Mart manager number-crunches her way through ‘grass’ ceiling

When she took over as manager of Donegal Livestock Mart in 2007, Eimear McGuinness encountered customers who had difficulty dealing with a woman but this, she said, was short-lived.

“I knew I had a lot to prove and my main aim was to increase numbers. There is a lot of competition for numbers with many marts in Donegal county. I knew I had to find a selling point and use it.

“In Donegal county, we produce vast amounts of top-quality weanlings and the export market is vital for these animals.

“After much investigation, one of my first big alteration jobs was to introduce ventilation in the mart,” said McGuinness, one of a family of eight who grew up on a pedigree Aberdeen Angus farm in Cavan.

“Speaking to exporters, I was told that this had to be improved for them to attend sales as it affected the health of the animals.

“This was done quickly and I got different exporters to come to Donegal and also factory agents.

“These extra customers combined with farmers and dealers gave an extra bite to the cattle trade and, with it, numbers grew and trade prospered,” said McGuinness, who chairs Donegal Marts Association.

“Over the last ten years we have become renowned for our weanling sales in Donegal. In the early years I made changes to times of sales. I worked hard to make the process easier on farmers.”

Pre-booking of cattle was introduced early in 2008. “It took a few weeks for farmers to realise that this would be to their advantage.

“It meant they pre-booked their numbers on a Wednesday and didn’t have to come to the mart at ungodly hours of the morning to queue. They all got a time allocated from 9:00am onwards.

Every year we try to upgrade different areas of the mart. After 50 years there is a lot of wear and tear.

In 2012, we erected a new roof, which cost a lot of money but made a massive difference.

“We got an export licence, which was vital in earlier years for Northern customers, as well as cattle crushes, gates and pens. In 2016 we built a new office,” McGuinness said.

“There are increasingly more challenges facing marts for their survival. The decrease in suckler cow numbers will mean a decrease in weanlings, so this must be taken on board.

“In 2014 when this decrease crept in, I had to readdress things and work out a strategy going forward. At this time sheep numbers were on the increase,” she said.

“We were asked by an exporter to do a weigh-in for fat lambs going for export.

It opened my eyes to the fact that there were a lot of farmers producing fat lambs in our area and we didn’t see them.

“Our sheep sales mainly consisted of store sheep. I spent a further few months investigating this and, after many months of back-and-forth to factories, decided to set up a Sheep Producer Group, sending lambs direct to slaughter in Irish Country Meats, Navan,” she said.

Some of McGuinnesses’ mart committee were against this. “They felt that it would take sheep from the ring but I was quite sure it wouldn’t have any effect as it was bringing sheep that never come to the ring in Donegal.

“I proceeded and signed a contract with Irish Country Meats in Navan.

“In 2014 we killed roughly 5,000 lambs and I quickly learned that I had to get a tighter and better deal for the group.

“I worked on this and learned a lot about lamb grades and weights in 2015; we killed 10,000 lambs. I renegotiated our deal, and in 2016 we killed 22,500,” McGuinness said.

“Our group is going strong in Donegal. The convenience for the farmer is dropping off their sheep to a secured site when it suits them, instead of waiting on the roadside for a lorry.

“A very competitive group price for sheep has helped increase and maintain numbers and strengthen the group. The fact that I book all lambs and negotiate direct with the factory and load lorries means no extra staff costs,” she said.

“All extra income made through this venture is pumped back into the mart which is a major boost to the mart figures annually,” said McGuinness.

Sales times and days

She has also introduced changes to sale times, auctioneers and sale days.

Some customers have to be let go if payments are not made on time.

Difficult decisions often have to be made which don’t make you popular. However, they must be done to keep numbers coming to sales and trade competitive with other marts.

“Sellers all want the best price for their animals. They go wherever they think they will get it. It’s my job to provide this but also to make sure that the customers that I have in the sale are going to pay for stock.

“This is where my job can be quite difficult at times, especially lately where farmers are finding it hard to get stocking loans and often marts are used as banks and in some cases, not paid at all. That’s why at times, I make a call not to have certain customers in our sale for both cattle and sheep.

“We are in a different time now to when I first took over as manager. Suckler cow numbers have decreased so only the strongest will survive.”

Other challenges include the ever-increasing insurance and council rates. “Both issues will have to be addressed and I am presently working on this as a matter of urgency.”

Growing up

As a child, McGuinness loved farm life. “I attended all shows and sales with my dad. I started entering young stockmanship classes and learned a lot through that and my interest grew from there.

“When I left to study tourism and languages for two years in Killybegs Tourism College, it was slightly harder to be involved but I helped out at weekends,” said McGuinness who is married and living in Killybegs, with one son.

After progressing to Advanced Tourism and Business Studies, she spent approximately six years working in hotels; for Bord Failte and Magee of Donegal.

Having spotted an advertisement for a book-keeper in an agricultural business, she knew she had to apply for it. The job involved office work in Donegal Mart.

“From going to marts as a kid to working in a mart office, they were very different but my knowledge of cards and cattle definitely stood to me. At this time the mart was leased to a third party and I quickly fell into my role as office manager from 2003 to 2007.

“In 2007, the shareholders and committee decided to take back over the control of Donegal Mart and I was offered the job as manager.

“Taking on the role was scary as there were only very few women mart managers at that time. Looking back, I suppose it was a sensible outcome for the committee, as they got to keep an office manager and also get a general manager with previous knowledge of the mart and its customers, which was very important.”

“As I had worked with and built a trust and friendship with staff and customers alike, it made the transition easier.

“I got an extra person into the office. I felt it was important for me to be present in the yard working there, as this kept everything moving.

“I learned and educated myself in every position so I could cover staff in every area during the day for breaks. I was able to do this as I had no fear of livestock.

Social media has become a major part of her daily role. “I will be found most sale days in the yard snapping and uploading information to mart pages. A lot of customers message me through these pages about sale times.

“I also have been known to snap pictures of lambs loading onto lorries (to the factory) during the night which has also helped build that business. Farmers like to see things like this and know that their sheep are treated correctly and get away on time for a fresh kill each day.”

Donegal Mart has 15 part-time staff for sale days. “I’m the only full-time employee. I would love to say that my hours are 9:00am-5:00pm but that would sadly be untrue.

Farmers ring when they are free – mainly at night time or meal times.

“This has its advantages as it allows me to be on the move while working. To keep costs low, I do accounting returns on a monthly basis.

“Marts generate a lot financial transactions yearly, which produces and requires a lot of paperwork. I must admit it’s not my favourite part of my job but must be kept to the highest standards, especially in recent years as marts are not regulated by the PSRA.

McGuinness, who has a small farm with her husband Gillen, with some sheep and a pedigree Angus herd, said that after 14 years she has a lot of ties to the mart. “I have a love for it and the people in it. It’s hard to find that in every role.”