Bringing out record-breaking sale cattle and show winners throughout his freelance stockmen career is grist to the mill for Barney O’Kane, Keadyview, in Northern Ireland. He shared his career highlights with The Scottish Farmer…


It stems from exactly the same as most men and woman in farming today ... I was born into it.

My father, John, was a mountain farmer in the townland of Meencraig, in the north of Ireland, where I grew up with my siblings and I worked the farm after school.

My father in those days ran a mixture of cattle and sheep and although rearing a large family of 16, I was the only one to follow him into farming.

I worked alongside him until I was offered a job at a local farm with B Mullan and Sons, in 1977, before I became a full time self-employed freelancer in 1995 contracted to bring out show-winning cattle.

What is it you are looking for in an animal?

When choosing an animal, like everyone else I like to know the animal’s lineage, its breeding and basic logbook facts. Also, I like to do a wee bit of homework on the beast and I’ve a great belief in the saying ‘your eyes are your merchant’. By this I mean I am always looking for the two main priorities in the eye of a showman, an animal’s style and its air of composure.

Chosen breeds place in the commercial market?

The Charolais dominates the commercial market down to its fast growth rates, that is what you need in any cattle. The Limousin comes in at second, for me, although it does have plenty of quality throughout – it just lacks that speed of growth compared to the Charolais.

If you had to choose a breed to go into, what would it be?

Charolais, they have plenty of quality and a good weight conversion.

What got you involved in showing?

On April 6, 1977, I became the stockman for B Mullan and Sons and at that time Charolais were becoming more common over here. After entering into a few local agricultural shows and picking up a few tricks of the trade, I was totally smitten.

I became keener as time went on and started paying more attention to detail in the Charolais breed, from watching their general movements and their posture, and positioning of their feet whilst walking. Nothing gives me more pleasure than watching the fragile birth of an animal all the way through to the animal becoming a highly groomed, respectful intelligent performer.

Best Highland Show achievement?

To date my most successful Highland Show was back in 2014 when I had the privilege of being the showman for Maghera-man, Paddy Gallagher. That year, Paddy’s Charolais, Rumsden Fawkes, won the male championship and on the back of that we went on to be part of the winning inter-breed pairs. There was a lot of smiling and big handshakes that day.

Biggest showing achievement?

My biggest showing achievement was when I was offered the opportunity of showing at the National Show, in Keuring, in Holland. This entailed spending a week in Holland on the farm – which was a great experience.

To see the different techniques in everyday farming life to the different aspects of the showing arena. In a different country with a language barrier, you have to be instantly aware of your surroundings and figure out quickly what exactly the showing protocol is. All good showmen/women know that you always have one eye on your animal and one on the judge.

My own personal achievement was winning junior Limousin heifer in 2010, junior Limousin bull in 2011 and junior Limousin bull in 2012 at Balmoral Show.

Best sale day?

My best sale day will stay with me forever, not only in my head but my heart.

My great friend, James McKay, of Ampertaine Limousins, and I had attended Carlisle on many occasions over the years but in 2017 we knew we had something that would put a little spark in our step – we intended to ‘clean up’ as the saying goes.

Well, we cleaned up really well and we saw Ampertaine Mozart sell for a record price of 100,000gns.

Which was the best animal that you’ve ever shown?

The best animal I’ve ever shown was Ampertaine Elgin, in May, 2011. He had class and style, and a lot of breeding behind him. He bagged the reserve senior championship at Carlisle bull sales before selling for 32,000gns.

But what’s the best animal that you have ever seen?

Again, that was the best animal I’d yet to see, but then I’m only a small man in a big pond.

Abiding memory?

In 2014, I travelled to Holland to stay in the home of Teus Dekker, of Cowporation. I spent a glorious week which left me great memories of the country and the friendships made there will last a lifetime.

Biggest disappointment?

My biggest disappointment in life had to be not taking a stockman job offer in America. In the early 1980s, my late wife, Eileen, daughter, Melinda and I were in America visiting family when the approach was made offering not only a job, but a house and basically a new life.

At the time, my father wasn’t very well and after a lot of soul searching, we declined the offer. My children always ask: “I wonder what life would have been like out there daddy.”

Most influential person?

Over the years I have crossed paths with a lot of people in life and in farming, but the most influential person was the late, Billy Millar.

As a young boy, fresh out of school, I went to work with Billy and as time progressed, I moved into the Millar household and was present when all three of Billy’s sons were born. Billy and I had a lifelong friendship from which I took guidance on a wide range of farming and general life issues.

When I got married, Billy gave my eldest daughter her name, Melinda – to this day I’m still close friends with Billy’s wife and sons.

Your choice of best stockmen ever?

The best stockman I’ve come across again goes to my friend Billy Millar, he had a keen eye that seemed to always be five steps ahead of the rest.

Favourite quote?

Anyone who has worked alongside me on show days can recite my favourite saying ‘my heart is your burning daylight’.

If you could change one thing, what would it be?

I’d change the hands of time. I would go back 40 years and with the knowledge I have now ... life would be a lot easier!

Best advice for someone starting off?

I would always say never be overconfident, don’t dismiss any free advice, you can always pick up on something. Remember, if there is a group of elderly men standing talking, that’s your best source of knowledge.

Best investment?

My family and friends. Over the years I have made great friendships which stand the testament of time. My home is always full of family and friends dropping in.

Has stockmanship taken you overseas many times?

Over the years stockmanship has been a great source of travel for me not only in Great Britain, but I found myself in Germany, Holland and France.

Are you involved in any committees, or have any hobbies?

People often ask if I am on any committees but that is just not my thing. That said, I’m not shy of voicing my opinions on the odd occasions. To be honest I am a hands in the dirt kind of man and I’m sure you’d never get a halter around a computer.

Is there anything ‘different’ in Ireland?

A lot of things are done differently in Irish farming but it all amounts to the same thing no matter what your postcode reads. Treat your ground well and your stock reaps the rewards.

The future of the showing circuit?

The Covid-19 pandemic has hugely disrupted the showing circuit not only financially but mentally. Farming can be a hard life with antisocial hours and not a lot of spare time for hobbies.

The showing circuit gave a lot of people something to look forward to.

Families would arrive at shows setting up camp in some cases for the week. The social interaction alone cannot be weighed.

When things start to ease up, I think people will evaluate the simple things in life and the circuit will be more popular than ever.

Could you imagine your life without showing?

Absolutely not. I’m a complete adrenaline junkie, I like to be personally well groomed everyday, so I find myself taking on almost a different person when I am in the showring.

It’s game face on, head up, one eye on the animal, one on the judge. I head into that arena with the intention that whoever owns that animal is depending on me to win. Like a Formula One race car it’s top quality but it can’t move without a driver.

A top-class animal can’t perform unless the showman/woman is on top of their game. There is nowhere to hide in a showring and there are as many eyes on you as there is on the animal.