That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with full-time farmer, Patrick Harley, Letterkenny, County Donegal, in this week’s Suckler Focus segment.
He tells us about his move from sheep, poultry and deer to Dexter cattle and willow, what the native Irish breed brings to his system, a ministerial visit in May through social farming, and a forthcoming open day.
“Curraghleas Dexters is a joint ownership between my brother, Kevin Harley and I. Our father bought the farm in the mid-1940s, so it now spans two generations.
We previously mainly fattened beef from bought-in calves and also ran a poultry and sheep operation, but we have moved towards our current system with Dexters.
For us, the Dexter is very easy on the ground, and if you get proper fencing and proper handling facilities, they are easy to work with. We have been sheep farming for five years, but I wanted to change to something else.
We have no regrets so far in that cattle require less work, which allows us to do other things. They are quite tame, but care must be taken after calving.
When we first saw Dexters, we fell for them immediately, made the jump into the breed and have not looked back – they are the only breed that we have on the farm.
Dexters are smaller, easier on the ground during prolonged wet weather, and are suitable for hill grazing.
Our farm planner advised us to consider them, and upon further investigation, we found that they tick all the boxes for us.
To lay the foundations for our herd, we bought six maiden heifers in 2020 and bred them the same year.
Breeding, feeding and calving
Between the two of us, we currently have 8 cows, calves and 11 replacement heifers across our 70-acre enterprise, 30ac of which are dedicated to willow.
We hired a bull in 2020 and 2021 and bought our first stock sire this summer.
Initially, calving took place in mid-August to mid-September, so with a new bull now taking charge in the pastures in early July, we are planning for April calving.
We are hoping to calf outdoors, which will give rise to a stronger calf when housing in November. We are happy with our long-leg Dexter at 400-500 kg.
Cows would get a kg of meal each in late autumn while still suckling, while calves might get 0.5kg during winter in-house, and we do not use any meal in summer.
Our fields would get a 50 kg bag of chemical fertiliser products, such as 18-6-12, after every second grazing.
Calves are kept for finishing – males are for the factory at approximately 400 kg live weight (approximately 200kg dead weight), and heifers will be bred or sold for breeding or factory.
Our plan is to keep the heifers for breeding, so they will be approximately 3-years-old when first calving. Our herd is only in its infancy, but we intend to possibly cull cows when they reach 7-8 years of age.
If the one calf, per cow, per year target is not being achieved, that cow will be fattened and sent directly for slaughter.
Grassland management and toying with organics
Grassland management is an important aspect of our farm enterprise in that we try to move stock frequently, every five days, and hope to undertake a reseeding plan to further exploit this area.
While we have toyed with the idea of organics, with our farm set-up at the minute, requirements regarding infrastructure, especially those relating to housing requirements, changing from slats to having at least 50% of the floor area, being solid-floored, bedded with materials such as rushes or wood shavings, would be too costly.
But, into the future, organic farming is the way that I would like to go.
But, the meal we use is minimal – it is only for taming them now and not for heavy feeding.
Breed bonus for Dexter
A processor in the south of the country has a deal in place that whatever the base rate is on the day, the Dexter gets 60c/KG extra because it is a rare breed, but it is worth noting that you must factor in a low carcass weight and travel costs.
The premium can only be attained by Bord Bia quality-assured producers.
I am the co-chair of the Donegal Dexter Group, which I have been part of for the past 18 months, and I have been part of getting the 80-strong group formed.
Everything that we do is under the Irish Dexter Society, which we are also a member of.
In the Donegal Dexter Group, we are trying to get farmers together to let them know that we can work in unison to create better opportunities and outlets.
In the group, we have farmers working with processors and those that are selling directly to consumers through beef boxes.
The more Dexter animals that are there and in the system, the more opportunities we can avail of.
We need to look at different angles and explore different avenues for the breed – whether someone wants an animal for a deep freeze or for a hotel or restaurant, or factory, that is where our flourishing group comes in.
Market is the buzzword, so we need to get all options open, and we saw this, especially during our five years of deer farming.
Dexter beef is unique with its excellent quality, good marbling, a unique spider marbling, and flavour.
Moreover, it is naturally more tender than other beef, contains more Omega-3 fatty acids and is environmentally friendly, given the animals’ low input.
€200 payment in ACRES
I believe that the €200 per livestock unit payment for rare breeds – including Dexters – in the new ACRES (Agri-Climate Rual Environment Scheme) is a welcome incentive and is helping to regenerate the breed right across the country.
ACRES is providing an avenue for breeding stock at the minute, as highlighted in this previous news article on www.thatsfarming.com, which reports that prices reached €1,800 at the Donegal Dexter Cattle Group’s inaugural show and sale at Raphoe Mart on Friday, November 18th, 2023.
At this sale, we saw record prices for breeding stock, and that speaks for itself – it is a good indication that people are interested in the breed.
All in all, we need to remember that they are a rare Irish native cattle breed, and we want to keep our rare breeds alive into the future and protect them.
CAP farm schemes
In terms of the new CAP, which kicked into effect on January 1st, 2023, a lot of new schemes are coming on stream, and ACRES is just one of them.
I believe that you need to be in some sort of farm scheme to make it worthwhile, so if you meet the criteria and are willing to commit to the actions, there are good incentives there for farmers.
Here on our farm, we are growing, cutting and drying our own willow and have four burners in the houses, so we are trying to be self-sufficient with renewables – biomass.
That is the reason why we are looking at solar because we have to dry it, and it costs a lot of money to do so, so if we could get solar to come into play, that would reduce a lot of our costs on that end.
We will showcase our Dexter enterprise at a forthcoming open day on Sunday, July 9th, 2023, at 2 pm.
Our farm is no different than anyone else’s, but it is about getting people networking, as some do not even know what a Dexter is or what they look like.
On the day, we will have a host of guest speakers, including our farm advisor/planner, Mark McConnell, Michael McHugh of FBD Insurance, a rep from the Irish Dexter Society and some members from the Donegal Dexter Group.
We will take groups around to show them stock, our handling and moving facilities and our willow operation and refreshments, including Dexter burgers, will be served.
We are hoping that by attending, people will get some inspiration and ideas for their own enterprises.
The event is free to attend, thanks to the kind support of sponsorship from businesses – you must register in advance through Patrick by phoning 086-0826360.
We previously held a social farming event on the farm on May 5th, 2023, which was attended by over 150 people, including the current Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue.
On our enterprise, we host participants from the local HSE mental health services in Letterkenny every year.
I have been involved in social farming through Leitrim Development Company for almost two years, and it has been a truly rewarding experience.
I believe that you have to give something back, and I am on the farm a lot of days by myself, so, as a farmer, it is great to be able to welcome people through the farm gate and engage with them rather than being on your own.
Social farming is becoming bigger and bigger, but there are only five farmers in Donegal, and it brings an array of benefits to everyone involved.”
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