As part of our Suckler Focus, That’s Farming speaks to David Erskine of Fieldview Charolais.
David Erskine, Crosses, Ballybay Road, Co. Monaghan keeps 50 suckler cows, 30 of which are pedigree Charolais farmed under the Fieldview prefix.
The third-generation farmer’s long-standing association with Charolais began back when he operated a drystock enterprise.
“Back some years ago, I would have been involved in beef. From buying cattle in the open market, I tried every breed. The Charolais seemed to perform better than everything else that I had ever bought.” the owner of Fieldview Charolais said.
“Around 1990, it was getting difficult to buy store cattle of good quality, so we ventured into commercial cows. A few years down the road around 1996, we bought our first pedigree Charolais.”
“Looking at the performance of the previous beef cattle we had, we chose the Charolais route from that. I have made various trips to France, and bought cattle and semen from there.”
“In my situation, thirty breeding females are manageable and allows ability to maintain high quality in the herd and have an eye for detail.”
The breeding programme at Fieldview Charolais takes the form of timing calving to ensure he has progeny for pinnacles in the Charolais calendar, mainly society premier show and sales.
He established the herd initially purchasing top females from a Kepak dispersal sale. Over the years, he has added bloodlines from leading herds throughout Ireland and the UK.
With a high emphasis on good milking and calving ability, today he has top French and English bloodlines present in the herd.
David uses AI, mainly selected from leading French, UK, and Irish sires and the herd usually starts to calf around September/October. Calving runs through to the springtime, but he does try to calf a block of cows in September.
This ensures he has bulls available for sale the following December, at approximately 14-15-months of age. The younger ones born around December/January are targeted for spring sales.
“In our situation, the Charolais Christmas Cracker in December, and the premier sale in the spring, both in Elphin Mart, are the ones we target. Also, we go to other sales in Tullamore in November.”
“We usually sell top bull calves at sales; we have quite a few on-farm sales for the rest of our bull calves. Every year, there are many heifers selected to keep, and we mostly sell some from the farm.”
In November 2020, at the Tullamore sale 2020, Fieldview Pat topped the sale at €7,500 and was exported to Italy.
He was one of the first sons of a new French easy-calving sire, Chic, and the dam was a home-bred first-calving heifer. On-farm sales and animals sold in Charolais society show and sales have been exported to Northern Ireland and mainland UK.
“The commercial suckler herd consists of Charolais-x-Limousin/ Simmental cows and are successfully crossed back to Charolais stock bull. Progeny is typically sold for top prices through Carnaross Mart, Co. Meath at 18 months.”
Strict culling policy
The Irish Charolais Cattle Society council member advocates a strict culling policy, as reflected the quality of his cow families and subsequent progeny.
“Charolais have excellent feed efficiency and weight gain for age, no. 1 in price per kilo at any stage, ability to calve and rear the calf, docility, saleability, low carbon footprint.”
“We cull cows if they drop in quality and aren’t fit to produce top animals. Also, we cull if we find fertility or milk or feet are issued. Firstly, females must be fit to breed and go into the top 10% of the breed annually; that is what we would be looking for.”
“A cow that we would like here on the farm is one that can produce a calf every year and rear it herself. Also, functionality is key – if it’s a heifer, it should have an ability to be a replacement, and if it’s a bull calf, it should have breeding potential.”
Key steps to successful suckling
David, a full-time farmer, listed key elements that, in his view, are essential when running a productive suckler enterprise from a labour and time-saving and cost-effective perspective.
“Firstly, you must breed good cattle, if you do not start with good breeding the rest of it is not going to take place. It is very important to breed a cow that is suited to your system; let that be commercial, which a lot of the cattle fall into.”
“Also, if you are in the pedigree game, breed something that can produce progeny that is not going to be problematic.”
“I look around, and I see a lot of cattle at shows think sometimes we have gone for extreme cattle with lots of muscle that can be difficult to calf and cannot rear their calf.”
“We must look at a cow that is going to produce a good animal that is easily fed and will fill the market requirement for whatever that is, let it be store or beef.”
Having buildings up-to-date easily maintained and safe for calving is important; grassland management has to fall into place as well, he added.
“Ultimately, your system must be too hard in terms of labour. I know farms where there are multiple C-sections, labour shoots away up. You want something where the cow can calf, rear the calf, and go back into calf easy. I see these as very key elements of having a good herd.”
The owner of Fieldview Charolais believes the future of suckler farming in Ireland is very positive.
He acknowledged that although all farmers face many formidable challenges, each farmer has to decide what to do based on their own individual circumstances.
“The reality is that for many farmers, who are passionate about making a living from the land and producing healthy, nutritious food, suckler farming is the most viable farming option for the future.”
“We can’t emphasise enough the fact that well-managed suckler herds increase soil health and fertility, improve biodiversity and sequester carbon in the soil, helping fight climate change. And a profitable suckler cow is at the heart of this system.”
“For profitability, the key is a cow that can breed a calf every year. Emphasis must always be on quality, as this is what delivers profit back to the farm.”
Financial support in scheme form, he said, is welcome; however, it is vital for the government to consider results-based schemes for the suckler herd. He believes there is a “real need for” schemes that recognise the environmental benefits delivered by sucker herds, rather than adding ”unnecessary bureaucratic rules and oversight”.
“Product labelling and branding are essential also; the consumer should understand that suckler beef comes from a pasture-based production system where the animals are outdoors for most of the year.”
“In essence, suckler cows can turn water and sunshine into healthy food.” the owner of Fieldview Charolais concluded.
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