In this week’s Suckler Focus, John O Neill, a Dexter cattle breeder, discusses returning to farming at the age of 40, organics and receiving a premium price.
Firstly, was farming always a family tradition growing up?
I was born on a mixed farm in Carlow and always farmed as a young child.
It was part of my duties growing up on the farm. I was 40-years-old when I got back into farming. It is a smallholding; I just run it myself and what I do is hobby farming.
I looked at staying on the farm at home and stayed for one year and did a part-time course in 1979.
Kyleroe Farm consists of 43 Dexter cattle on 37-acres of prime land, of what can I describe as summer grazing land.
Why did you select the Dexter breed?
Originally it was to do with it being a low maintenance breed. I was off the farm most of the time. Therefore, I did not want a breed that required intensive feeding or minding.
I work from the breed standard and also follow the bloodlines. The breed standard sets out several things, including maximum height.
Dexters are the smallest cattle in Europe. I believe there is some dispute about that.
I would always aim to produce animals that meet the breed standard. They are a horned breed, so I do not accept polling that has come into the breed. I try to stick to a very traditional standard Dexter.
Do you use a stockbull or AI?
I have a stock bull. Everything is 100% purebred, Dexter. Furthermore, I have imported semen in the past.
Currently, I have a stock of semen from bulls in the 1960s and the 1970s. I produced a bull with the semen of a bull that died in 1972. His bloodline was gone scarce.
I look to calve when cows are out and when they have grass, so I calve down in May because of the ground being wet.
I have divided the farm into several small paddocks, which I use for bull management, and four fields for rotation.
Two of them are aside for haymaking. Cattle graze on the other two fields for the early part of the year.
There is housing for cattle. I generally out winter other than weanlings. I bring weanlings in for the first winter.
It calms them and makes them more dependent and familiar with me. It helps with an easy to manage herd. I house between nine and fifteen cattle.
What do you do with progeny?
I run a suckler-to-beef herd. I sell excess breeding stock late in the year, usually around September, October to keep my stocking level right.
Selling at that time of year gives me a chance to see how the calves are coming on and what I want to sell.
I choose what to sell so I do not bring people and let them choose. I will only make certain animals available for sale and am trying to improve the herd all the time.
Six or seven will go for beef at thirty months if I have a dozen calves, and I keep some as replacements.
I will sell another three or four females, anything from a weanling to an older cow, depending on the quality of the animals and the age profile of the herd.
Furthermore, I am an organic farmer. I sell finished animals to people who do box schemes or farmer’s markets or restaurants, hotels.
With the finished animals, I go through the ABP scheme or a known organic outlet to sell my stock. When I have breeding stock, I use Donedeal.
Are they easy to sell?
I can still sell my breeding stock, but you cannot put them up for sale on a Tuesday night and expect to have them sold by Wednesday. When I am coming close to selling, I will put an ad with photos up and leave it there until enough have been sold.
Sometimes, they go quickly, and sometimes it takes a few weeks, but if you can be patient, they will sell at a fair price.
If you want to convert them into cash the next day, they are a tricky breed to have. If you have the flexibility to sell them, you will get your money and price, but you have to wait until somebody decides to go for Dexter.
They are not like bringing twenty mainstream cattle to a mart a dealer as you know approximately what price you will get. If you want to sell, you may have to go below what you wanted.
Is the farm easy to manage?
The farm is easily managed and easy to run. Dexters are an ideal breed for a part-timer or those with marginal land. It would not be a big mainstream breed. There are a few bigger breeders, but not many.
A lot of the bigger breeders sell the meat directly as you get a much better margin. It is a very high-quality beef and is very sought-after.
There are good returns for those prepared to do added value or box schemes. However, it is a specialist breed, and very poor prices will be paid either at marts or factories.
Are premium prices available to a Dexter cattle breeder like you?
We had a scheme with ABP, who had been doing Dexter at a premium price above the standard beef price.
This ran into difficulty with Covid-19 because they would have been selling to restaurants and hotels.
They took a much-limited amount of animals last year. They still paid a good price for them, but they were not in the same position to sell the meat.
Tell us more about Dexter cattle?
Dexters have the same heritage as the Kerry cattle. There was dwarfing within the Kerry breed.
Traditionally, the dwarf individuals were called Dexters, and the non-dwarf animals were called the Kerry. The British took an interest in Dexters, and they were very fond of them with the result.
Dexters were exported to the UK. There used to be a Kerry and Dexter society in Ireland, but it changed to only registering Kerrys and the only place to register Dexters was the UK. There was then a long period when there were no Dexters been registered in Ireland.
More people are getting involved in showing and trying to organise competitive shows. We were only getting the society up and going when COVID-19 hit.
Would you encourage more farmers to venture into the Dexter breed?
There is a definitive market. The meat is very high quality. It is the only native dual-purpose rare breed in Ireland that there are sufficient numbers to create a viable beef market. From a marketing point of view, it is a story that can be sold.
While there is work to be done, it undoubtedly has a future and is a niche, which is very suitable for some farmers and types of land.
We are working on getting better support from the DAFM through the GLAS replacement scheme. GLAS does pay on rare breeds but will pay on a maximum of ten livestock units. It will always be a niche breed, but it can be a much bigger niche than it is.
What area would you like to focus on in the future?
I will always be trying to improve my herd and preserve this rare Irish breed and particular bloodlines within the breed.
Furthermore, I will continue to farm organically because it increases the outlets for my animals, and my land is not suitable for intensive farming.
Moreover, I will continue to keep costs down, with the only outgoings being baling, lime and hedge-cutting. Dexters are a very robust, easy calving breed, with the only vet bill often being TB testing.
The breed suits my marginal land and my situation as a part-time farmer. They look after themselves to a large extent and are a very easy breed to work with.
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