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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘He fell ill shortly after, and I was left running the farm at 27’ – 250-cow farmer on 2,700-acres

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Adrian Ivory, Meigle, Perthshire, of the Strathisla and Cardean herds in this week’s Suckler Focus.

“The farm was bought in 1970 but has expanded over time. I am the first member of the family to run the farm, as it has always been run by a farm manager, and my family history is in the stock market.

Currently, I am farming the herd on a full-time basis with 150 commercial cows, 60 pedigree Simmentals and 40 pedigree Charolais.

We have maintained the herd size as this is what suits the grazing acreage and shed space, as well as the number of stockmen we have to look after the cattle.

We farm across 2,700-acres, which is partly owned (1,500), part contract farming (combining, drying, and baling only) (1,000) and part full contract (200).

Suckler herd

Our commercial herd comprises a cross of Simmental, Shorthorn and Hereford. There are also the pedigree herds of Charolais and Simmental.

The Simmental has been the mainstay of the farm since the early 1970s, and the breed is very docile and fantastic mothers with the benefit of having progeny that is quick to finish, which is so important.

We introduced the Shorthorn and Hereford to get some fat cover into the continental genetics and reduce the cow size.

We believe a mix of native, and continental is the most efficient – we have a calving index of 372 days and average days to slaughter on bull beef of 405 days.

Recently, we have bought some Hereford embryos from Canada to try and introduce quality genetics at an affordable price.

Moreover, we try to breed our own Simmental bulls from our pedigree herd to introduce new genetics as well as knowing the full history of its dam.

We buy in Shorthorn bulls when required, although my children have started their own small Shorthorn herd, which will hopefully produce bulls too.

In the commercial herd, we calve the heifers at 2-years-old, so we tend to AI them to a known easy calving sire.

Desirable cow type 

On the pedigree side, in both the Charolais and Simmental, we use both stock bulls and AI to try and find mew genetics as well as the consistency of a stock bull.

We calve 98% of the herd in March / April / May – the main reason is to allow the calves to go straight out to grass, which is the most healthy. The stockmen help with the harvest, so I do not have time to be with autumn calvers.

We want a medium-sized cow of about 700kg, which is fertile, milky and docile – we monitor a number of traits to ensure we are retaining the daughters from the most efficient dams.

The main things we look at are margin over feed, days to calving, days to slaughter and weaning % (weight of calf at 200 days to dam weight as a %). This is true for the commercial and pedigree herds.

We retain the top 25 heifers and sell the rest either as stores or privately for other farmers’ replacements as we have a high health status.

We have calved heifers at 24 months for many years and make sure they are managed correctly and selected carefully to avoid any issues.

On the farm, we keep the bulls entire and aim to sell them as soon after 365 days as possible with a target liveweight of 700kg, which is a deadweight of 400kg.

Last year, we were 74% E/U grades and 26% R grades with an average deadweight of 397kg – the majority were a fat class 3- to 3=, this is for the bull claves.

Grassland

We have undertaken trials with different grass varieties and how well they do with us until we settled on the Airlie variety from Watson seeds.

Fields are in silage for one year and then grazed for three years, and then in cereals for two years before going back to grass.

After silage, the cattle are rotated around the fields to make sure we are using the grass as efficiently as possible.

If an animal fails a health test or is not in-calf, she is instantly put in the cull pen – after that, it is determined by age and the animal’s efficiency through the margin over feed.

We have designed a spreadsheet that is updated annually to work out the efficiency of the cow for that year. After that, comes aggression and lameness.

Success

Understanding your numbers and making sure you know which are the poor performers through actual figures are the key elements of successful suckler farming.

Keep it simple so that it is not seen as a hassle doing the numbers, and make sure you enjoy what you are doing too.

I was awarded the Farmers Weekly young farmer of the year and overall farmer of the year in 2008 – something that still has not been repeated.

I am also on the board of QMS and starred in an Asda Christmas advert for beef that was filmed solely on the farm and was also chairman of the Oxford Farming Conference in 2014,

Future

The main aim is to be able to hand over a sustainable business to my son, who is keen to join the business after school.

We are always looking to improve as standing still is not an option, so we are always looking at where improvements can be made – the Dave Brailsford 1% improvement of lots of things is certainly something I look at.

We need to improve the perception among the public of the negativity of cattle farming and its impacts on the climate.

I think the future of suckler farming is positive as long as we understand our customer (in my opinion, this is the end consumer) and what they want – we have to accept that beef is seen as a luxury product, and therefore, we have to produce something that gives the consumer an excellent experience.

Lots of farmers feel we are not paid enough, although the difficulty is the more we are paid, the more the consumer is going to be charged, and we risk losing customers over price, and then that will impact our industry.

I think there needs to be a more open conversation between the farmer, processor and supermarket.

In the store market or pedigree bull market, quality will always sell better than poorer stock – we need to find a way of determining what is quality for the consumer.

Reflection

I came back to the farm when I was 24 to work under the farm manager to get an understanding of what we did and how but sadly, he fell ill shortly after, and I was left running the farm business at the age of 27.

Looking back, I have made several mistakes along the way, but it was important to be able to make them and learn from them.

I have learnt a huge amount and grasped every opportunity given to me, and tried to improve and adapt the business along the way.

I will always leave an event wanting to have learnt something and asking myself if I could adopt that at home.

If not, why not, and why would it not work? Having a group of friends who also challenge you in your business has been really useful.”

To share your story, email – [email protected]

[All imagery supplied to this publication by interviewee]

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