As part of this week’s Suckler Focus, Catherina Cunnane, speaks to Stabiliser cattle breeder, Fergal Hennessy, who began suckler farming in 2019.
41-year-old Fergal Hennessy describes himself as a “relatively new and latecomer” to suckling.
In 2019, the 41-year-old took over the family farm from his father, Tom, who finished approximately 100 yearling heifers to beef.
His father previously ran a Limousin-cross suckler herd and finished all progeny, but changed system due to time constraints.
Fergal, a self-employed property valuer, manager, and consultant, who established his own business in 2019, was keen to reignite the suckler farming tradition.
“I wanted to get back to producing our own stock and believe that there should be a way to try and do it in a sustainable and carbon-neutral manner,” Fergal told That’s Farming.
“When I started my own off-farm business in 2019, it gave me more control of my own time. I gradually reduced the finishers and replaced with breeding stock. I finished 60 heifers in 2020 and have bought in 40 for 2021.”
In September 2019, the Crossdrum, Oldcastle, Co. Meath native purchased 15 in-calf heifers and a further 14 in October 2020 from Michael Curran, Collinstown, Co. Westmeath.
His circa 100-acre farm is now home to 28 Stabiliser-cross breeding females, and he hopes to expand the herd to 60 cows over the next three years.
“When I was looking to get sucklers, I wanted an easy calving, low maintenance breed. To begin, I looked at several breeds and came across Stabiliser cattle. I read up on them, and I visited Billy O’Kane and his herd, the first man to bring them to Ireland, in Ballymena.”
“He extolled the virtues of the breed and encouraged me that they were the way to go. I was very impressed with what Billy had to say about them.”
“They are very quiet animals, easy calving and grow well, so far they have done everything it says on the tin. The DWG and feed conversion are aspects that my father Tom, who has many years experience in the commercial pig world, was very keen on.”
Fergal purchased the herd’s current pedigree stock bull from Billy O’Kane, Crebilly Farm, Ballymena in March. He will dominate the pastures with the herd again this year, and Fergal hopes to AI ten heifers.
“Calving runs from the end of February until mid-April. I have chosen this time as the plan is to calf down in the shed and turn them out to grass after a day or two, weather permitting.”
“I am aiming to have cows of around 600kgs, docile with good fertility, easing calving, and good milk. The Stabiliser seems to be very good mothers.”
He plans to finish bulls under 16-months and retain replacements as part of a 24-month-old calving system to increase his herd size.
Once he reaches sufficient numbers, he aims to finish surplus females 20-months, with a vision to operate a closed herd and move more towards pedigree breeding.
The target for the first batch of bulls is to finish them in June. Currently, the bulls are ten-months-old and have an average weight of 450kgs. They are “performing well” on silage and 4.5kgs of concentrates per day, so the suckler farmer is optimistic that they will reach this target.
“I hope that with good stock and management, we can be successful. I know that there are gaps in my knowledge, so I look for help wherever I can get it.
“I’m lucky my father is on hand to give me his experience, while my wife, Emma, has a very good eye for animals. Also, I have good neighbours whose help and advice I can rely on.”
“Michael Curran and Billy O’Kane have always answered the phone when I have a query about Stabiliser cattle. My farm advisor, Jimmie Forbes, always points me in the right direction.”
Looking ahead to the future, along with herd expansion, the suckler farmer also has a desire to continue to improve grassland management.
He began grass measuring in 2019, and the farm grew 9 tonnes of grass in last year. Besides, he intends to execute a reseeding plan this year, to improve clover cover and reduce fertiliser usage.
Suckler farming in Ireland
Fergal feels grass-fed beef with a low carbon footprint can be a successful and sustainable product into the future.
“I believe Irish suckler farmers have a bright future. We can produce a high-quality product in an environmentally sound way.”
“A major part of the reason I chose Stabilisers is that they perform well on grass and silage, are a small cow, but produce fast-growing calves, which are very efficient feed converters and finish early.”
Fergal stated he would like to see Irish beef marketed at a higher level. He said Irish farmers produce a premium product, and “we need to market it as such and demand a premium price”.
He said the island’s green credentials are a great selling point, and this must be focused.
“We regularly see big supermarkets here and, on the continent, using the picture of the green fields with a suckler cow and her calf in their advertising, so it is obviously something that connects with the consumer.”
“We need to harness that connection with the consumer for our wholesome product, monetise it at all levels of the process and ultimately get a better price for the farmer.” Fergal Hennessy concluded.
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