'We are all from Dublin and surrounds and had no experience of farming. It was amazing'
Two years ago Dubliner Shauna Jager was intent on becoming a nurse. Now the 18-year-old is on a completely different career path and is studying science at Bray College of Further Education. "It is all thanks to the Certified Irish Angus Beef Schools Competition that I am now hooked on agriculture," she said. "Never before would I have considered it but the time spent on the project changed by mind completely. I eventually hope to study Food and Agri-Business at UCD."
Since its inception in 2014, the main aim of the Certified Irish Angus Beef Schools Competition has been to encourage second-level students to gain an understanding about the care and attention that is required to produce and market the highest quality beef for consumers.
Each year, five school groups are chosen to receive five Irish Angus Cross calves. As part of their Leaving Certificate Agricultural Science project the students are required to set milestones through the lifetime of the animals, rear them through to slaughter and visit processing and retail facilities to understand how the food chain works.
In Shauna's case, and that of her fellow students, the competition completely achieved what it set out to do.
"We are all from Dublin and surrounds and had no experience in farming," Shauna explained. "Not only did we gain a better understanding of farming, but also of the consumer industry, which was part of our project. Personally I was delighted to get an internship with Kepak and so I was able to see the process from start to finish. It truly was an amazing experience."
To those looking in from the outside, they were unlikely candidates for the competition, but Shauna and her classmates Eithne Murray, Tara Frehill and Emily Browne from Our Lady's School, Terenure impressed all before them and took home the top prize of €2,000 at the grand final in Croke Park earlier this year.
The annual competition is spear-headed by Charles Smith of the Irish Angus Producer Group. Commenting on the 2017 winners, he said: "From the outset the girls from Our Lady's School in Terenure demonstrated the ability to take on a challenge and achieve success. The location of their school within such an urban setting brought an added air of excitement and enthusiasm for the project. Even though they are the first class in their school to ever study Agricultural Science for Leaving Certificate, the group exhibited a great appreciation for agriculture and an understanding of the benefits of Certified Irish Angus Beef for the consumer."
Mr Smith then explained how the concept came about. "At the beginning we set out to deliver a message to young people during the Ploughing Championships, but felt it was not widely heard. Since starting this competition, however, we have found that students take a much greater interest. The fact that they receive the profits when the animals are slaughtered gives them great encouragement, but they all greatly enjoy the challenge and the experience too," he added.
In recent weeks a group of students from Coláiste Treasa in Kanturk, Co Cork successfully brought their five calves to slaughter at the ABP Food Group in nearby Bandon.
Aoife O'Leary, Aoife O'Connor, Maire O'Donoghue and Chloe Cottrell all played their part in getting the animals to peak condition and were delighted when they averaged €1,250 on the day.
Their project was overseen by their Agriculture Science teacher Brid Ann O'Donoghue. "There were a few tears on the last day but they all thoroughly enjoyed the experience over the 18 months," she said. "The girls first heard about the competition during a visit to the National Ploughing Championships in 2015. After that they decided to enter and were delighted to be picked for the 2016/2017 project.
"The calves were kindly kept by farmer Frank Murphy in Banteer and the girls would often visit the farm to help with weighing and dosing. They also got to visit a producer in Amsterdam which they found fascinating. Their project carries 25pc of the marks for Agricultural Science, so it is in their interest to do a good job too."
While Agricultural Science has been on the curriculum for many years, Ms O'Donoghue said that more and more students are taking it up, especially those from non-farming backgrounds. "Of those taking part in the competition from our school, only one is from a farming background, yet two others involved are also studying Agricultural Science which is so encouraging to see."
Mark Shorten from St Brogans College in Bandon also took part in the 2016/2017 competition, along with his classmate Conor Lehane.
"Both of us are from a farming background so that part was easy for us," Mark said. "The only bit we found difficult at the start was the public speaking, but now we find that easy too. It has done so much for our confidence."
Their project involved exploring the Irish Angus breed as a viable option for dairy farmers and to promote the benefits of using the Irish Angus Breed against other beef breeds within the dairy industry.
"We decided to winter out the calves and they did extremely well on Kale and Redstart, proving that they do not have to be housed indoors all winter."
With dairy farming very much in the family, Mark now also hopes to pursue a career in the same business when he finishes school next year.
At the recent Ploughing Championships, five new schools were on hand to receive their calves ahead of their project which will take them up to next autumn. Among them was Hannah Keogh from Ashbourne Community School in Co Meath. Along with her classmates Kellie Ward, Ella Smyth and David Corry, they will explore the viability of Dairy Cross Angus Beef production.
This will include assessing the benefits for both the dairy and beef farmer, analysing suitability to Irish conditions and best practice for the production of Dairy Cross Angus cattle as calves at grass.
"Both David and I are from farming families," Hannah said, "but Kellie and Ella have no involvement in farming so this will be all new to them.
"Already we have been to Aldi and Tesco to learn about the consumer end of it and it has been an eye-opener for everyone."
As the 2017/2018 groups settle into their new roles as young farmers, Charles Smith is confident that they will also set a great example to their younger counterparts.
"Already we are seeing great ideas. The students from Glenamaddy Community School in Galway are going to undertake a project to highlight to farmers the importance of mental health and well-being. This is very topical at the moment and we look forward to seeing how they get on over the next few months," he concluded.
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