That’s Farming speaks to Sarah McElligott of Shannon Limousins in this week’s Women in Ag segment.
Together with her husband, MG, and sons, Joe and Eoin, they run a dairy and suckler farm in Asdee, Co. Kerry.
She discusses everything from her love of Limousins, interest in breeding and genetics, regular visits to French and British shows to her involvement with the Irish Limousin Council.
The two family enterprises are next to the River Shannon, not too far from where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
“MG looks after the dairy herd and I look after the sucklers, as least that is the plan,” Sarah tells That’s Farming.
The dairy and suckler farms are different land blocks and are just over a mile apart, which allows the McElligott to keep the two herds completely separate.
“Joe and Eoin work off-farm, although both help out on the farms. I also have a number of nephews who love to be called upon.”
“MG and I both grew up in Asdee and inherited our farms from our parents. My parents operated a plant hire company and my siblings – I have four brothers and one sister – and I helped out from a young age.
“This instilled an ethos of hard work in us all from an early age. Thus, to this day, we continue the family tradition of cutting our own silage.”
The dairy herd comprises more than 75 spring-calving cows. The McElligott land would be classified as heavy, bringing the farm close to its cow limit.
“We get more rain in our area than most parts of the country which does not help. The cows are housed from October and generally are left out in early April, depending on the weather.”
From a grassland management perspective, the farm is well-drained and reseeded in rotation.
The enterprise operates on a 21-day rotation system moving to a new paddock every day.
Sarah says due to the heavy nature of the land, their ideal cow is medium-sized, has good milk and fertility, and is docile. “Also, we do not creep-feed our calves.”
The suckler herd consists mainly of pedigree cows under the Shannon herd prefix. They have 30 pedigree Limousins, five pedigree Angus and five commercial Limousins.
She says the two breeds are ideal for their system because of their ease of management, saleability and hardy calves.
“My interest in breeding and genetics stems from time spent with my uncle, Paudie McNamara, who lived close to my home farm.”
“He bred pedigree Friesians and Herefords and from my time spent with him, I got my grá for breeding and showing.
“The best time of the year was going to the RDS show in May which I looked forward to for weeks. This was a very long day trip starting at 6.00 am and getting home around midnight.”
Sarah says this is where her love of Limousins really began. “The RDS was the place to see stock, from the top herds at the time such as Luttrellstown, Ballydaniel and Ballysorrell.”
The family purchased its first pedigree Limousin in Portdown in 1987. They bought two females, Brentford Tosca, a daughter of a UK bull called Farfaron, a Neptune son. Their second purchase was Cattogs Supreme by Penalty.
Success with French genetics
Furthermore, Seamus Cody was a regular visitor to French farms and would occasionally purchase a heifer for the McElligotts.
According to Sarah, Seamus was renowned for his knowledge of Limousins and his willingness to share that knowledge with breeders.
“He regularly organised superb Limousin tours to France.”
“Among our earlier investments was several females from the Sleedagh herd in Wexford. Other than the initial purchases all our stock are home-bred.”
Most of the Limousin cows go back to Mas du Clo, Highlander, Dauphin, Faignant, Nimbus, On Dit, Talent and Ronick Hawk.
Sarah has had some great success at sales in recent years with French genetics such as Cameos, Hamac, Edakkya and the UK bred bull Ampertaine Commander and Plumtree Fantastic.
On the recent ICBF Euro-star Report 5-year trend, the herd ranks in the top 3% for replacement index.
“When I first got involved in breeding pedigree, Limousin Nicholas Grubb and his wife Barbara were running the Limousin Society and were both a great source of information about everything to do with the breed.”
“My love of Angus stems from my late Mom. They were a firm favourite of hers so it was only a matter of time before I purchased my first pedigree Angus which I sourced from Mrs. Bird in county Meath in the early 90s.”
“North Kerry is a renowned dairy area creating a market for our Angus bulls on our doorstep.”
Approximately 80% of the pedigree cows calve in the autumn, allowing for strong bulls suitable for spring sales and home trade.
Herd health and vaccinations
Sarah is a big believer in herd health and they vaccinate all their stock for Lepto. They joined the Limo Herd Health Scheme when it was introduced by the Limousin Cattle Society.
She says there was a “tremendous amount” of work put into the scheme by Paul Sykes and Frank Buckley.
Moreover, all cattle in the herd are genotyped and are weighed regularly. Calves are vaccinated for pneumonia and blackleg.
Sarah travels to France at least once every two years. “I try to be there for the French national show. Another favourite visit is the Mousseurs test station near Limoges to see up-and-coming genetics.”
“I will generally visit a few herds to view the sire’s progeny. It’s a pity the top genetics in France do not always translate to the same back home in Ireland.”
She says an example of this is Cameos. “He is a renowned top Maternal bull in France and has six sons in AI. Yet he has a 1-star replacement index within the Limousin breed here in Ireland and 2-star across the breed.”
