Generations of champions
The O'Keeffe family from Mallow have a record that's second to none in the Suffolk sheep breeding world, reports Martin Ryan
Wherever a group of pedigree sheep producers meet in Ireland, mention of Arthur or Susan O'Keeffe is all that it necessary to identify one of the oldest established and consistently most successful Suffolk flocks in the country.
The O'Keeffe family farm, outside Mallow, Co Cork has been synonymous with Suffolks for more than half a century and rarely out of the headlines for long as one of the leading flocks in the country and among the top award winners.
"As far back as I can remember I was going to shows and sales with sheep," says Arthur recalling that the pedigree Suffolk flock was established by his father, Arthur, in 1962 and has been on the farm ever since.
"My father had been in beef and at the time he got married, he started into the sheep and choose the Suffolks which have been very successful with us over the years," he added.
Today, the sheep enterprise on the farm consists of three flocks. Arthur continues to run 150 pedigree Suffolks, as well as some pedigree Texel. His sister, Susan, a school teacher by occupation but with a love for farming, started her own flock of pedigree Suffolks in 1988, and more recently Arthur's son, Patrick, who is full-time farming, started his own "small" flock. In addition, they run around 100 ewes in a commercial flock.
"I stayed with the Suffolks, which were on the farm before I came around, because I like them. They are versatile and produce fast-growing lambs, a very good breeding ewe and they are quick to finish. That is what I like about them. They have a lot of pluses," he says.
The Texel is a different market. For the commercial flock, cross-breeding can produce some very good stock. Both have their roles, different but complementary.
Exhibiting lambs from the flock has always been part of the lifestyle for the family, and Arthur feels it stokes the interest in having the "good ones", which is not easy all of the time - but they have been remarkably successful.
"The good days at the shows is what keeps you going. There is a lot of work in showing but it's like anything - without a passion for it you wouldn't do it," says Arthur.
"We'd like to show what we have and it is a great interest to have - some of my earliest memories are of going to the shows with my father."
One of the first sales that he remembers was in Dublin where the Suffolk Premier Sale was held at the time in Prussia Street.
Later, the annual sale moved to Maynooth and in recent years to Roscrea Mart.
Thinking back to the days of the Dublin sales, he recalls that very few of the original exhibitors have stayed in sheep.
Showing the Overall Champion at the Premier Show and Sale and the Reserve Champion 10 and 11 times respectively, and having the Female of the Year 16 times and the Reserve a further 16 times, says it all about the flock's achievements in the show rings.
"I like to breed a lamb with length, a tight skin, and a good back end," says Arthur, explaining that "when lambing starts from Christmas on and each lamb is born, I'd be wondering if that is the one that is going to be the good one."
He points out that "of the lambs that are born early in the year, you'll recognise the good ones. But come the months of June, July and August, often the lamb that hadn't done as well earlier in the year can turn out to be a better lamb. It is not necessarily the big lamb at birth that is going to turn out to be the best."
He has seen a good few changes over the years and has developed his own preferences.
"The Suffolk breed has gone through phases. Fifteen years ago, they were looking for a big head and bone. That is fine for the pedigree breeder, but the commercial producer does not want that and a lot of the customers that we have are commercial breeders. They are the backbone of the demand, and what I would be aiming for, because the lamb that we sell the pedigree buyer is the bonus, but the bread and butter sales is to the commercial producers," he says.
Some days at the shows and sales stand out in the memory. Foremost among them is the 2013 Premier Show and Sale at Roscrea, where he got €6,800 for a ram.
The following year, a Scottish breeder paid €6,000 for his Champion of Show ram and a Wexford breeder paid €6,000 for the Reserve Champion exhibited by Susan.
Of the rams purchased, a select few have impressed with their breeding. Among them, Kirkton Kandi which he bought in Edinburgh and came from one of the top flocks in Scotland.
Meanwhile, Patrick showed that he is not lacking in expertise as he picked out a ram running around the field in the North one evening they called up to see a flock. Patrick's pick, Castlewellan Sportsman, went on to produce really well for them.
Another to stand out was a ram that he bought in Shrewsbury, Rookery Classic, in shared ownership with John Redmond, Carlow. "He's one that I'd say has just enough bone, not massive but enough bone, lovely clean head on him and he's breeding tremendous females." Rookery Classic has also won at the national championships and also bred the Female of the Year a couple of years.
Summer and autumn is show time for the O'Keeffe flock and each year there are new challenges and opportunities.
Next on the horizon is the South of Ireland branch of the Suffolk Sheep Society Elite Show and Sale at Blessington Mart on Saturday, July 2.
Branch secretary Ann Mitchell says the sale is a first for the branch and is aimed at giving breeders a chance to select a top choice ram for their flock for 2016. The sale carries export status and will attract buyers from overseas as well as Ireland.
Among the 30 ram lambs from the top flocks in Ireland on offer - the majority recorded by Sheep Ireland - will be two each from Arthur O'Keeffe and his sister Susan's flocks.
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