Gary Marshall once said, “it is always helpful to learn from your mistakes because then your mistakes seem worthwhile,” and those are words that renowned Northern Irish farmer, James Alexander, can resonate with.
Operating under the Jalex brand, he sources and supplies superior-type beef-bred suckler heifers across Ireland and the UK, hosting various on-farm sales throughout the year.
Alexander swept the boards at the fifth Royal Ulster Beef and Lamb Championships at Eikon Exhibition Centre, Balmoral Park, Lisburn, on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2022.
Just days after notching up eight breed championships for his ten-strong cattle team, he featured as a special guest as part of Dovea Genetics’ suckler-beef webinar.
During the virtual event, he revealed how a raft of mistakes he made in his earlier farming years sowed the seed for his current thriving enterprise.
He admitted mismatching cows and bulls based on myostatin results and even utilising Belgian Blues sires on maiden heifers in the past.
He told viewers about the enterprise’s humble beginnings:
“My father and I used to run Blue-Friesian cows before there were Holsteins about, all back to blue bulls.”
“We had 350 cows, all Blue cows with all Blue bulls, and I can remember one Limousin bull, Marcus, and he got heifers.”
“We were breeding export calves, but there were no export markets.”
“I came home from school and added some Limousin, but it was the base of them ¾-bred Blue cows that had come from Belgian Blues and Friesian backgrounds that set me up for the next ten years to build the Jalex brand and showing.”
“That 3/4-bred Belgian Blue bull and British Friesian cow really got us going. I increased numbers and quality.”
The family were selling 100 cows, sucking calves every August, and selling heifers in January, but James pushed boundaries, honing his focus on show-type cattle.
Over 500 cows
At one stage in 2013, there were between 520-530 females calving, and every cow was Blue and muscly, and every bull was muscly or red or blue.
“I just got to the stage where I had to choose between the tractor business and spending more time with my family or just carry on calving 520/530 cows.”
“I was enjoying it, but I just had too many, and I could not see a way other than going out of it fully.”
The family sold the entire herd over a period of eight months, but “the phone kept ringing with people looking for heifers from a base of customers”.
“For two years, I had heifers with all the calves on the ground, but as they dried up, I started my now current enterprise, sourcing and supplying.”
“I have increased numbers and the sustainability of what I was doing, keeping more and more heifers. Today, we are turning over about 1,000 heifers a year.”
“But I got knowledge from all the mistakes I made back then, and I am using that to try to help the customer today.”
He said he has repeat custom from farmers who have a set standard order for the same cattle types each year, coupled with a growing base of new clients.
James revealed that “you cannot get them [heifers] good enough, and that is the way it is going to be going forward”.
“The price difference between the ordinary beast and the good beast is going to increase and increase.”
“There will be more demand, as there has been the last five years, for a better animal.”
Now for his current system, using proven, easy-calving proven sires is the cornerstone of Alexander’s success.
Central to this has been his long-standing, fruitful relationship with Dovea Genetics, one of the country’s largest AI companies.
In recent years, he has incorporated the firm’s two best-selling Limousin bulls, EBY and Ivor, into the farm’s breeding programme, a move which has instilled confidence in clientele.
According to beef programme manager at Dovea Genetics, John Lynch, Ewdenvale Ivor (LM2014) has close to 35,000 calving records on ICBF’s database, while Elderberry Galahad (EBY) boasts close to 65,000 results.
Both are available in sexed female semen, and Ivor is also available in sexed male also.
“Using proven sires such as EBY, helps to instil confidence to buy. When we started selling heifers around the north before stretching into the south, his popularity made them sit up and listen a bit more.”
“My own bulls were good, and I was buying bulls with the double muscle genes and easy calving figures, but it just gave that extra confidence to people that they are buying an EBY, for example, calf.”
“As years went on, I have had more and more roan progeny, and I just gave that buyer a chance of having a red roan heifer calf.”
“That red roan heifer is the pinnacle of the breeding job at the minute. If you throw EBY to heifers, you will get a good proportion of them,” he concluded.