“The ICBF figures, unfortunately, discourage people from using some of the top French bulls,” the owner of Shannon Limousins said.
Sarah and MG schedule an annual trip to Carlisle every October to attend the British Limousin Society show and sale.
Sought after traits in the UK versus France
She says Carlisle is a “great way” to keep up-to-date with breeding trends in the UK and see what bulls are doing well there. The sought-after traits in France and the UK are “very” different, as she pointed out.
“Maternal characteristics (good milk and fertility) are the driving force of the French breed while the British focus on muscle.”
Sarah was secretary of the South-West Limousin Club before joining the Irish Limousin Council nine years ago.
“I retired from Council last November and enjoyed my time serving. I was often the only dairy farmer at Council meetings and could voice their perspective on matters.”
Moreover, the society started working on a Limousin Short Gestation Program with the objective of identifying short gestation bulls and cows. This initiative is now coming to fruition.
“Over the last two years, AI companies have purchased predicted short gestation Limousin bulls with easy calving genetics to target the dairy market.”
“Dairy farmers are showing a growing interest in Limousins, who are availing of the shorter gestation bulls such as Ampertaine Commander, Elderberry Galahad, Eravelle and Lexicon.”
Dairy industry: A potential growth market for Limousin
“While many suckler farmers have changed to dairy, I see the dairy industry as a potential growth market for Limousin.”
Sarah has found working with the council “extremely fulfilling”. This includes seeing the breed “progress to the number 1 beef sire, number 1 beef AI sire, number 1 suckler dam, number 1 cross on all the main breeds and the continental breed of choice for the dairy herd”.
Sarah is a regular exhibitor at society sales. “I like to attend society sales as it is a good benchmark and a good advertisement for the herd.
“It provides an opportunity to compare one’s stock to other herds. I regularly sell at sales, and it is very rewarding when we get repeat buyers. In recent years I have noticed a big increase in customers’ on-farm purchasing of bulls.”
“Operating in the arena of dairy and suckler farming has given me a great insight into the type of bull both markets are looking for.”
Sarah is actively involved in organising the Limousin breeding heifer sales and a suck calf show and sale in Castleisland every April.
“We have a very active Limousin club in the Southwest. Since the advent of Covid, we organised monthly zoom calls from October to March, which I would recommend any breeder, pedigree or commercial, large or small, to join.”
The Limousin club has had some prolific speakers on topics such as animal husbandry, nutrition, preparing animals for sales and Myostatin.
“Our last call featured Martin Ryan on animal nutrition, Marie Louise Ryan (MVB) on animal husbandry and a questions and answers session with James Alexander (Jalex).
“Some of our recent speakers included Henry Savage, Aled Edwards, Michael and Kyle Dimond, James Cooper and Pierre Roy.”
Last September, the South West club organised a very successful pedigree heifer sale in Roscrea.
“I sold four heifers there. There was a great demand at the sale from mainland UK and Northern Ireland buyers,” the owner of Shannon Limousins explained.
Entry of young purchasers keen to breed “something special”
Sarah adds that in recent years there has been huge interest in purchasing pedigree heifers. Many purchasers are young people keen to breed “that something special”. Moreover, roan-coloured stock is currently in great demand.
“One of the great benefits of Limousin is that there is always demand whether for Limousin-cross dairy calves or cull cows. There were great prices paid for cull cows at the marts this year, with some making over 240 cents per kg.”
Sarah has never considered any career other than farming. “I have always enjoyed the outdoor life and working with livestock and nature. So farming was always going to be the dream occupation for me.
“All my interests relate to farming. I completed the dairy diploma course at Gurteen Agricultural College, and I also completed my Green Cert.”
“I underwent my outplacement at Clive Gillespie farm in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary. This was my first experience of a dairy farm using 100% Limousin AI.”
Although there has been a lot of doom and gloom in recent years regarding reducing the suckler herd, Sarah says everything is cyclical.
2021/22 good for pricing; quality always in demand
“What comes down must go up again. 2021/22 has been one of the best years involving prices seen at the marts. While farming follows economic trends such as supply and demand, quality will always be in demand.”
Suckler farmers are expecting delivery from the government’s €6m injection into the suckler brand proposition.
One of the agreed points in the beef sector agreement of September 2019 after the factory gate protests, was the development of a suckler brand.
The government committed to ensuring suckler farmers would be awarded a premium for the product produced and that branding and product differentiation would be key in obtaining this warranted bonus premium.
“It is important that the minister ensures that this work continues and that all the beef taskforce members sit again to ensure the delivery of the suckler brand.”
Sarah highlights the increase in input costs as a worrying factor for the industry.
Although women in farming is often a hot topic, Sarah says it is not an issue for her.
“I have been farming all my life. As a farmer, I do not consider myself any different from a male farmer.”
“I don’t associate a gender label with farming – there are a few male farmers who phone me every so often for advice, so I don’t think it is an issue for them either.”
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