In this week’s Suckler Focus That’s Farming, speaks to Sean Sherman from the Castletown herd. We discuss establishing a Belgian Blue herd, his roles in the Belgian Blue Cattle Society as its herd-book secretary/ICBF board member, and his outlook for suckler farming.
Sean Sherman, his wife, Helen, and their three teenage children farm a 300-acre suckler enterprise in Donaghmore, Rathdowney, County Laois.
The Castletown Herd comprises 100 commercial females, 9 Belgian Blues cows, 6 pedigree Simmentals, 5 pedigree Charolais and 14 Piedmontese females. The farm is also home to 150 Suffolk, Suffolk-cross, Texel, and Kerry Hill ewes.
Belgian Blue pedigree breeding first began in the Castletown Herd, with encouragement from Denis and Tom Foynes in the early 2000s.
“We purchased our first Belgian Blue stock bull, a Victorieux d au Chene (VDC) son, from Michael Fitzpatrick’s pedigree herd in Durrow, County Laois,” Sean Sherman told That’s Farming.
“We had great success with this animal, and he remained active and fertile for nine breeding seasons. Then, we decided to develop our pedigree herd under the Castletown herd prefix purchasing our first embryos in 2007 and 2008.”
“Our first pedigree Belgian blue heifer was born an Empire-sired calf, and we named her Castletown Carol. Castletown Carol went on to breed two daughters by Heros du Peroy.”
Studying the breed
Sean decided to study other bloodlines in Belgian Blue herd-books in the UK and Belgium, purchasing four embryos sired by Solway View dynamite and out of a Dafydd D’Ochain cow.
“We kept one as a stock bull and sold three as stock bulls to commercial farmers. Then, we purchased female heifers sired by Kilowatt and bred back to Dynamite again with some excellent heifers born to this cross.”
“We also purchased embryos sired by Attribut du Fond de Bois off an Empire d’Ochain /Dafydd d’Ochain cow, daughters of which are bred back to Grewstones Governor.”
“We purchased our next female sired by Boherard Cantona out of Rathlyon Connie, which we crossed with Mannequin De Sberchamps. This cow bred our current stock bull, Castletown Nutella.”
“We attribute the success of our herd to carefully selecting bloodlines that best represent the breed, i.e. muscle structure, body capacity and legs to carry all these characteristics.”
This is the second chapter of Sean’s pedigree breeding venture, having previously farmed Simmentals, and before returning to the breed alongside Belgian Blues.
Why Belgian Blue?
According to Sean, working with the Belgian Blue breed “is not for the faint-hearted”. “It is a very specialised business.”
“The ideal way to look at it is it cannot be the main enterprise on your farm because it is a very difficult enterprise to manage if it is at a large-scale.”
“Embryo work is very expensive; flushing cows is expensive, and a C-section is expensive in the pedigree world. So, your dates, times and attention to detail have to be spot on to be successful.”
“The ideal pedigree Belgian Blue is one big enough, muscley enough and fertile. All my customers are suckler farmers for the most part.”
“I am not so sure if they have so much of a place on the modern dairy farm because we are always talking about the family farm model and the family farm unit.”
“Dairy farming is gone well beyond what you can call a family farm enterprise. There are two and three staff in most places on dairy farms, and that is not family farming.”
“A Belgian Blue will not find its place because there is too much activity and too many cows to be inseminated at one short period.”
“There may be a place for a Belgian Blue at the backend of the breeding season, in what dairy farmers describe as tidying up. That is not a basis for the Belgian Blue industry to survive.”
“In my view, the Belgian Blue herd is the suckler beef. All commercial cows need Belgian Blue blood in their genes.”
“In the sense, they have muscle, good height, type, great conformation and great carcasses that grade up well in the factory and are sought-after meat cuts.”
Foreign genetics and easy calving
Sean sells all his Belgian Blue bulls, culling a small amount. He is reluctant to sell females, having completed research and wanting to “perfect them better and establish other bloodlines”.
“I have been in contact with the Belgian Blue Society in the UK and Belgium to have our genetics right, so we come up with the perfect animal and what is required in this country.”
“It is not an easy task as the goalposts seem to have moved a bit in terms of carcass weight requirements; easy calving is crucial.”
“Easy calving is sometimes overstated. So, suppose somebody rings me up as the herd book secretary about an easy calving bull; in that case, I answer the question with another question.”
“I want to know what your cow type is. I could do with a few tag numbers of your cows and do a bit of research to what the cow’s bloodlines are. Then, I can establish what type of bull will suit that bloodline instead of saying easy calving for the sake of it. “
“If we continue to use easy calving all the time down the line, well, what happens to the daughters of easy calving bulls? Do you go for an easy calving bull for them?”
“So, there needs to be an understanding; easy calving is a catchphrase in some ways, and it needs to be a conversation as opposed to an argument.”
