Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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HomeBeef28 autumn-calving sucklers with BB progeny to €4,000 in organic system
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
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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28 autumn-calving sucklers with BB progeny to €4,000 in organic system

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Kieran Lynch, Gortlahard, Kilgarvan, Co Kerry, in this week’s Suckler Focus series.

“I am married to Lorraine, and we have two young children.

Although she is not from a farming background, Lorraine is great at keeping an eye on things on the farm, and whether it is looking at the calving camera or cattle in a field, she will always notice if there is something up.

My parents are always on hand to help, especially if I am away; they will keep things running.


I own 35ha at home, with 12ha in permanent pasture, and the remainder is rough hill grazing. I am renting a block of upland, rough grazing a few miles away also.

Whilst running a suckler enterprise, I am working full-time off-farm as a metal fabricator in a factory about 12 miles away, and Lorraine works in a hospital in Cork three days a week.

I am the eight-generation on this farm, and I took over from my parents in 2013. It was a mixed dairy and suckler farm until 2000; my parents had about 20 dairy cows and 10 sucklers, but switched to all sucklers.

They had a spring-calving system and ran a Charolais bull with the herd with occasional AI use. They always kept good quality cows, so it was great to be able to keep breeding from these bloodlines.

Also, they utilised Belgian Blue AI sires, including the famed OVO, in 2006/2007 for a number of years.

However, they stepped away from the breed when the demand for them eased off, so they stuck with Charolais.

Like that, for the first few years, when I took the reins, I also ran a Charolais stock sire and AI’d for replacements. I went from 20-30 cows with a bunch of replacements and bought-in in-calf heifers along the way.

In 2017, I went 100% AI and was using a mixture of breeds, but after a year or two, I was all Belgian Blue.

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I have been calving a few weeks earlier every year, so by 2018; I was all autumn calving.

Calving starts at the end of August, and I would have a compact calving period around the first few weeks of September and the remainder of them would be born around November 1st.

Cows spend the summer on the hills and come down in fit order to calf. They can be a bit over-conditioned, but they will be fit from walking all summer.

I weigh all calves at birth, and the average birth weight would be circa 50kgs. Although, I could get the odd 65/70kg calf, but cows are able to manage them.

I have only ever C-sectioned two cows, and I hope it stays that way.

Calves creep graze out of the shed over the winter out of the paddocks when weather conditions allow, which is great to keep them healthier and to grow them.

On a wet winter’s night, when you would expect them to be in the shed, you will find them in the field. It also encourages them to stay away from the cow during the breeding season.

Cow type

I wean in March and sell male progeny as bulls in early April and heifers at the end of May.

Regarding breeding cows, I have a mixture of everything, from five pedigree Limousin females to a few pedigree Belgian Blue-crosses, some Blonde-crosses and Limousin-crosses.

Cows are easy to keep over the winter, and four or five litres of milk from one of those Limousin-types or Belgian Blue-crosses will do as much as eight or nine litres of milk from a dairy cow, in my view.

She will be able to calf, hold her condition, and will have a good cull value. I kept three replacements this year – one Limousin, one Charolais and one Belgian Blue.

I would be a bit ruthless when it comes to culling, so if she is dangerous, a poor milker or breeder or a bad calver, she will have to go.

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Blues making a comeback

All AI is done by my local AI technician, and I use a blend of sires, with Maradona Du Champ Du Moulin (new bull with no progeny on the ground in Ireland yet), Chocolat d’Ochamps and Boroside Jagerbomb ET forming some of my choices this year.

When trying a new bull, I will use seven or eight straws to get a good idea of how he is.

I definitely favour the Belgian Blue calf for my autumn-calving system, for their ease of management, docility and feed efficiency, among other traits.

The Belgian Blue breed is definitely making a comeback. For example, at the ringside, domestic feeders seem to be competing with shippers for bull calves, in particular.

Heifers, on the other hand, are making a notably strong come back, and the breeding or show heifer is in strong demand.

I suppose the main reason is that as costs rise, farmers need more valuable calves, and they need a good cow for that.

