The French connection in midlands beef breeding operation
A casual sighting of some cows grazing changed the direction of Francis Donohoe's beef breeding operation
Published 17/02/2016 | 02:30
The first impressions of the Aubrac breed have stood the test of time for Francis Donohoe.
The Westmeath livestock farmer travelled to France in 2004 to source some good Blonde d'Aquitaine breeding stock to build up the herd he farms with his wife Bernie, and their daughter Jennifer, at Johnstown near Collinstown in Co Westmeath.
"We were driving along the road when a tractor pulled out of the roadway in front of us and we had to slow down. I happened to be sitting in the back seat of the car and I saw a field of cows with mostly Charolais calves.
"I asked the French driver of the car what type of cattle they were and he told me that they were Aubrac cows with Cullagh Charolais calves," he recalled.
"When I asked him to stop so that I could get a better look at them he told me that he knew the owner and he'd ring him to come over to meet me. I liked them straight away and the more I studied them the more I felt that they were the breed for me."
With help and advice from a French technician, he bought 24 in-calf heifers from four of the top herds in France, at a cost price of €2,500 each before completing the trip.
When they calved the following spring he decided to return to France in 2005 in search of a top quality bull suitable for crossing on his 24 pedigree cows. Francis selected Ultra in the bull station, which he purchased at a cost of €8,000.
Today there are 70 pedigree cows on the farm and his plan is to increase to 100 head in the near future.
He is more convinced than ever that investing in Aubrac has delivered even more than he could ever have expected.
"I have had every breed of a cow under the sun over the years and I didn't come across anything that was as easy fed or as easy kept as the Aubrac. I have cows sucking calves and they are all fat.
"They are shocking easy to feed and keep up. If you have good silage there is no need to feed meal to an Aubrac cow," he said.
"I know a few men that are after selling Aubrac bulls to dairy farmers and they are breeding very well off the Friesian as well. Any man in beef is finding that they are doing extremely well on the cross bred calves out of the Friesian cows.
"I have heard of some of them getting into U grade. I was on a farm walk in Wicklow and a good many of them were making U grade. I have had them off Friesian cows. They didn't make U grade but they were good R's. They are crossing very well and no problem calving off the dairy herd either," he added.
"I would not go back to any other breed of a cow after my experience with the Aubrac."
He has returned to France nearly every year, purchasing more breeding heifers, by selecting from some of the best herds for maternal qualities.
When he had built up enough pedigree Aubrac cows and Aubrac cross commercial cows in 2010, he divided the herd and kept all the better quality cows showing the best maternal traits purely for pedigree breeding.
At that stage, he started with the lesser quality Aubrac cows and Aubrac cross commercial cows and introduced the Culard Charolais bull.
He found that the crossing produced exceptional weanlings of export quality regularly achieving up to €3.00/kg for the live export trade.
The Johnstown herd has had plenty of admirers around the agricultural show rings throughout the midlands over the past few years where they have often swept the boards with top rosettes.
The roll of honour list includes Supreme Aubrac Champion of Tullamore show and winner of Gold Medal Award for four years in a row- 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014; overall champions at Virginia Show, Carrick-on-Shannon, Expo (Kilkenny), and Athlone Agricultural Show.
The work goes on building of the herd using the best strains available in France, from the regular visits and mating the best cows in the herd to the best available AI straws from the top sires in France.
"I have had a lot of success at shows because I select the cows to breed off," he said.
"What I like about AI is that I can pick whatever bull I want to suit the cow.
"I put a breeding programme in place and the French technician comes over every two years and he matches up our cows and heifers with the best bulls he thinks suits.
"It is costing a good bit to do but it is probably worth it. I am getting the results from it. I would be using six to seven different AI bulls.
"I am not saying that I have the best Aubrac herd in the country by any means, but I am selective on the animals that I keep back for breeding.
"There are a lot of people who have pedigree animals and a pedigree cert but they are not great - out of any herd of 100 pedigrees you'd be looking at about 20 top cows on average.
"Some people think that they have something special just because they carry a cert," he stressed.
He made the point that breeding the best is a constant challenge for every pedigree breeder and even with the best laid plans the results will vary.
"The first bull I bought in France was Ultra. He was an exceptionally good bull - I don't think I will ever get the likes of him again because he was a serious bull.
"I had bought the heifers in 2004 and went over in the spring of 2005 and bought him. He produced absolutely great stock," he said.
"The best AI bull I ever used had to be Roussel. He was a very successful bull in France and they kept using him until he was 14 or 15 years of age and I got lots of good progeny off him. He was one of the most famous and best Aubrac bulls ever."
He bred Johnstown Ian 1039 out of Johnstown Emma 14 to become show champion at the National Livestock Show at Tullamore and selected for the Gene Ireland maternal beef breeding programme.
Two years ago he purchased the Aubrac bull Invincible from France to introduce some new bloodlines once again.
He was purchased at the Prestige Sale in 2014 at a price of €6,000.
On the commercial side of his herd he is using the Culard Charolais for crossing and is convinced that the combination has a lot of benefit for beef production producing double muscled progeny. He says the results on the commercials are very good.
"After suckling Aubrac and Aubrac cross cows for over a decade now, the Aubrac is probably the closest to a perfect suckler I have come across.
"I have no intention of going away from the Aubrac, the results I am getting are too good," he said.