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‘We need to improve export markets for weanlings and not rely as much on Irish beef factories’

“I think the future for suckler farming in Ireland is good, but we need to improve the quality of our herd.”

Those are the words of 38-year-old pedigree and commercial suckler farmer, Alan Feeney.

He farms six pedigree Belgian Blues, four pedigree Charolais under the Blackfield prefix, along with fifteen commercial breeding females, mainly Parthenaise-cross-Belgian Blues, in partnership with his father, Pat.

“In 2008, I decided to start breeding pedigree Belgian Blues, because I saw them on livestock shows and wanted to start exhibiting these at agricultural shows.” the Claregalway, Co. Galway native explained to Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming.

“They were working great on my commercial herd as a terminal sire, whilst we always had Charolais on the farm.” the fourth-generation farmer added.

Breeding programme

The father-and-son-duo are switching to 100% AI this year, with a view to improving herd quality by tapping into a wider gene pool.

“With the best cows, we try to breed our own replacements with a Limousin. For the next breeding session, we try to select Blonde d’ Aquitaine sires.”

As part of their AI programme, the Feeneys flush their best pedigree Belgian Blues.

In pedigree Blues, the suckler farmers search for correctness, nice muscling, and size, while frame, a high replacement value and calving ability are traits they focus on when selecting replacement commercial females.

“We are having spring and autumn calves and are trying to keep it half and half if possible. It’s good for heat detection and I can sell the commercial calves earlier.”

“We try to keep our calving spread compact, but it doesn’t always work out that way. If cows are going late, we are using the CIDR programme,” explained Alan, who sits on the Irish Belgian Blue Society council, and is a Galway Charolais Club committee member.

“Firstly, we are using it as part of our embryo transfer programme. The donor cow and the recipient cow have to come into heat at the same time.”

“The second reason is for compact calving – sometimes it is difficult to notice when a cow is in heat. When cows experience difficulties going in-calve, we use the programme on the advice of our vets.”

“We leave the CIDR in for 7 days and inject 2ml of Estrumate on day 6. We then pull out the CIDR on day 7 and when she comes into heat, we AI her after 12 hours standing heat and inject with 2.5 ml of Receptal.”

80% of their commercial calves are destined for international export markets, while they retain the remaining females, which calve down at 30-months. “They are sold per kilogram and get weighed in the mart and go for export then.”

Most of their pedigrees are sold at local and national agricultural shows or privately from their Galway-based farm, which is a participant in the BDGP, BEEP and GLAS.

Culling policy

“If a cow is not producing the right progeny don’t keep them – that is our motto, which I believe is central to running an efficient suckler enterprise.”

“For us, the right calf is the right weight for age and conformation, combined with a good price.”

“This year, I’m culling cows with bad docility after calving, because we had a close call this year with a cow. Safety always comes first, since accidents can happen very fast when dealing with livestock,” added Alan.

Future developments

Looking ahead, Alan, a part-time farmer, is satisfied with his current herd size, with plans to improve the enterprise further.

He is now turning his attention to improving breeding quality, incorporating sustainable farming practices, and reseeding.

“We need to improve export markets for weanlings and not rely as much on Irish beef factories. Irish farmers are not paid sufficiently for breeding quality cattle.”

Outlook for suckler farming in Ireland 

“The biggest challenge in suckler farming is, that production costs are not financially justifiable.”

Another challenge is climate change which is becoming more relevant every year, the farmer said. “Either it is too wet or to dry and the weather extremes and changes are becoming more visible.”

“For me, suckler farming is a great way of life, being with the animals, producing good cattle, seeing them growing up and becoming great stock.”

“I don’ t think I ever see myself doing anything else, even though it is very challenging at times.”

“I think I always will be a part-time suckler farmer since I don’t think with the size of our farm, it would be not possible to go full-time,” Alan concluded.

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