It is vitally important to retain the economic and social link between beef production and rural communities.

This is the main theme of the project the three-strong finalist team of Thomas O’Kane, Conall McCafferty and Peter Graham, from St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena, are working on as part of the 2018/19 ABP Angus Youth Challenge.

The competition is organised by ABP in association with the Northern Irish Angus Producer Group to develop agri-skills in teenagers interested in a working in the sector.

Thomas, Conall and Peter all hail from farming backgrounds in the Ballymena area. Their participation as finalists is supported by St Louis’ geography teacher Louise Gildea.

She is quick to confirm that it has taken on a life of its own within the school as a whole, adding: “The boys’ involvement in what is a programme that takes in a full two years has created an interest in farming that I have never seen in the school before.

“All of this is extremely positive and we would like to build on it for the future.”

Specifically, Louise and the team members feel that much more focus should be given to production agriculture as a curriculum subject that is made available to pupils right across Northern Ireland.

“Currently, the school offers a BTEC qualification in agriculture. However, this is only recognised by a certain number of third level institutions as an official entry qualification. This issue needs to be reviewed by the colleges and universities,” Louise further commented.

Thomas, Conall and Peter have just finished their GCSE year. They were coming to the end of their first term in Year 11 when they submitted their entry into the competition by way of a video.

Thomas takes up the story: “Our submission was entitled ‘Reconnecting with Our Rural Roots’.

“The reason for taking this approach reflects the sentiments expressed in television ads used so successfully at the time of the US Super Bowl and themed: So God made a farmer.”

Conall pointed out that the school’s success in reaching the final stage and the programme they are now engaged in has removed a stigma attached to farming, which he felt existed at St Louis up to that point.

He continued: “There are over 1,000 students attending the school, many coming from rural areas. Yet very few have a direct family involvement in farming.

“Our success to date has helped put farming in a more positive context throughout the school. And this is a good thing.”

Peter confirmed that all three team members would like to follow careers in farming and food.

“We are totally aware of the central role that agriculture continues to play in rural communities here in Co Antrim and beyond. It is our intention to further reflect this priority and the need to ensure that beef production remains at the very heart of the rural economy.”

The four finalist teams will be judged later this year on the projects they have been working on and their ability to rear five cross bred Angus cattle from the weanling stage right through to finishing.

The St Louis team agreed the cattle would be accommodated on Thomas’ family farm. The cattle were awarded to the boys by ABP at the Balmoral Show 2018.

“We are very happy with the progress they have made to date,” Thomas explained.

“Our plan has been to get as much performance from grazed grass, both last year and this.

“The cattle will be on the farm until the Autumn this year. They will be put on their finishing ration over the coming weeks.

“The three of us have been equally involved in the management of the cattle.

“We have also availed of advice from Arthur Callaghan, Blade Farming NI Co-ordinator for ABP in Northern Ireland.”

The sustainability of Angus cross cattle is a key message to be promoted to the farming community by the St Louis team as part of the Angus Youth Challenge.

“Issues that we will be addressing include the fact that Angus cattle are easy to manage and they finish quickly off grass,” Thomas confirmed.

“All of this adds up to a lower Carbon Footprint when it comes to producing beef from Angus cross animals.”

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(Pic from left ABP Angus Blade Co-ordinator, Arthur O’Callaghan; Thomas O’Kane; Louise Gildea; Conall McCafferty; Peter Graham and Charles Smith, General Manager Northern Irish Angus Producer Group).