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Conor Halpin
Conor Halpin
Journalism intern.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

‘It takes as much to feed a good calf as a bad calf’ – suckler farmer

That’s Farming speaks to Mark McConnell, winner of the NI Suckler Herd of the Year 2022 title. He discusses what it takes to produce that “golden” calf, calving heifers at three-years-old, markets and the future of Irish suckler farming.

“Having the best cows and the best calves,” is one prize-winning farmer’s – who operates a mixed enterprise near Belfast, County Antrim – motto.

Mark McConnell – winner of the NI Suckler Herd of the Year 2022 title – favours a Simmental-Limousin-cross cow to produce highly desired golden-coloured progeny.

For his system, a good carcass, maternal characteristics and colour are the ultimate packages, and although this may be a rather exhaustive list, this fusion of the above breeds, he finds, helps to tick all of those boxes.

Mark crosses black and red Limousin cows with a Simmental bull to breed replacements and then Simmental cows with a Charolais bull.

His preferred cow is “big, with good shape and style”. He runs in the region of eight stock bulls which include a mix of Limousins and Simmental, in batches of around 25 cows from June to July.

He does not incorporate AI into the farm’s breeding programme due to current cow numbers.

To accommodate his team of stockbulls, he plants hedges and uses double fencing/stock fencing to separate bulls and manage them during the breeding season.

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Calving

The bulk of calving takes place in spring, with some in autumn. He opts to calve most cows in the shed, which is equipped with head-locking barriers and monitors femaes through a calving camera system.

He calves heifers at three-years-old to allow them to mature. “Some bodies are pushing us to calf at two-years-old, and I do not know how we are going to do it. Sometimes I have heifers going to the bull at two-years-old, and I do not think they are big enough.”

“I also farm a small suckler herd in the lowlands, and you can grow bigger heifers on the low ground than you could up the hill,” he told That’s Farming.

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Progeny

The farm introduces around 30 replacement heifers annually, selling the remainder of the progeny at Ballymena Livestock Market as stores at around 300 to 400kgs.

His opinion is that Simmental and Limousin progeny sell “good enough at the right carcass, but Charolais is still up there at the top”.

“They tell you if you are getting £1,000 for your calf, you are doing well, but at current prices, it does cover fertiliser and fuel, and there is always room to take more.”

“I feel you are getting a better price by keeping that better calf. I see people going out to markets with plain or dairy-bred calves. The reality is that it takes as much to feed a good calf as a bad calf.”

“So, I feel you are better off keeping that better cow and producing that better calf as it costs the same, and you get an extra few pounds when you sell it.”

“The farmer cannot determine the price he gets for his/her calf, and when he goes to the live market, they have to take what they get unless they bring their animals home. If you do that, you could have to feed it more and put more money into it.”

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Mark aims to maintain his current farming system focusing on breeding superior progeny but feels “the future for the suckler cow is not looking great”.

He feels “factories are pushing dairy beef and you to breed dairy-bred calves, which is hurting the market for suckler cows”.

“There is going to be more supply out of these dairy cows for these calves. They are also pushing more for this sexed semen now.”

“I do not know how you can produce a good enough finished calf carcass from a Holstein cow out of a dairy herd compared to what you produce out of a Charolais bull and a Limousin calf – I do not know how you can confer,” the suckler farmer concluded.

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To share your story like this suckler farmer, email Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming– [email protected]

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