Beating off strong competition from 19 counties, Mona O’Donoghue-Concannon scooped the 2018 Women in Farming Award at this year’s National Ploughing Championships. We visited the busy, traditional family farm in Cortoon, Tuam and had a chat with the popular award winner, who also chairs West Women in Farming Ireland (WWFI) and serves on the Galway executive of the Irish Cattle & Sheep Association (ICSA).
Alongside her husband, brother and 14-year-old daughter, Mona O’Donoghue-Concannon runs an old-school dairy, beef and suckler farm in Cortoon, Tuam, County Galway. The dairy enterprise comprises 40 Shorthorn; Friesian and Montbéliarde cows, while Shorthorns dominate the 40-strong cow-beef herd.
In addition to overseeing administration of the partnership, Mona looks after the suckler herd – which she established eight years ago – and also takes responsibility for the many small animals on the family farm as well as rearing all the calves.
Mona has had a real passion for farming all her life and was honoured to be chosen as the 2018 winner of the prestigious Women in Farming Award at the National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore, County Offaly.
“It was a shock to be chosen and it’s only really starting to sink in now,” she says of the accolade. “An award like this is great recognition not just for the winners but for women in agriculture in general.”
Of course, that’s not to suggest that there is any difference at all between women in farming and men in farming. As far as Mona is concerned, it’s all the same: “We are there on the ground working with men, doing the same work that they do, and we are equal in every way,” the Dunmore native continues. “We don’t see ourselves as any different but, at the same time, it’s nice to have awards like this to acknowledge the role of women in farming in Ireland, which is often overlooked or ignored.”
Mona grew up on a small family farm in Kinvara and was fascinated with all things farming from a very young age. “My parents ran a suckler farm and, as children, we were always out on it … that was it, really,” she reflects. “I am fourth in a family of six, with four brothers and one sister. My father also grew potatoes and we were out helping, picking and delivering them. It wasn’t by choice, really, as we all had to help out, but I loved it.”
Her life changed in 2008 when Mona’s mother passed away. “I became full-time carer for my brother, Mark, who had suffered a brain injury in a road traffic accident. I had to figure out a way to look after Mark full-time whilst also having an income, and the solution we came up with was that myself, my husband and brother set up a three-way farming partnership. Our 14-year-old daughter, Ella, also helps out on the farm.”
The successful, self-sufficient dairy, beef and suckler enterprise comprises some 300 acres across three farms, two of which are leased, the other owned. Horses, ponies, donkeys and goats complete the mixed farming operation, which currently counts 40 dairy cows, 40 sucklers and a mix of replacement heifers, baby calves and beef cattle.
Running a modest, traditional, hands-on, animal-friendly farming business that is also commercially viable presents its own challenges. “We try to run a very traditional farm that is in no way modernised or industrialised,” says Mona. “All of our sucklers are hand-fed, for example, and we are very traditional in relation to the animals. My parents would have instilled a great respect for animals in me and we’d see the animals as an extension of the family. Each of them is named and given personal care and attention. I’m a firm believer that if you have respect for animals, they will be happier and perform better.
“Through my involvement in Macra na Feirme and various Women in Agriculture movements, I came to realise that traditional farming methods were being lost and we decided to go down that route and focus on quality over quantity.
“This can be challenging financially as you have to invest more time into the farm for smaller returns but we are not heavily borrowed, which helps. In 2010, we set the target of getting up to 60 dairy cows and 60 sucklers. We hope to be up to that by 2020, replacing with our own stock, and we will then keep it at that size. We have no ambition to go any higher.”
The personal touch that s afforded to the animals yields remarkable results. “The temperament of the animals is great and it’s actually improving every year,” Mona points out. “I can move 25 calves on my own without any problems. They really are a different class of animal if they are used to interacting with humans, and this is one of the things that the judges commented on at the Women in Farming Awards.
“We have a basic milking parlour but we don’t take the calf off the mother straight away. I know this is non-conventional but we give them 24 hours with the cow and it works for us. We don’t give them five or six kilos of nuts – we give them what they can eat. Also, with the AI system, we only give them what they can take and the goal is to achieve easy calving with no pressure.”
The result is a laidback farm where the animals are content and stress-free. “Young people who come to work here for work experience would always comment on how our farm is different than any other they’ve worked on,” Mona confirms. “It’s calm and we operate a no-stick policy. We do have a stick for the stock bull but we’ve never had to use it.”
As well as being a full-time carer, farmer and mother, Mona was a founding committee member of West Women in Farming and is current chairperson. Furthermore, she was elected onto the Galway committee of the ICSA last year. How difficult is it to find time for these voluntary activities?
“It’s not difficult if you truly believe in something. The ICSA is there for the farmer and it’s something I strongly believe in. I’m good at finding time for things that I’m passionate about. You have to have time away from the farm itself and these are things that I feel very strongly about, so I enjoy being involved.”
The Galway woman accepts that there are a number of major challenges facing Irish farmers – male and female – at present, identifying price volatility, sustainability and climate change as three of the burning issues. “There’s a real lack of understanding of the pressures and expectations that are placed on farmers, who have a lot of overheads,” she concludes. “Maybe we need to listen to ordinary people more and govern from the bottom up. I believe we need to modify some of the rules and regulations to alleviate some of the pressure.
“The biggest thing for me is that we need to keep the family farm alive. Farms are all about animals and people, and everybody has to be looked after. The Government and Teagasc need to look at their strategies and try to do more to encourage and assist smaller farms to become more viable, because bigger isn’t always better.”
Mona O’Donoghue – Concannon
Tuam, Co. Galway
Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 7 No 1, February/March 2019