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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
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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‘This year, I only have assisted one cow calving’ – 46-cow farmer breeding CH X LM

Chris McCarthy combines a Charolais stock sire’s terminal genetics with three-quarter bred, red Limousin breeding females, and the results – outstanding quality suckler stock – speak for themselves.

The farm is home to a spring-calving herd of 46 Limousin cows, mated primarily to terminal Charolais stock bulls.

Alongside the commercial herd, Chris runs a small number of pedigree Charolais cows which provides stock bulls for his own use as well as selling a number of breeding stock each year.

The current stock bull is a Doonally New (CF52)-bred bull, with Chris having a fondness for other Charolais stalwarts such as Pirate (PTE).

The farm in Mullingar consists of 28 ha of relatively free-draining soil and has the added advantage of being in a sole block.

Chris said: “It has to be a red Limousin. I used to operate with the odd black Limousin cow, but in terms of delivering what we want here, I have moved solely to red cows over the past few years.”

Historically, replacements were acquired as in-calf heifers from two sources, but Chris found that these were “getting more and more expensive”.

He has since moved to bringing in maiden heifers over the past two years.

“I was sourcing them from the same farm every year for a number of years, but I have had to move around in the last few years in order to get the type of stock I want.”

“It is something that is getting harder and harder to find all the time.”

The farm is quite heavily stocked, and in the past, Chris has been in derogation but now operates just below 170 kg N/ha each year.

This high stocking rate helps to drive the output/ha, ultimately driving the profitability of the farm.

Calving

Calving starts the first week of February and is typically finished by mid-March.

In 2021, there was an issue with a sub-fertile bull which has resulted in the calving spread increasing slightly over the past two years, but it is something that Chris is working on “pulling back quite quickly”.

“There was a big turnover of cows that year. We increased the length of the breeding season slightly, but still, there were 18 cows, not in-calf, and they were all culled.”

“I am working off-farm full-time, so I need calving to be compact and have it over with.”

“We have made big progress last year, and I would hope to do the same again this breeding season and be back to a six or seven-week calving season in the next couple of years.”

Grazing season

Cows and calves start to be turned out to grass in small numbers as soon as the weather conditions allow, which is typically around Feb 15th – Feb 20th, with around March 10th being the mean date for turnout.

The grazing infrastructure on the farm is simple but effective in that Chris can move a batch of stock singlehandedly anywhere on the farm.

He says that stock are used to “getting a move to fresh grass, and so he can lead them to new grass when they need a move”.

There are a number of farm tracks, and there are up to 12 temporary fence reels that Chris uses to make passages through paddocks if needed.

Everything needs to be able to be done by one person. Good genetics, combined with excellent grassland management, a key to high growth rates in calves over the first season at grass.

The system in place could be described as being simple but very effective. Being busy off-farm means that “every hour on the farm needs to be productive”.

Chris estimates he spends around 15 hours per week on the farm across the entire year.

The biggest workload is obviously in winter and during the calving season, and uses cameras to his advantage.

“I like to leave them alone as much as possible. Only when there is no progress being made will I handle a cow, and so far, this year, I only have assisted one cow calving.”

Bull-beef system

One change implemented since finishing in the BETTER farm programme is the move from a weanling trading system to an under 16-month, bull beef operation.

At weaning, which takes place in late September, bull calves are typically 350 kg to 360 kg.

They are fed meal two weeks pre- and for four weeks post-weaning, and once housed in November, they start on 2 kg of ration, which increases to 4 kg by the New Year.

This then moves to 6 kg by Feb 1st and ad-lib by March 1st, 2023.

Silage

There has been an increased focus on silage quality on the farm over the last number of years also, with Chris seeing it as a key way to reduce the total amount of meal fed to bulls.

Currently, they are consuming around 1.8 t/head lifetime of concentrate.

These bulls have average carcase weights of around 460 kg under 16 months, are in-spec and are typically grading U+ for conformation and 2+, on average, for carcase fat score.

Farm walk

McCarthy will open the gates of their farm, which is in Crookedwood, N91FX22, just north of Mullingar, to the public, as the 2023 Irish Grassland Association beef host farm on Tuesday, June 13th at 6 pm.

The farm walk, which is sponsored by FBD, will highlight the key components of the system around soil fertility and grassland management, genetics, labour requirements and financial performance.

Also, on the day, there will be a focus on animal health with University College Dublin vet, Eoin Ryan, discussing what farmers need to do on suckler-to-beef farms in terms of keeping animals healthy.

Teagasc’s Aidan Murray will also be on hand to shed light on the factors that make Chris’s system profitable and sustainable.

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