Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Wednesday 21 February 2018

'Farming is my calling' - Macra's Queen of the Land on challenges of starting a beef herd from scratch

Karen Elliffe, the 2016 Queen of the Land, talks to Claire Mc Cormack about the challenge of starting a beef herd from scratch and how joining Macra na Feirme has transformed her life

Karen Elliffe on the family farm at Ballinagore, Co Westmeath. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Karen Elliffe on the family farm at Ballinagore, Co Westmeath. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

'I'm not wearing any lipstick - ah it'll be fine. No one will even notice."

This thought crossed Karen Elliffe's mind as she returned to the ballroom for the crowning of the 52nd annual WR Shaw Queen of the Land, in Tullamore last November.

Feeling sluggish after a banquet meal with fellow contestants, the 26-year-old beef farmer, representing Ballinagore Macra in Co Westmeath, was looking forward to popping on her flat shoes and getting on the dance-floor.

As all the contestants arrived on stage for the winning announcement, Karen, who had joined Macra just three months earlier, was ushered to stand near the front.

Karen Elliffe from Westmeath was crowned the W.R. Shaw Queen of the Land for 2016. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Karen Elliffe from Westmeath was crowned the W.R. Shaw Queen of the Land for 2016. Photo: Lorraine Teevan

After failing to know the name of the President of the Irish Farmers Association during her interview process, Karen presumed she was completely out of the race.

"I said, 'I'll be fine here beside the pillar, there's no panic'. Next thing they called out Westmeath. I was holding flowers, wearing the tiara and cradling the cup. I was in total shock," she says.

Since then, the vibrant young farmer says life has been a "whirlwind".

Karen, an only child, grew up on her family's vast 300 acre beef, and former sheep, farm in Streamstown - a community steeped in hunt tradition near Mullingar. As a child, she vividly remembers milking cows with her Granny, May. "She was pretty involved with the farm," Karen says.

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"Dad had sheep as well so I would be out for the lambing. If there was any weak one I'd bring them in beside the range in the kitchen and feed them with bottles.

"I've always loved outdoor work and working with animals, I wouldn't have the same patience for people as I do with animals. I'd take a kick or a bite much quicker," she says.

Pic: John McAuley
Pic: John McAuley

In 2013, after finishing her equine science degree at the University of Limerick, a qualification which counted towards her Green Cert after studying various nutrition and grass management models, Karen wanted to return home.

"I love horses but it's not something I wanted to do long-term, it has always been cattle. We have dry stock, mostly Continental with a few Aberdeen Angus and a few Charolais cross-bred stores," she says.

Although she enjoys farming alongside her father, Larry, Karen's ambition has always been to set up her own enterprise from scratch.

"I had the Green Cert so I applied for a herd number. I started from scratch and got a loan out myself," she says. "I still don't have enough to keep busy solely on my own, I've 12 cattle at the moment, so I'd be working with my Dad too.

"I like the Angus, their temperament is relatively good and I'm looking into investing in a Simmental heifer and getting a small suckler herd going," she says.

However, Karen stresses that setting up her own herd has been a challenge. "It is hard work. If I wasn't from a farm it would be even harder. You have to input a lot of money and it's a long time before you see that money coming back by the time you pay for feed and vets bills and TB testing," she says.

Although Karen is fulfilled by her work, she says farming can be socially compromising for young people in rural Ireland.

"It's like chalk and cheese with me and the rest of the girls. I don't know if they could really understand or get a grasp on my passion for farming but they knew it was my calling.

"I wasn't really seeing anyone my own age from one week to the next. I was going to the gym a few nights a week but you don't really go there to chat to people, it's not very sociable," she says.

Although Karen knew there was an active Macra club nearby in Ballinagore, she struggled to find the motivation to join.

"Macra still has this stigma that it is just for farmers - which is a complete misunderstanding so that holds some young people back," she says.

Once she found out more about the organisation and the level of activity, Karen felt compelled to join.

"I needed to do something for my own head. It was out of loneliness nearly. So myself and my cousin said we'd go and the rest is history. It opened so many doors and I'll be forever grateful," she says.

After attending the Queen of the Land Festival in 2015, Karen, who is a huge fan of designer shoes, boots, dresses and even wellies, was keen to give it a go.

"The standard is so high, the girls are incredible and it's very competitive, I still can't believe I won," says Karen whose first job as Queen was opening a snail farmers conference the morning after claiming the crown.

"I've been to the Department of Agriculture, I've met EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan and Joe Healy - a name I will never forget. I've been invited to meet the ICSA and I'll be at the Macra CAP 2020 talks," says Karen, who is balancing her new commitments with farming at home.

She is happy to be a role model for young girls in farming.

"I'm not unique, there are loads like me.

"We all need roles models but it can't be done in a condescending way, I'd love for girls and women to see [farming] as a viable option - just as viable as it is for lads," she says.

Foddering, vaccinating,  squeezing calves - a week  in the life of a Macra Queen

Monday

8am Out on the farm for morning feeding of all weanlings (Av. weights 250kg) that are housed during the winter. Weanling to beef ration. Weather dependent weanlings put out to grass during the day. Horse is fed and turned out to paddock with ad-lib forage for the day also weather dependent.

10am Foddering (with our own round bales of summer '16 hay in addition to weanling to beef ration) weanlings that are wintered out.

2pm We have a few out-farms stocked with store cattle, which are herded on alternating days.

5pm Calves, weanlings and horse are returned to housing and stable for evening feeding of ration and ad-lib forage for housed weanlings.

Tuesday

8am Morning feeding on the farm.

11am Interview with the Farming Independent.

2pm Herding of out farms and castration (Burdizzo Squeezing) group of 15 bull calves.

5pm Calves, weanlings and horse are returned to housing and stable for evening feeding of ration and ad-lib forage for housed weanlings.

7pm Leave (late!) for South East Women in Farming discussion meeting in the Woodford Dolmen Hotel Carlow.

Wednesday

8am Feeding on the farm.

10am Vaccinating group of 20 weanlings with TriboVax10 for Black Leg.

5pm Calves, weanlings and horse are returned to housing and stable for evening feeding of ration and ad-lib forage for housed weanlings.

6pm Leave for CAP2020 Consultation meeting in Ardboyne Hotel Navan.

Thursday

8am Feeding on the farm.

10 am Foddering weanlings that are out wintered with a round bale of hay.

2pm Cleaning and bedding of calf sheds while they are out on grass for the day.

5pm Calves, weanlings and horse are returned to housing and stable for evening feeding of ration and ad-lib forage for housed weanlings.

Friday

8am Morning feeding on the farm.

10am Herding all out farms.

1pm Nail Appointment in Olivia's Beauty Boutique Tullamore for upcoming events. (Just because I farm, doesn't mean I neglect my beauty needs!)

5pm Calves, weanlings and horse are returned to housing and stable for evening feeding of ration and ad-lib forage for housed weanlings.

9pm Ballinagore Macra Annual Fundraising Table Quiz in Mahon's Ballinagore and awarding of the county representatives for the 2017 Mr Personality, Blue Jeans Queen and Queen of the Land titles. With a judging panel of Macra National Council representatives.

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