A 365-day calving interval or less, calving early in the season, docility, consistently delivering a top-quality calf, a high maternal replacement value of €100 or over, good conformation, milk ability, good feet and calving at 24 months are the cornerstones of success for one thriving enterprise west of the Shannon.
That is what attendees of Teagasc’s national beef conference heard in the Shearwater Hotel in Ballinasloe Co. Galway last Tuesday (November 13th, 2022).
Colin Byrne of Teagasc, Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Centre, Grange, Co. Meath, drew reference to Shane Keaveney’s system during his presentation on reducing the age of first calving for suckler heifers – a key profit driver for beef farmers – at the event.
Keaveney farms in Ballinlough, Co. Roscommon, alongside his wife, Grainne and three children and took the farm’s reins eight years ago.
Roscommon suckler farm
The conference heard how he began his suckler farming journey with five Salers in-calf heifers and now farms 37 suckler cows, mainly February and March-calving Limousin-cross-Saler-types, on a 35.5 ha enterprise (stocked at 160kgs organic N/ha) in Granlahan.
This particular farmer has built his system around the philosophy “the cow must do the job”.
Colin commented: “That is the way he selects his cow, and if the cow does her job, he weans a heavier calf, meaning that in that 257 days, he has less work to do. It is a good motto and a simple answer to the way suckler systems should be run.”
He has built a “high-value maternal by using a Saler bull”, which has resulted in “a very functional cow type with plenty of milk and the ability to rear a heavy calf”.
Operating a spring-calving system, he finishes male progeny as bulls in a 16-month-old production system and slaughters heifers not earmarked as replacements at circa 21-22 months of age or sells them as stores.
He works alongside his local advisor, Charlie Devaney and also Gabriel Trayers, as part of his involvement in the Teagasc Future Beef Programme.
In terms of KPIs, the herd has an average replacement Index of €118, compared to the national average of €87.
The herd’s average calving interval is 362 days, while it has a figure of 0% for mortality – death at birth, 2.7% for mortality – dead at 28 days and 1.04 calves per cow per year.
Post-calving care is paramount, and on this farm, it involves feeding high-digestibility first-cut grass silage (>70% DMD) after calving, and turning cow-heifers out to pasture first, weather permitting.
In 2022, male calves weighed 300 kg at 200 days of age, and heifers crossed the scales at 280 kg, the report shows.
So what is key when it comes to achieving these figures?
- Grass-focused but heavy in nature with a mix of clay and peat – early turn-out dates;
- Weaning practices: Forward creep grazing +1 kg;
- Animal health: Vaccine and dosing protocol – seek advice from your vet;
- Gradual no-stress weaning approach – using nose pads;
- 2 priority groups – One of which is a group of replacement heifers. Must have a weaning weight of 280kgs or greater. Receive >70% DMD grass silage ad-lib plus 1kg of meal/head/day with a target live weight gain of 0.6kg/day over the first winter. Let out to grass in spring as early as possible. At least 410kgs at the time of breeding on May 1st. Other group males for U16 month-old bull beef with continual performance paramount;
- Housing: Lots of space > 3 metres squared;
- Nutrition: 73 DMD silage and 1kg of meal. Maintain high-quality grass swards in front of the herd over the grazing season;
- Genetics: Limousin, Saler, Charolais
In terms of the breeding programme, he uses a terminal Charolais stock bull on mature cows, and the season begins in line with having a target start date for calving on February 1st.
In 2022, all cows calved within an 8-week window, which will remain the target into the future.
He AIs replacement heifers, all of which he sources (replacement rate of 20%) within his own herd, and they calve down at 24-months; they have an average mature weight of 650kgs.
For heat detection purposes, he uses a vasectomised bull, hired at €300, with a chin ball and now uses sexed semen (€42/sexed semen) on replacements to breed his next cohort of replacement heifers.
This year, 10/12 heifers went in-calf to AI in 6 weeks; 6 to sexed semen, he used 9/10 sexed straws and the other 4 to conventional AI.
“Although there are additional costs with this, you have to remember that if you produce cows from this, the cost of that can be spread over the lifetime of the cow, and it is going to be greatly reduced,” Colin concluded.
Previous article on That’s Farming: