In this week’s Farmer Focus, That’s Farming, speaks to Cluainview Farm, Kilmaganny, Co Kilkenny, whose system is typical of a North American cow-calf outfit. They discuss building a herd from scratch, a two-stage weaning programme, low-stress cattle handling features, outwintering, their regenerative farming system and a bale grazing programme.
When Stephen and Jennifer O’Reilly took over the farm, they built a cow-herd from scratch with additional investments in facilities and equipment/machinery/barns.
The farm’s objective is to continue building soil health, sequestering carbon and increasing polyculture regenerative systems throughout the pasturelands while rearing 100% grass-fed purebred Galloway and Belted Galloway cattle.
They have had to build up numbers in a closed herd once the initial herd of cows was brought onto this old place.
The farm generally operates a 30-head cow herd comprising pedigree registered and non-registered Belted Galloway and Black Galloway females.
However, they can increase numbers in the growing season by purchasing stores so long as they turn them around fast and “have them gone down the road by autumn”.
In addition, they are also working on plans to re-establish the farm’s orchards and sheep and poultry enterprises.
Stephen told That’s Farming: “My family were heavily involved in the trucking industry, but yes, farming is a strong tradition in my wife’s family on both sides.”
“Jennifer’s family dates back to the 15th century farming on her father’s side and on her mother’s side, farming back pre-WW1. But, we are the first generation of our family on Cluainview Farm here in County Kilkenny.”
A ranch-like low input operation
The couple farms regeneratively and utilises holistic/adaptive planned grazing management. Because of this, their focus is not on expansion but instead building topsoil and sequestering carbon.
By building healthy soil biology, they can capitalise on the amount of fertility they are increasing regeneratively on pasture.
This same fertility allows them to expand cow numbers in a growing season and on into winter without inputs while increasing their income.
“We run a very ranch-like and extremely low input operation. With that model of animal management, we expect cattle to work for us and not us working for them.”
They run Galloways because of their hardiness, ease of calving, versatility towards landscape and diverse grazing capabilities while also being practically oblivious to extreme winter weather.
“A Cluainview Galloway has to be able to grow a calf from pasture only, calve down a healthy storm-ready calf that is up nursing very quickly and that has a strong will to gather up and cover country with its mother.”
“The Galloway cow has never been a mainstream breed, and it has never been genetically messed with or made weak. For us, the Galloways are in a completely different league entirely, and absolutely nothing comes close to them.”
Why Belted and Black Galloways?
Stephen’s experience before Galloways was mainly in Hereford and Angus-cross animals with some Simmental influence.
However, when the couple took over the farm, he was keen to keep “a very low input, no fuss breed”.
“I have always been fond of traditional Aberdeen Angus and Hereford types. However, I was not happy with the market availability of traditional framed females within those two breeds and with how both those breeds have become larger modern framed and not as robust on pasture and not as reliable when calving, in my opinion.”
“I knew I needed an animal that was very independent, easy to work with and reliable because of how I wanted to manage our regenerative farming system.”
They were introduced to their first Belted Galloway in-calf heifer back some ten years ago. They purchased her, trailered her back home, and the rest is history.
The suckler farmers run their Belties, and solid black Galloways with a registered pedigree Belted Galloway bull for two seasons before switching to a pedigree black Galloway bull. They change between the two breeds in rotations every two years.
“Both Belted and solid (non-Belted) Galloway heifers mature naturally and are ready for the bull at 2-years-old.”
Breeding programme and calving
They traditionally run a stock bull from June 1st. He will remain with the herd until October/November when they run the herd into the corrals for weaning calves. Replacement heifers begin life with the main herd leading into the herd winter grazing programme.
Desired traits they look for in a female are good hooves and strong legs on all quarters, a deep girth, straight long and level back, a feminine neck leaving the shoulders for a compact head, a nice soft eye and good square conformation and a trademark Galloway thick double coat.
“In all cattle, we look for and build on a sound mind that has a willingness to try. A good handle on cow psychology is critical for us with how much we move livestock in our holistic planned grazing management and bale grazing systems.”
The farmers take advantage of their daily mob moves and pasture train cows and calves with every move to new forage they take. They calve down in March and April to be ready for weaning for October and November.
Two-stage weaning system
Low-stress cattle handling features as a huge part of their animal management throughout the year.
Their two-stage weaning system features Quietwean nose flaps that allow calves to remain and run with their mothers until they are weaned.
“This two-stage weaning system takes two weeks. It ensures the least stress and weight loss when getting ready to sell weanlings at that critical time of year for us,” Stephen added.
“Our farming year is very typical of a North American cow-calf outfit which has been hybridised to suit Irish climate and soil conditions. We expect cattle to calve themselves out on pastureland, and expect calves to get with and thrive from day one.”
For the next 6 to 8 months, calves run with their dams in their adaptive/holistic grazing systems. At the end of that period, they are successfully weaned and sold off.
From that point on, they go through the rest of the winter running just the cow-herd and keep on replacements with no animals held over for beef.
Regenerative farming system
Regenerative or adaptive/holistic planned grazing management is what the couple specialise in here at Cluainview Farm. They use cattle to be a positive influencer in carbon retention in soils.
In short, regenerative grazing methods, like HPGM, involve a management style that aims to mimic how wild herds of ruminants would behave across a grassland/rangeland or prairie.
Their herd will graze into pastures that have been managed and planned out with a holistic/whole-farm approach towards soil health and plant species, and biodiversity gain.
Pastures are mature, and heavy polyculture meadows are fit for trampling when cattle come into each cell section.
“Because we have somewhere around 80% maturity when mob grazing commences, the herd mimic how bison or wildebeests would graze, which is to graze the ‘tops’ and dung, urinate and trample the rest while always on the move.”
