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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘I believe the future of suckler farming in Ireland is not great’

In this week’s Suckler Farmer Focus, Martin Donaghey, Donegal, Ireland, discusses achieving a compact calving window, using AI reaching targets, and his views on suckler farming in Ireland.

The key to running a successful suckler farm is improving factors, including soil fertility, cattle quality and grassland management; you can control within your farm gate.

That is the view of 39-year-old Martin Donaghey, Burnfoot, Inishowen, North Donegal, who operates a suckler enterprise on a part-time basis whilst working full-time with Donegal County Council.

He inherited the farm, which has been in the family for over a century, from his father and converted from pigs, sheep, poultry and potatoes over a decade ago.

“I switched to suckling farming, as I enjoyed working with cattle and had a good interest in them. While working full-time off-farm, I thought this system would suit best, so I am suckler farming for 12 years,” the suckler farmer told That’s Farming.

Martin Donaghey, sucklers, Limousin cattle, Charolais cattle

Calving, fertility and grassland management 

Donaghey calves down 12 cows from October to November and intends to calve down twenty breeding females next season. In total, he farms 35 cattle, including yearling heifers and springers.

Limousin-crosses, Charolais-crosses and Simmental-crosses are the cow breeds of choice on this 30-acre enterprise.

“The reason I calve down in October/November is because it suits the farm. If the weather is good, I try to get newborn calves out to grass for a few weeks before winter, as I feel it gives them a good start.”

“All calves have access to a paddock beside the shed for grazing in and out all winter. Another reason I calve down in October/November is because of the fragmented nature of my farm; it suits me to AI cows inside.”

“I put a big effort into fertility on the farm over the last few years regarding pre-calving and post-calving minerals, quality silage and a few straight rations after the cow calves.”

“I break the bond between cow and calf, with sucking twice-a-day, so all these factors help with having cows cycling again quickly so I can have a tight, compact calving season.”

Limousin-cross-Simmental cattle, suckler farming in Ireland, suckler cows, farming news

100% AI, sire selection and age of first calving

He utilises 100% AI, serving all replacement heifers to easy-calving Limousin sires, while he selects Simmental bulls for cows. The Donegal native keeps all heifers as replacements and calves these down at 32-months.

The two main AI Limousin bulls he used this year are LM 5423 (Claragh Neymar) and LM 4401 (Hamilcar). He selected these bulls as they have high replacement and easy-calving figures.

Furthermore, he has utilised Charolais bulls this year, mainly CH 6271 (Whitecliffe Orwell), to improve offspring’s conformation.

“Over the last five years, I have put a lot of effort into putting milk in the herd. I think the Simmental replacements provide this, and from now on, I am picking bulls with proven conformation.”

“My ideal cow can produce a calf every 365 days, is low maintenance, has plenty of milk and can rear a super calf to leave a profit behind.” added the BEEP-S and BDGP participant.

“24-month-old calving is something I am considering purely from a business sense. I can understand the financial loss of keeping a heifer three years before calving down.”

“The heifer is nearly four years of age before you sell her offspring. I know it is the correct move; I just have not been able to make the hard decision yet.”

Martin Donaghey, suckler farming, grassland management, Charolais cattle, Limousin cattle

Targets and culling regime 

Martin sells all bull at sales in September/October when they are approximately 11-months-old.

He targets an ADG (average daily gain) of 1.3kg for bull calves and 1.1kg for heifers. Calves have access to grass and 1kg of concentrates over the winter to achieve these targets.

“If calves do not reach targets, I look at the pair (cow and calf). I try to identify if it is the cow or the calf that has the problem and make a culling decision from that.”

“Farmers should not be afraid to make a mistake and never forget it is a business we are running. Therefore, sometimes, you have to make harsh decisions about culling.”

“I would like to target 2.50 a kilo for bull weanling, but it is hard to get, especially when I am selling a heavy weanling. Normally, I sell weanling in Milford Mart in Donegal, as it holds a Saturday sale, which suits me best working full-time during the week.”

Martin Donaghey, suckler cows

Future outlook

Looking ahead, Martin intends to undertake practices to improve his farm’s overall operation.

These include improving grassland management, weanling’s ADG, increasing cow numbers to twenty, breeding all his own replacements and supplying top-quality springers to farmers.

“There always seem to be a demand for top-quality springing heifers around the ring and from the yard. I think once other farmers know that they are purchasing good AI stock in-calf to AI bulls, they don’t mind paying that little extra.”

“In my opinion, I believe the future of suckler farming in Ireland is not great.  I would like to be optimistic, but I cannot be.”

“As suckler farmers, we do not get paid enough for the quality we produce.  The time and effort that goes into the job deserve a fair price. In my view, a lot of this has to do with consecutive governments letting down the suckler farmer.”

“All the farm organisations, who are happy to take our levies and fees, should represent the suckler farmers that pay them.”

“I would like to see a ban on selling meat products below the cost of production, the removal of the 30-month rule and payment to farmers for the fifth-quarter. Farmers cannot be expected to keep producing top-quality produce at a loss.” Martin concluded.

Are you a suckler farmer in Ireland? To share your story, email – [email protected]
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