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‘Going into eggs means that our kids can have it bigger and better’

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Nicola and Ronald

Nicola and Ronald

Nicola and Ronald

With farms passed down from generation to generation, it is fair to say that farming is in the blood.

That's why it is so important to those working in the industry to make sure that, despite all the challenges that arise, they build a strong and sustainable business.

For many, that has meant diversifying beyond their traditional farming methods to ensure that the farm remains profitable and can provide for their family and the generations to come.

Nicola McGuigan and her husband, Ronald, are no exception and they had to consider alternative ways to generate income.

The couple, who both come from farming families, own a 70-acre farm outside Killyman in Co Tyrone.

Nicola says: "We built it up after we got married and it was primarily suckler and beef cattle and then two years ago, we put up a poultry unit.

"Basically we needed something to make money, the sucklers weren't making us money.

"It's so hard to make money out of sucklers, we were actually losing money.

"If it was taking £600 to keep one for a year, we were getting £600 and there was no profit.

"It's hard to support a family and make a living from cattle and it just wasn't working out.

"We also have one boy, James, who is 16 and has Down's syndrome, and that was one of the reasons why we went into eggs as it's something that he can do if he wants."

However, the diversification into egg production has not been easy.

"It was between eggs or pigs and we opted for poultry and free range eggs," says Nicola.

"I didn't know much about eggs, but I knew even less about pigs.

"There was an opening with Skea Eggs and we put up the houses for them and we now supply them with about 15 to 16,000 eggs a day.

"It was a significant investment, but it was something that we had to do and by putting up the hen unit, Ronald has been able to come back home full-time, while I am still working part-time.

"It took us three years from first thinking about doing it to getting the first birds in.

"There was a lot of thinking behind it.

"We worked with the bank and we had to prove that we were genuine about it, that we were going to do a good job, but of course we also had to put up security as well.

"Everyone has been very good, but ultimately the risk still stops with us.

"There was an awful lot to do around planning, wildlife services, water services, there were a lot of hoops to jump through, but we managed to get it up and running in September 2018.

"We're now in our second crop of birds, we have 16,000 birds and they're doing well.

"Farming isn't easy, it is a thankless job, but it's in your blood and if you were doing it for the money, you wouldn't be doing it.

"It's a 24-hour job, seven days a week; for us to get away anywhere, we have to rely on family or friends to come and help.

"We've put everything into the egg production working and it's definitely been a steep learning curve, but it's like everything - if you put in the time, it rewards you.

"At the moment, everyone is on high alert because of avian flu and we're very strict about access to the unit.

"You can't cover for everything, but it's a big threat to the whole industry and you're always worrying about it because it could wipe us out.

"It's another challenge that you have to overcome, like TB and brucellosis in the cattle, but for the moment everything is going well with the poultry."

Like everyone in the farming industry, Nicola is facing the unknown with Brexit, but she remains optimistic that it might drive up profits.

"At the moment, we are not self-sufficient for eggs in the UK," she says.

"Eggs are a cheap form of food and they're also in demand as a healthy food, which is always a plus."

So, having identified the potential to boost their income, Nicola, a mum of three, is determined to continue to develop the egg production arm of the business.

And while it was a financial risk, Nicola is delighted with the outcome.

"We have 25 sheep and we do enjoy showing our cattle as well," she said.

"We actually won at our first time at Balmoral, although all our time has been going into the eggs.

"However, our quality of life has changed for the better and that's definitely a plus.

Nicola added: "We're trying to make sure the business has a future so that if the children want to go into farming there will be something there for them.

"It means we will be able to leave them something bigger and better than we had."

Belfast Telegraph