That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Sean O Connor, Mountbellew, Ballinasloe, Co Galway, in this week’s Suckler Farmer segment.
I am a part-time suckler farmer and work off-farm as a civil engineer throughout Northern Ireland for an engineering consultancy company based in Belfast.
I am the third generation on the farm. My father, Paddy, inherited 20-acres of farmland from his grandmother in the early 1970s.
During his 40 years working for the council, he developed the farm part-time, beginning with one calf.
This grew to five or six Limousin-cross cows from dairy herds.
Every year my father would buy two or three calves from the local market on a Tuesday in Mountbellew and adopt them onto cows.
To this day, there are still offspring linked to the first-generation of cows on the farm. When AI was introduced to the area, my father would have used Limousin (BFX) and Charolais bulls (IC27) from Munster AI, and previously we used a travelling Simmental bull.
Developing the farm
When I was growing up, machinery and sheds were not plentiful here.
We had an old stone house that we used to house weanlings over the winter, and cows were outwintered. We had no tractor, and a wheelbarrow and grape were the main tools.
From a young age, I learned there was always work to do on a farm, but nevertheless, I loved it.
There is just something about being brought up on a farm. I am grateful to know first-hand what a hard day’s work is. I take nothing for granted and appreciate everything I have.
To note, I was fortunate enough to work during school holidays and weekends for a neighbour who was a fencing contractor.
This gave me the skills to fence the holding over time. I also helped another neighbour who was a hedge-cutting contractor.
The experience of using his machinery gave me the ability to tidy and maintain the hedges outside the nesting season.
After I completed my Leaving Cert, I made the difficult decision to follow a career path in civil engineering, mainly due to the construction boom and the slump in agriculture during that period.
Throughout my time at university, my passion for farming continued.
Simple, safe and efficient
To maintain my involvement on the farm, it was crucial to run it as simply, safely, and efficiently as possible.
So, I planned and managed the building of a slatted shed and new cattle handling facilities which were built in the mid-2000s.
This made life significantly easier for my father and I to complete the day-to-day running over the winter period.
In recent years, we began renting 12 acres of a 20-acre holding to allow us to increase cow numbers.
We take all our silage from this land, and it allows flexibility to move cows and calves when grass levels get tight on the home farm.
I am grateful that I could buy the 20-acre holding when it was put up for sale this year. Without this land, I would have had to reduce cow numbers, leaving the farm unviable.
We continue to be a small farm but are thankful that we are somewhat financially self-sufficient.
Mountbellew suckler farmer
There are now 15 commercial suckler cows on the 40-acre farm.
Cows are predominantly Limousin-crosses, and Charolais-crosses and all have milk traits, which is the key to rearing a quality calf.
The average weight of cows at the last weighing was 750kgs.
We have several cows that are the offspring of HCA and ZAG. They have excellent maternal traits and produce good quality calves that are easy to rear.
Although occasionally we may buy light heifer weanlings, our preference is to keep our own heifers and breed them at 24 months.
We use AI on all our cows; first and second calvers get a Limousin (LM2388) sire, and the older cows get a Charolais bull.
In recent years, we used Pirate, Mozart, and LGL, and this year’s calves are out of Fiston; he was an exceptional sire but, unfortunately, is no longer available.
We have used Lapon as his replacement due to similar traits.
Calving takes place between early March and early May, and we aim to reduce this calving to mid-April.
We adopt this calving system to reduce workload as cows are inside during these months.
Furthermore, we also leave them on the slats until a few days before calving after which we move them to our calving facilities.
We let cows and calves out to grass as soon as possible after birth to minimise the risk of the calves contracting any disease.
Furthermore, we sell progeny as weanlings in our local mart in Mountbellew at around 7-months-old. The average weight for last year’s weanlings was 370kg, and they averaged €2.85/kg.
They are also privately sold to repeat buyers who achieved excellent kill-out percentages with previous weanlings purchased from us.
We keep one or two of our own heifers yearly to increase numbers and replace any of our older cows.
We primarily base our culling regime on age, and on a couple of occasions, has been due to lameness.
Grassland management is an integral part of this farm. We take soil samples every few years to monitor soil fertility.
