Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 March 2018

Meet the 19-year-old Galwayman making waves at pedigree sheep breeding

Darragh Cunniffe, winner of the Texel Flock of the Year award for the Western Region pictured with Tom Whelan who received the South East Region award.
Darragh Cunniffe, winner of the Texel Flock of the Year award for the Western Region pictured with Tom Whelan who received the South East Region award.
Some of Darragh's Texels on the family farm near Tuam, Co Galway

Martin Ryan

Darragh Cunniffe is aiming to become one of the top pedigree breeders in the country.

The 19-year-old Galwayman has achieved more in four years than many of his fellow breeders in the region have accomplished in a lifetime.

Dairy farming was traditionally the main enterprise on the near 60ac family farm of his parents Tom and Catherine at Horseleap, Tuam. In recent years they changed to suckler farming with a mix of cross-breeds, including some Herefords, Angus and continentals.

However, Darragh's preferred farm enterprise was pedigree sheep breeding and after having a look around as to the most suitable breed, and talking to other breeders, he decided to invest in some Texel ewes in 2012.

Some of Darragh's Texels on the family farm near Tuam, Co Galway
Some of Darragh's Texels on the family farm near Tuam, Co Galway

"From what I had seen and gathered from talking to other breeders of pedigree [sheep], I went for Texel because they are the cleanest and quietest, and that is what I have found as well," he says.

"I am very, very happy with them. It would be hard enough to beat them and I have got used to them. They are good from all sides as far as I can see. They are good for fattening and they are good for breeding as well."

His current breeding flock comprise of 21 ewes, and although he admits "it is still a small flock" there is no argument that it is now one of the best in the country.

His Horseleap Texel flock was recently named as "Flock of the Year 2016" for the Western Region, an award he earned based on the flock's success on the agricultural show circuit in the region during 2016.

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"The award is decided by the points for awards won at agricultural shows," he explains.

Darragh admits that it was one of his targets for the year "but it is not easy won because there are some very good and experienced breeders in the region".

He exhibited at up to 15 shows last season and most of the time he didn't come home empty-handed.

"I went to as many of the shows as possible during the year and was happy coming home with something from most of them.

"But I was still very doubtful if I had achieved enough to win the award," the modest young man admits.

"The competition is very, very keen in sheep in the west. A lot of the breeders in this region are at it for a long time and they are very good" he says.

"I did not think that I had much hope of winning the flock of the year.

"It was my first year having a go at it - and it was my ambition to do as well as I could and see how far I could get but it is not easy in this region.

"There are a lot of young breeders coming on now and it will be very hard to be good enough to win it again this year.

"But I am going to do my best and see how it goes," Darragh says.

Darragh believes that the quality of his initial purchase, to establish the flock, has been fundamental to his success.

"I bought the first of the ewes from John Brooks and most of what I have are from that bloodline. I like them a lot and I have found them to be the best of what I have so far. I have no trouble with them and find them very good."

His intention was to initially purchase a few ewes, but the requirement for five to register the flock decided the scale of his investment.

He hasn't looked back since and the flock has been gradually built up to its present size of 21 breeding ewes which continue to be run side by side with the mixed suckler herd of 25 spring calving cows.

While his intention is to continue to grow the flock, the plan is to put quality before quantity.

In addition to a stock ram, which cost €1,200, he uses AI to breed from some of the best Texel bloodlines and would not rule out doubling the size of the flock over the coming years.

He is completing the Green Cert course in Mountbellew Agricultural College, and firmly believes that as a better qualified farmer, his opportunities within the industry are enhanced.

On his future plans, the Galway-man rules out replacing the sucker herd with the expanded sheep flock.

"It would be hard to say that they would replace the suckers.

"I'd see continuing to stay with the suckers as well. I may show a few of them in commercial show classes this year because some of them have fairly good breeding, but my overall preference is for the sheep on the farm, while continuing to stay with the suckers as well.

"For the future I will definitely stick with the Texel and get as many as I can hold," Darragh maintains.

"If it continues to go well, I would like to grow the flock as much as possible - that would be my ambition anyway" he says.

Darragh would like to see his future in farming.

"I'd like full time farming as a career - but I may have to look at some part time off farm work to supplement the income."

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