifers when they finally go?” I ask.

“We will be sad to see them go,” Aoife Dullea admits, “we have grown attached to them.

“But we have seen the slaughtering process, and the animals that go for slaughter are treated extremely well. So we are not concerned.

“But of course we will be sad when they finally leave, that I suppose will be part of the learning curve too.”


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