‘I’m a woman in a man’s world’: Cattle breeding advisor

“I’m a woman in a man’s world,” acknowledges Deirdre Toal who is a cattle breeding advisor with Progressive Genetics.

“Although the number of women working for Progressive Genetics has increased since I joined, the AI (Artificial Insemination) industry is still predominantly male. This doesn’t bother me at all,” said the Roscommon native.

You will meet an odd farmer who will question what a woman would know about farming, but they are very few and far between. Once you have confidence in yourself and your product, people will have confidence in you.

“I enjoy my work in the AI industry. I enjoy being out and about and meeting people. When you are in a job 16 years you get to know a lot of people and you get to know families. In some cases, I’m now dealing with the next generation of farmers coming on,” Deirdre said.

“Genetics and cattle breeding have always been of interest to me. I love to visit a farm and see progeny from bulls I advised the farmer to use and see the positive impact they have had on his herd.”

Farming background

Reared on a dairy farm outside Strokestown, she was immersed in farming. “Myself, my sister Patti and my brother Michael were very involved in the farm from an early age. Myself and my sister did a lot of the milking and looking after young stock during school holidays and my brother Michael and my daddy, Kevin, took care of all the machinery work, doing all our own silage and slurry.”

Her mother, Eileen, looked after all the paperwork and dished up the hearty dinners. “My brother and his wife Miriam now run the farm with my parents, with daddy still having a very active role in the day-to-day running of the farm. They now milk 160 cows. I credit my daddy with my interest in farming. He always encouraged us to work on the farm and always brought us to farming events in our local west midlands Friesian Breeders’ Club.”

Both her parents were and continue to be a strong source of encouragement and support. “One of my earliest farming memories at home was helping my Uncle Johnnie feed calves. Uncle Johnnie farmed with my daddy when we were younger. Many’s the night we spent washing buckets together at the tap under the kitchen window,” she said.

From a very early age, I had agriculture in my heart and in my head, and knew it would be the only industry I would ever want to work in.

Deirdre’s involvement with the home farm ceased when she left home to go to UCD in 1996 to study agricultural science. “I specialised in animal science as cattle breeding and genetics were always where my interests lay. When I left UCD in 2000, I worked with Teagasc as a dairy advisor in Wicklow.”

Career in AI

When her contract ended she moved on to North Eastern AI, then owned by Lakeland Dairies and based in Ballyhaise in Cavan, for a job as a breeding advisor. “I was successful and was given the job but before I started, North Eastern AI was purchased by Progressive Genetics which agreed to take me on to cover the north east area. That was in February 2002 and I haven’t looked back since,” she said.

“I worked with a great team of people from North Eastern AI who made me very welcome and were very supportive to me as I started out in an area I didn’t know that well.

Deirdre noted that she completed work experience for third year in college with the Irish Holstein Friesian Association (IHFA), under Bobby Franks, so she was familiar with some of the farmers in counties Cavan and Monaghan.

“I also received great support from Mary Rafferty, secretary of the Breffni Oriel Friesian Breeders’ Club,” she said.

She has that club to thank for meeting her husband, Thomas. “We met on a Breffni Oriel club trip to Holland in the summer of 2002. Thomas is a dairy farmer and we now live in Smithboro in Co. Monaghan, with our two sons, Sean and Barry.”

Her role in Progressive Genetics has evolved over the years. “I cover four counties: Monaghan, Cavan, Longford and Leitrim. My main role is selling AI straws to farmers who do their own AI. I also offer a breeding advice service to all farmers, both dairy and beef, in my four counties, regardless of whether they do their own AI or use our technician service.

“This can involve visiting farmers and going through their herd with them, analysing milk recording data and ICBF reports and putting together the best panel of bulls to improve their farm profitability by increasing fertility and solids,” said Deirdre.

Teamwork

She now also manages the AI technicians in her area. “I am very lucky to have a great group of guys working with me who deliver a very good service to the farmers of the north east.

I also play a role in bull selection for Progressive Genetics and work closely with the team in the National Cattle Breeding Centre to ensure the best genetics are sourced for our customers.

Deirdre added that she also provides support for the Ireland genetics team, which markets Progressive Genetics straws in Northern Ireland.

She radiates enthusiasm for the various roles. “I love my work. I work with a great team. The support we all give each other is second to none. All the breeding advisors cover their own areas but we all regularly chat to share our experiences on good days and bad.

“The team in the office and the lab in Enfield make our jobs on the road a lot easier by their efficient and conscientious approach to their work. The team of delivery guys who follow us distributing straws and liquid nitrogen also play an integral part in the overall service we provide,” she said.

“The staff in head office who design and print catalogues and organise ordering of straws and equipment play a huge role in our whole jigsaw too. Our specialists are always on hand to speak at discussion group meetings and mart events.”

The whole team works “like a well-oiled engine” to deliver the service it provides to its customers, Deirdre said.

“My job also provides a certain flexibility time-wise which is invaluable when you have young children. Working five days a week and being a mammy too is sometimes challenging but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”