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HomeBeef ‘Suckler cows have a bad name’ – 100-cow farmer
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 ‘Suckler cows have a bad name’ – 100-cow farmer

James Madigan, Co. Kilkenny, believes grassland management, having excellent silage, and a good cow are the key elements of successful suckler farming in Ireland.

He farms 100 suckler cows across 150-acres in a home block, a 22-acre block and a 63-acre block and harvests his own silage, with his own baler, wrapper and mower.

The Kilkenny man’s cows are split between autumn and spring calving.

“There are 100 females brought to the bull, that is including cows and heifer. If anything is empty, they are culled. We hope to have around 85-90 calving down in the whole year.” James told Catherine Egan on the Teagasc Beef Edge podcast.

“We normally calf in the spring from January, February and March. This year, we decided to calf a month earlier to cut out March calves because we were ending up with weanlings a bit to light in the backend of the year.”

“They were not really suitable for the under 16-month bulls. They were in the shed to long the following spring. So, we started calving about mid-December with heifers. No problem with calving issues just health after that. A good dose of scour and a bit of rotavirus.”

James’ first 25 cows to calf go out on mats, and calves are crept back. “Plus, it tightens your calving spread as well. The cows gone back to grass will come back bulling quicker. The first 25 to calf, there will be no panic.”

James aims to start his breeding season around Valentine’s Day with a view to having calves early again for next year.

Suckler cows – breeding policy

For the spring-herd, James’s breeds replacements off the autumn herd. He has three easy calving Charolais bulls for replacements.

James picks out ten heifers for calving down in spring. They calf around 29-30 months and are AI’d to Limousin sires.

“We tried Simmental and that over the years, really I could see no difference. Charolais are good cows with as much milk as the Simmentals.”

“For management ease and that, we went with a maternal Charolais bull. We have the first batch of heifers calved down this year; they will make lovely cows, I would say. Time will tell.”

Grazing season

James’ cows graze in two groups as he does not breed any replacements from the spring herd. He groups 20-25 cows with each bull as he feels bull power is very important.

“They are grazed in three-acre paddocks, about six paddocks per group. We do not forward creep the calves; we just run them all as one group as we have a lot of stock around the farm management is a bit awkward. It is easier to keep them together.”


Weanlings are housed in mid-October or even on November 1st.

“The calves are fed no creep bar, the bulls; they are crept fed about three weeks before we wean them. The heifers are not crept fed; they are all in the shed with cows one side weanlings the other.”

“Heifers are let back out to grass, hopefully. I get them back out mid-November. There is no panic housing them; I like to let them get good and strong before they come back in.”

“The bulls stay in the shed. They’re averaging around the 400kg mark at that stage. The best of the bulls could be 500kg and the lightest of them, 330kg. What we do at that stage is; everything is weighed going into the shed.”

“The bulls are housed judging on their weight. Those from 480 kgs up are started to be built up on their finishing diet. Anything that is not, then is just fed 3 kgs with really good silage to meet their 480kg.”

“We try to do a pen at a time; we buy a few to match in with them as we go along to make up two pens 18-20 bulls. The smaller bulls then are stored over the winter, March calves and twins, anything that will not mean the under 16-month target. There is no panic; we do not try to push them too much.”

Luckily on James’ farm, he outlined they have no issues in getting the bulls finished in under 16-months. He starts slaughtering at 13, 14 and 15 months as he has no problems with timing. Their target starting finishing weight is 480 kgs and some bulls are gaining 2 kgs a day.


James brings his spring heifers in around mid-November, and clips and weighs these.

“The silage this year that bulls and heifers are getting is 76%, and we give them 1.5kg of meal. They are re-weighed around Christmas to see how they are performing. 0.54 kgs are what they put on from housing on December 30th.”

“Which was a bit of a shock to this system as you would be wondering if they are thriving when they first come in. That is a great thrive for them, so they are well on target.”

“Last year, they would have hit the grass at about January 15th. The year before, they were out on New Year’s Day. January was a tough month this year, wet and cold, so they’ll be finishing off grass in October.”

“There are about 30 of them in it now. I will start feeding them around August first. Giving them two months feeding about 3kg at grass, and they will all be slaughtered in October.”

James’ spring-2019-born heifers averaged 347 kgs carcass weight last October, which James’ was satisfied with; he hopes this year will match this or even improve.

Autumn calving herd

James’ autumn herd calves in August and September. He splits them into two groups like the spring calvers and turns them out to pasture after March 1st.

He buys eight to ten replacements as yearlings over the springtime for the autumn herd.

They run with his Charolais bull in October, and heifers produced by these cows remain on-farm for the spring herd.

“The same story as the spring really, your three-to-four-day paddocks. Six paddocks per group. They will be weaned then from the 10th of June.”

“The best of the bulls will be housed straight off the cows. There’ll be a good batch of them bulls averaging 480-490kgs. They will be weaned and housed around ten months.”

“At that stage, then we start buying a few bulls to go with them, and I have the store bulls coming off grass myself as well. So, the shed is starting to be filled than for the finishing period.”

“Anything not ready will go back out to grass after weaning. They will be fed 3kg on grass. I would not recommend taking them off meal or anything; just give them a little bit.”

“They are weighed monthly after that then as long as they come to 480kg same story then (as of spring calving stock) they are housed and finished then accordingly.”

Successful suckler farming in Ireland

James believes if you have not got excellent silage especially, for autumn-born bulls, it would probably make them profitless.

“Same as grassland management; we do not creep the calves at all bar the spring ones for a few weeks. It is all grass and milk, putting weight on the calves. Our facilities, I would like to say, are very good now.”

“We invested in housing, roadways, calving cameras, calving gates, fencing, weighing scale, crush boxes. Really if you have not got them things, especially with bulls, you would want to be in the whole of your health handling at the best of time.”

“Another thing is the cow herself; if you look after a good cow, she will look after you. Fertile milky cows that are quiet. Suckler cows have a bad name. Lads have them run-down, and they think the show is over.” James concluded.

Further information

Listen to James’ interview on the Teagasc Beef Edge Podcast here.

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