It costs the same to keep a bad one as a good one, in my experience. A Belgian Blue cow will give you a good calf as long as you use the correct bull on her.

With time and attention to detail, blue calves may be very fragile at birth, so they need to be looked after.

Spending €2,000-€3,000 on a weanling heifer for breeding may seem high, but across the lifetime of that breeding female, it really is not that high when you compare it to other costs, let alone the increased value of her calves and, of course, her own cull value.

AI-bred BBX weanling heifers to €4,000

Sample prices of Kieran’s weanling heifers in Gortatlea Mart on 24-05-2023:

  • RWS daughter – 15-09-2022 – BBX – 315kgs – €2,700;
  • PPS daughter – 17-09-2022 – BBX – 380kgs – €4,000;
  • PPS daughter – 19-09-2022 – 365kgs – €2,760;
  • PPS daughter – 25-09-2022 – 320kgs – €1,900;
  • PPS daughter – 20-09-2022 – 375kgs – €1,920;
  • RWS daughter – 20-09-2022 – 360kgs – €1,700;
  • PPS daughter – 28-10-2022 – 315kgs – €1,540;
  • PPS daughter – 01-11-2022 – 290kgs – €1,580;
  • FSN daughter – 20-09-2022 – 325kgs – €1,360;
  • Daughter of Boroside Jagerbomb ET (BB4324)– 15-09-2022 – 405kgs – €2,180.

All in all, sales went well this spring for me, as bulls made €3.83/kg at 378kgs, with an average of €1,450 per head, while heifers levelled at €1,970/head at 347kgs.

From a farming point of view, having the same buyers coming back for my calves every year and being willing to spend more each time is my high point.

Selling a calf off a home-bred cow for €4,000, which I did this year, is fairly satisfying.

I had 28 calves on 27 cows without any losses, but in saying that, I had a lot of injuries happening to the cattle for different reasons; they were labour-intensive, but all ended up well.

While cattle prices may be going okay at the moment, the increased costs over the last two years have taken the extra income.

A good high-energy, high-protein nut for calves is expensive, so I plan to set a few acres of red clover for calves. I am slow in feeding it to cows due to high oestrogen levels.

Good high-energy, high-protein concentrates for calves are expensive, but savings in chemical fertiliser helps to counteract that.

Next year, I will add seaweed to the mix and hope it will improve every year.

There is an organic farmer close by selling a combi-mix of oats, wheat and peas, which is fine for cows until they are scanned thirty days in-calf.

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It is pretty obvious to farmers now that there is an agenda against the suckler cow from all directions.

That said, any younger suckler farmers in their 20s that I have come across recently are investing in genetics and breeding.

They are managing grassland on par with any dairy farmer, which paints a very positive picture.

Seeing Mark Casey a few weeks ago with his ET Belgian Blue selling for €5,920 or €16.00/kg, as reported by That’s Farming editor Catherina Cunnane in this news article, is a good example.

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In 2022, I joined the one-year Organic Farming Scheme and after, I joined the 2023 five-year scheme also.

Autumn-calving Belgian Blue progeny is not something that you may associate with organics in this part of the country, but it is actually more suitable than you think.

Cows are on the hills for the summer anyway, and any field suitable to cut for silage can be closed. I started using a product called Sobac last year, and this costs about €2,000/year.

It is basically fungi and microbes that multiply the soil biology. I used it in 2015 for 18 months but went away from it again, as my stocking rate was too high.

Since then, I have been using natural soil conditions and additives such as SlurryKal, and farmyard manure, along with chemical fertiliser, to make a gentle transition.

The last time I went ‘cold turkey’, the ground went yellow, but this time, it seemed smoother.

Grassland management is more relaxed with spring calving, where priority stock graze the best of the paddocks, and cows come from the hill to clean out paddocks.

A medium grass cover is fine going into the winter as calves are grazing, weather permitting.

I need to be bailing low enough covers of good grass for cows for the first half of winter, at least, and all if possible.

Final words

Having the ‘feel good’ factor on the farm, is made up from a lot of different angles, from getting help when needed from family and neighbours, to having a good AI tech, a good vet and a good contractor all feed into this.

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