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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
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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45-cow suckler herd reaping benefits of Beef Shorthorns

A Ballynahinch, Co Down-based commercial suckler farmer is set to show how a move to Beef Shorthorn genetics have helped him improve his business at an opening day this weekend.

Barry Fitzsimons will open the gates of his farm to the public this weekend to host the NI Beef Shorthorn Club Open Day on Saturday, September 9th, 2023.

Age of slaughter

For him, a change to Beef Shorthorn cattle came about as a result of his desire to ease his workload and ensure a sustainable business for future generations.

“We were running a herd of continental cross sucklers and while they were delivering great carcasses, there were a number of issues which were hindering the business.”

“Principle among those was fertility and an ever-increasing calving interval.”

“Added to this, we were struggling to finish bullocks at much under 30 months on our largely grass-based system and that meant extra costs on the business with cattle being on-farm longer than we wanted,” explains Mr Fitzsimons who farms with help from his son, Craig, and grandson, Tom.

“Meanwhile, the opposite was true of the heifers, and they were tending to run to fat too soon and were not reaching suitable carcass weights.”

Now, whether it is bullocks or heifers, finished cattle from the 45-cow suckler herd are usually finished by 24 months.

“As a spring calving herd that means we do not have them here for a third summer at grass.”

“That is a significant improvement, meaning we can shut grass up for silage sooner and make better quality forage.”

“It also means we can, potentially, carry a few more cows on the same acreage, making for a more efficient herd.”

Easy calving and maternal traits

In addition, calving is easier and less stressful with the Beef Shorthorn-cross cows, with Mr Fitzsimons often not seeing calves born due to the easy calving and excellent maternal traits in cows.

“There have been plenty of times I have seen a cow just starting to calve and have thought I will go away and come back in half an hour or so to see how she is progressing. Only to find that when I get back, the calf is up and sucking.”

“That makes a huge difference to herd management and, importantly, overall herd fertility.”

“With fewer assisted calvings the chances of cows getting back in calf more quickly have greatly increased and that is showing through in the calving interval which is currently sitting at 372 days.

“With government policy ultimately pushing towards lowering carbon outputs in farming, increasing suckler herd efficiency has to high up the list.”

Calving period and calving interval

He believes that a compact calving period, with a short calving interval, is central to this, as is running a herd that thrives in a forage-based system, with minimal bought-in feed.

Finishing cattle are fed some meal to put the final cover on them, but Fitzsimons says this is much less than would have been the case with the continental cross cattle he was previously farming.

“They simply do not need as much meal to finish and that is both a cost saving and an environmental benefit.”

Benchmarking with DAERA has proven the benefits being seen on the ground, with the herd in the top 25% of Northern Irish benchmarked herds for both age at slaughter and calving interval.

“But it is not just the herd’s performance which has improved, so too has temperament and ease of working.”

“Our cows are quiet and calm, making them a pleasure to work with. I often go through the cubicle house in the evenings when they are housed for the winter for final check and more often than not there are cows giving me a gentle nudge in the back looking for a scratch and a bit of attention.”

“Ultimately, I wanted a herd that was enjoyable to work with and I was pleased to show people, the move to Shorthorn genetics has provided that and made significant improvements to the business too,” added Fitzsimons.

Some KPIs – Bawnforth data

  • Top 25% NI calving interval – 372 days, reduced from in excess of 400;
  • Top 25% NI age at slaughter – most cattle finished at 24-25 months, down from 29-30 months for bullocks;
  • All cattle meeting spec for Glenarm Beef Shorthorn scheme – 10% premium on standard DW price;
  • 15 cattle slaughtered Feb-May 2023 to an average of 332.8kg (carcass weight) at 23 months. Youngest – 17-months-old and oldest 26-months-old;
  • 15 cattle slaughtered Feb-May 2023 with average price of £1664.13 after deductions.
  • Now running three cows for every two carried when herd was breeding continentals;

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