The Castletown Herd uses a stock bull for commercial cows and AI for their pedigree herd. These AI sires include Attribut, Empire, Immense, Greystones Governer, and Mannequin De Sberchamps.
“It depends how the heifers go and how they look to be performing. We decided upon the bull we are going to use if we are looking for more height or more muscle.”
The stock bulls on the farm include Castletown Nutella, Castletown Noel, a Belgian Blue out of a Maniquinn bull from a Boherard Cantona dam, an Evolution (ETP) five-star Simmental bull bought from Tully Test Centre and a Limousin sire.
“Some of the pedigree Simmentals went in-calf to the Belgian Blue, and I got beautiful heifers. So, I kept them on and put them in-calf to a Simmental.”
“There is a percentage of Belgian Blue in them. They are great mothers, great milkers, have great confirmation, and have a nice bit of muscle.”
“That is a long programme; you have to see that out, but it works out well. The Simmental and the Limousin bull are Alongside the Belgian Blue. I cannot put them all in-calf to Belgian Blue because I try to breed my replacements were possible.”
“The reason for that [no AI used in the commercial herd] is we would not be disciplined enough to keep an eye on the cows.”
“I put the Moocall Heat collar on to the bull’s neck, and I tag all the cows. The bull inseminates cows, and it comes up on a text on my phone.”
“I will know when the bull inseminates cows and when they repeat. Therefore, I have a predicted calving date.”
The family calve commercial cows from July to November and pedigree females from September to October.
“I find suckler cows that calve compactly in January is not successful because the population density around the sheds and the yard is a haven for infection.”
“Calves born in July, August, September, and October are very strong calves going in for the winter. They do not need the same facilities as if they were born in the spring.”
“The mortality rates are a lot lower in my view in the autumn-calving. But, that said, one has to have a careful eye in the summertime for cows that are springing to calf and summer mastitis may be an issue.”
“You get quite good at it, and you will notice the difference in your cows very quickly when you tighten them up upon grass. You need to view the herd very vigilantly and use pour-on to try to keep flies away.”
“That is the challenge with autumn-calving. However, I find it an easier challenge than I do with the scours and infections in the springtime.”
€4.00/kg+ in livestock marts
Sean feels commercial Belgian Blue cattle perform “very well” in Ireland, with significant demand at livestock marts.
“While beef is a strong price at the minute, it is certainly not over-expensive. It is probably in line where it needs to be, and the Belgian Blue-cross animal is very sought-after in marts at present.”
“€3.00/kg is very much the norm, but there is €4.00/kg plus available for Belgian Blue at present in marts up and down the country. The Belgian Blue image is very positive, and the pedigree demand is very strong.”
“At the moment, pedigree Belgian Blue bulls are quite scarce because the reward has not been enough over the last number of years for breeders to stay at it. As a consequence of that, they have become a bit scarcer and are of big demand at the moment.”
A “thriving” breed
Sean echoed a big demand for Belgian Blue beef overseas, with more research on the horizon on all beef breeds to educate people.
“We understand that Belgian Blue beef has a very low bone content and a very high meat yield per carcass. We are led to believe it is of lower cholesterol and is sought-after more in terms of taste.”
“I see much work being undertaken by ICBF on different breeds. The more people that are educated and the more science there is, the more knowledge that becomes available the better people are informed as to what is best for them.”
“I see Belgian Blue commercial cattle the way forward and the return from beef animals across the continent that are Belgian Blue-bred. It is way ahead in terms of carcass quality and carcass conformation than other breeds.”
“All breeds are entitled to make a living. All breeds have their characteristics and own reasons for how they would fit into the farming business. However, the Belgian Blue are a thriving breed with much research done continuously.”
Looking ahead, Sean and Helen hope to hand over the farm to the next generation, their three teenage children, after they complete education, who currently play an active role when they can.
“I believe the sucker herd in this country has a very important part to play on Irish beef farms in terms of family farm sustainability.”
“Using a pedigree Belgian Blue bull with good quality commercial cows is, without doubt, the way forward for beef farmers.”
“The suckler herd has to continue if there is going to be a beef industry and if there is a beef industry required in this country.”
“We see farm organisations promoting the family-farm model. The family farm model is where family farm income can be derived to support a family.”
“The family farm income is based on what the minimum wage is. The industrial wage has to be got from a farm to make it viable and attempt another young person to do it.”
“I see a place for suckler cows with fragmentation and many other reasons why milk platforms are not available to dairy farmers.”
“The dairy business is fine, and it is great to see people getting on well at it. However, I am a strong advocate of the beef farmer helping the beef family farm income.”
“The suckler farmer is part of that because there is no comparison when you look at the beef carcass’s quality cuts coming off suckler-bred animals as opposed to by-product dairy-bred beef,” the pedigree breeder concluded.
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