It has been our experience that very little chemical fertiliser is required for grazing when soil levels are kept in check.
Our contractor, M&M Fleming, completed pan busting on several fields a few years ago as we would have heavy type land in this area.
It was very beneficial for grass growth and improved drainage.
Soil samples have been taken on the land recently purchased. Following receipt of the results, we spread lime three weeks ago at 2t/acre, and we intend to get the land subsoiled over the coming weeks.
We use a strip grazing system and top the fields when grazed after July 1st to cut remaining grass and promote tillering.
We try to get slurry out as early as possible in spring to maximise the benefits to the soil.
Our contractor spreads the slurry with the pipe and dribble bar system as this is not as damaging to the ground as the traditional tanker system.
Good quality silage is a vital link in the suckler farming chain; quality silage ensures the cows are in good condition at calving, have a good hardy calf, and it reduces any fertility issues getting the cows back in-calf.
We use M&M Fleming contractors to cut, bale, wrap, deliver and stack our silage, which is an important service for us due to me working off-farm.
I believe getting the basics right is key to having a successful suckler operation, such as soil/grass management, stock-proof fencing, clean housing, and good cattle handling facilities.
Over the years, the improvements to our farm have allowed us to increase the herd without significantly increasing the workload.
Also, the installation of calving cameras has made life easier when working off-farm, providing 24-hour coverage to my father, brother Tony and I.
The most enjoyable aspect of suckler farming and what makes it all worthwhile is seeing the quality of calves born and watching them develop.
October marts are the highlight of the year; there is a great feeling of pride from seeing your cattle in the pen and the interest they attract.
The biggest challenges for suckler farmers are rising input costs such as diesel, feed, fertiliser, and the general increase in living costs.
Calendar farming is also another issue that needs to be reviewed. Restrictions on jobs such as slurry spreading, and hedge cutting are nonsensical and put unnecessary pressure on farmers.
Furthermore, farmers are also receiving negative publicity on the topical discussion of climate change.
There have been suggestions of cutting to the national herd, which is ridiculous considering the world population is growing daily.
We all must do our bit, but there are many other sectors which have a bigger impact on the environment and appear to be excluded from the climate change proposals.
The growth and performance of the herd have been pleasing over recent years.
Last year, we had three sets of healthy twins and, to date, have been blessed with robust, easily reared calves.
Planning and proactivity keep farming enjoyable for me.
I have learnt not to be complacent as you can never take anything for granted, and farming will always have the element of unpredictability.
My plan for the future is to develop the newly purchased land by getting soil fertility right, completing stock-proof fencing and erecting a cattle crush to make life easier.
My wife, Lisa, and stepson, Darcy, have taken a keen interest in farming.
Lisa would like us to get a pedigree Charolais heifer in the future, so we will look into this next year.
I would hold a positive outlook for suckler farming.
If you have quality weanlings, they will always sell. If you can keep input costs low and have a well-thought-out system, then that is half the battle.
I do believe we are significantly behind other EU countries with the adoption of AD plants.
To note,I was involved in the construction of one of these plants in Northern Ireland, and I am following how they are working in other countries.
I believe they would be a benefit to farmers and would be a source of additional income.
However, the national herd should not be cut to provide the materials to input into these, as was recently suggested by the Green Party.
I feel both enterprises can complement each other.
Farmers are not rewarded enough for quality produce; the abattoirs continue to make the greatest profit margin with the least amount of work.
The creation of online sales has made a massive difference in selling cattle.
It is a more transparent, fairer system and is probably the only positive thing to come from the Covid pandemic.
The recent rise in fatstock sales and the increase in factory-fit cattle going to marts have also resulted in the farmer taking back some control.
Being a part-time suckler farmer has produced a few personal challenges around time management.
However, I am blessed and grateful for the help and support of my father, Paddy, and brother, Tony, who I could not do without.
I will always be proactively planning how to improve and perfect the daily running to make life easier when I am off-farm.
All in all, I enjoy being a civil engineer but love getting back to the farm. I genuinely believe farming is one of the best jobs in the world. If it is in your blood, nothing gives you the same buzz,” the Mountbellew suckler farmer concluded.
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