“Grazing the top half of the plants and grasses in any given cell leads to a healthy herd that seldom ever comes in contact with parasites that live down under the canopy on the soil.”
“Grazing just the tops also ensures that the plant grazed does not lose most of its energy, and it grows back faster while using less energy to do so.”
8 hours in a strip/paddock
Galloways will graze through the O’Reilly’s grasslands, trampling and leave behind some 40% to 50% of the forbs, grasses and plant life as they go.
“A cow’s natural instinct is to stay moving in a direction away from the herd’s dunging and urine deposits,” Stephen added.
Their planned management accommodates this need and capitalises on the carbon sequestering values of such grazing pressure with tall diverse grass pastureland.
“Our cattle are always on the move, and in the height of the growing season, the herd may only spend as much as 8 hours in one strip/paddock, and no more than 24 hours.”
“What is left behind them is an area of a cell that is grazed over, trampled heavily, slept on, dunged on and urinated on and all of this animal impact and hoof action increases carbon sequestration, soil health and topsoil build, thatch cooling cover and habitat for increasing biodiversity.”
After this intensive herd impact comes a rest period which is vital to their success in regenerative pasture management.
They try to rest pastures grazed for 60 to 80 plus days in the growing season and over 100 to 180 plus days going into winter for the stockpile.
“We always aim for a grazing year of 365 days for the cow-herd with possibly just the herd bull housed or a couple of bull weanlings we might be slow to sell.”
Cowherd out in an Irish winter
The holistic planned grazing management allows their pastureland to be grazed right the way through winter. A lot of the foundation work to keep a cow herd out in an Irish winter begins in the growing season around June.
The successful trampling by their ruminant herd on a tall and mature grassland will send plant life in the form of soil armour down over the soil’s surface into a thatch or mat.
They deem this trampling and thatch building the cornerstone of successfully outwintering without losing soil structure to poaching.
“If our planned management fails, it is due to our lack of foresight, and you will find us back in the shed with the herd.”
“But when the management is correct, the cow-herd will graze from one year to the next with no costly housing, labour or machinery expenses.”
Cattle work like machinery
During winter, they stockpile graze pastures that have been closed off to rest for 150 days plus before seeing a bovine.
So, typically, they close winter stockpile pastures from August 1st. At the same time as closing off their chosen winter pastures, they also place round hay bales along the headlands of almost every winter stockpile pasture. They place bales in pastures in August also and space these 30ft apart.
“We place bales out with closing off pastures to run a bale grazing programme alongside our stockpile grazing programme.”
“By us planning winter pastures like this, we have no machinery costs at all throughout the winter. Because we close off pastures in early autumn, we build up a huge amount of growth in those chosen pastures. This means we do not have very high harvest costs in making any hay or silage.”
“The cattle work for us as our machinery, harvesting their own fodder right where it grows in the fields and attached to its roots.”
“Our herd of cows moves across the pastures, harvest their own winter fodder and dung and urinate on the land as they go.”
This means they also do not have “costly” contractor bills regarding muck spreading, slurry spreading, or fertiliser use.
By the time cattle have made the first rotation across their chosen winter pastures grazing the stockpile, they make a second rotation to go into the bale grazing programme. This, by its very nature, puts down yet more nutrients and seed transfer and carbon into the soil.
“All this activity and soil armour and carbon banking increases soil nutrient flow and sends forage growth skyrocketing naturally, while also building more and more topsoil.”
For the couple, regenerative farming is a method of measures and planning within human management of a landscape. Their goal is to be able to rehabilitate, regenerate and strengthen soil.
They also strive to increase the resilience and vitality of farm soils. The knock-on effects are positive to all other life above the soil surface and below it.
Their biggest challenges on the farm to date would have been the initial conversion to regenerative from conventional. “We have had to take a lot of regenerative North American concepts and methods and carry out experiments and trial them and shape them to suit Irish conditions.”
“Honestly, we have made a lot of mistakes along the way over the nine years that we have been farming regeneratively,” the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association member explained.
“To note, we had some trainwrecks, but all of it has been extremely beneficial and very worthwhile for us here.”
Good stockmanship and low-stress cattle handling are a huge interest and passion of Stephen. Therefore, it features very heavily on their farm daily.
“Jennifer and I used to work a lot with horses: starting colts and outside horses (client horses).”
“The horsemanship we were involved with was very U.S. based in ranch and rangeland settings working and roping cattle off horseback.”
“I quickly gained interest in cow psychology and the ways of cattle through the horsemanship. Although our horsemanship days have come to an end for now due to the farm commitments, the stockmanship has lived on well. We take good stockmanship very seriously indeed.”
So much so, they have established their own separate business called GoodFlow Stockmanship, which specialises in low-stress cattle handling workshops, demonstrations and clinics, stockmanship and animal husbandry consultations and livestock handling facility design and regenerative pasture consulting.
Continental animals to ‘be fazed out’
Stephen believes that regenerative farming will have a significant role to play in the industry’s future.
“Personally, I think the Irish suckler farmer in the future will have to become savvier with grassland and multi-specie pastureland management while also selling a product directly to customers and completely bypassing the factories and meat plants.”
“I believe that going forward, the continental animal will have no choice but to be fazed out in favour of traditional and native breeds that can be finished on 100% grass but also finished in a 100% pasture-raised and pasture finished farming system that values animal husbandry and regenerative farming systems so to be able to prove to the customer purchasing an animal product that their food is a positive to biodiversity, is nutrient and vitamin-enriched and can be even carbon negative also.”
“Cattle utilised in regenerative planned management are the number one most efficient tool known to mankind to sequester atmospheric carbon.”
“And here in Ireland, we are firmly behind the curve on this fact. But, it does offer more hope than any political promise could ever give to the Irish suckler farmer,” Stephen concluded.