In this week’s Suckler Focus, That’s Farming, speaks to the Davoren family, from Co Clare, 40 cow farmers. They discuss their enterprise, which is fragmented into three, averaging close to €3.00/kg for weanlings, keeping costs low and removing the bull from paddocks after July 10th.
Keeping output costs as low as possible and producing quality stock are two of the most important factors in suckler farming.
That is the view of Conor Davoren, a secondary school teacher, who farms a 40-cow herd in partnership with his brother, Brendan, a member of An Garda Síochána, and father, Michael.
Their mother, Mary, a former secondary school teacher, plays a key role in the farm’s running, and Brendan’s children, Róisín and Niamh, are also involved.
Their enterprise is fragmented into three with their home farm in Kilnaboy, Co. Clare on the edge of the Burren. They have winterage land in the heart of the Burren National Park.
The family has an outside farm 22km away near the renowned matchmaking town of Lisdoonvarna and rent additional land nearby for silage and grazing.
They are third-generation farmers, having operated a suckler enterprise from 1995, converting from dairy and sheep.
40-cow suckler farmers
They run a herd of 40 commercial suckler cows with a pedigree Charolais bull, a Fiston son. Most of their breeding females are Charolais-cross, but they also carry some Limousin, Shorthorn and Simmental-crosses.
They recently took part in a competition run by the Irish Charolais Cattle Society, where they placed third in the large herd category.
Conor, on behalf of the family, told That’s Farming: “We have increased the numbers of cows steadily over the past five years to increase the live weight/hectare returns.”
“These cows have been chosen carefully from good milk, producing easy calving dams from our own herd.”
“A good proportion of our herd were chosen from our uncle, Thomas Hegarty’s farm; he produces exceptional breeding heifers.”
“We also purchase breeding heifers from my father-in-law. We find the Charolais-cross cow to be big, powerful, and easy calved. She has a frame to calf a sizeable calf that will return good weights at selling.”
Spring-calving and out-wintering
The farm operates a 100% spring-calving system, as cows are out-wintered on the Burren from November until January.
Cows will receive 2kg/day of concentrates from early December for 3-4 weeks. This enables them to “get full value out of the winterage ground which is best practice under the Burren Life Scheme”.
They house cows in early January, feeding them silage. They calve indoors where progeny have access to calf creeps, before returning to winterage ground on the home farm when calves are 1 to 2-weeks-old and have access to calf huts.
This helps minimise the possibility of contracting disease indoors. Cows are fed solely on high-quality silage post-calving.
The family has a vaccination programme covering clostridia diseases, Leptospirosis, roundworms and lungworms, and also all weanlings against Bovine Respiratory Disease.
“Our approach to animal health is prevention through vaccination leading to a healthier animal,” Conor remarked.
Progeny, last year’s average prices and concentrates
The 40-cow suckler farmers sell most of their progeny as weanlings in October and the remainder as stores the following year through Clare Marts.
They aim to have bull weanlings at 350kg plus and heifer weanlings at 300kg plus come sale time in October.
“It is mainly a grass-based system, but we introduce concentrates to calves before weaning in line with BEEP-S requirements.”
“By encouraging calves to eat concentrates, it introduces them to forward grazing where they gain access to the best grass.”
“Last year’s crop of weanling bulls achieved €2.98/kg, on average, and weanling heifers, sold for €2.64/kg, on average.”
The family retain heifers from their best replacement cows, calving these down between 24-36-months.
“We find Charolais-crosses are better suited to two-year-old calving. Limousin heifers, we tend to leave until 3-years-old to calf.”
All heifers AI’d to Limousin bulls through Munster AI, with this practice yielding “exceptional” success rates every year. The Limousin sires they used in recent years include Castleview Gazelle, Knell and Cross Liam.
Breeding, scanning and culling
Breeding commences in and around April 20th, and all cows and heifers are scanned when they are 35 days. This allows for cows to be moved between the farms as they are scanned in-calf as the stock bull always remains on the home farm.
“Cow-Scan- Enda Kearney completes scanning to an exceptionally high standard with consistent accuracy.”
“Cows not in-calf after July 10th are chosen to be culled, (which thankfully is the exception), as late-calving cows do not suit our system.”
“We also cull cows based on age, problems with feet, if they have undergone a Caesarean section and based on the progeny they are producing.”
They are part of the BDGP Scheme and a member of ICBF, which its latest report shows the herd is producing 1.04 calves/cow/year.
The herd’s average calving interval currently stands at 352 days, and its 6-week calving rate is 71%. Furthermore, 75% of their first-time calvers are 22-25-months-old.
Grassland management and land improvement works
“In our opinion, the key to successful suckler farming is down to so many things. Effective use of grass is essential in keeping costs down and reducing the need to feed concentrates.”
“We have carried out work over the past few years improving the land through drainage and land reclamation.”
They believe controlling weeds and the ever-popular rushes are important in allowing grass to grow to its potential.
Rotational paddock grazing is essential for them in maintaining good grass ahead of the cattle. They aim to hit a 21-day rotation, often dividing paddocks further if the need arises.
They have also made major improvements to animal handling facilities on all the farms to improve safety, efficiency and reduce stress for both animals and handlers.
Conor said there are many challenges as a suckler farmer, but one of the biggest is the absence of any price guarantee for produce.
“Sale day is when you are hoping to justify costs through the €/kg that you get. Many factors can impact that price on any given day for the good or the bad.”
“The cost of production is increasing, but unfortunately, cattle prices are not corresponding to this.”
“Another challenge in our particular case is fragmentation, and this can be time-consuming when coupled with work. Advance planning is essential in managing such a farm.”
The family has joined many schemes – BEEP, BDGP, GLAS and Burren Life – which have been of “huge benefit” to their farming system from a financial and environmental perspective.
“As part of the BEEP scheme, we weigh the cows and calves. It is not something we had undertaken before the scheme.”
“We now try to incorporate these figures in decisions. These include selling dates, choosing what animals to sell and in choosing cows to cull.”
“We have seen the benefits of meal feeding pre and post-weaning. Also, we completed dung sampling testing and were happy to receive a negative for rumen fluke eggs.”
“As mentioned earlier, we have always vaccinated and have always seen the benefits of this. As part of the BDGP scheme, we have genomic-tested all cows and current set of replacement heifers at this stage.”
“We find the reports ICBF generates are of huge benefit. They give us an overview of the herd and individual animals.”
Besides, as part of their participation in GLAS, they carry out several tasks throughout the year. These include low input permanent pasture, restricting stock access to waterways, keeping stone walls, and maintaining historical and archaeological sites.
“The Burren Life is for farmers farming in the Burren and is of huge importance for the upkeep of the Burren National Park.”
At this stage, the 40-cow suckler farmers are satisfied with their herd size. Their main aim now is to “bring all cows up to a uniform standard where they are all producing the ideal type weanling and replacement heifers”.
“The future of farming for us will be influenced by what conditions are attached to the new Common Agricultural Policy.”
“The future of suckler farming will depend on the powers that be, understanding the uniqueness of quality Irish beef and in providing the suckler farmer with the necessary supports to produce this beef.”
“Farming is a way of life, and we are lucky to be able to farm as a family in such a unique part of the country. If every year an improvement is made, be it with the stock or the land, then that will be making progress.”
“Suckler farming can be summed up in one quote; “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”. (Sren Kierkegaard). Hindsight is a wonderful education,” Conor concluded.
Read more Suckler Focus profiles on That’s Farming.
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