Farm Ireland

Sunday 22 April 2018

A tale of two herds

Pat Callan and his son Alan on the family farm near Dunleer, Co Louth.
Pat Callan and his son Alan on the family farm near Dunleer, Co Louth.

Martin Ryan

It was one of the darkest days of Pat Callan's life when tests confirmed that his dairy herd had become infected with BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy).

The entire herd of nearly 350 Friesians and their offspring were removed for slaughter and a lifetime of careful breeding on the farm at Philipstown, Dunleer was reduced to a memory .

"That was a terrible shock for us," says Pat about the test results in 2002 that confirmed the presence of Mad Cow Disease.

"We lost the whole lot. They took out everything," says Pat who was left with a huge challenge to try and work out the family's future in farming.

"That was a devastating situation for us. It is a horrible situation to be in and we could put in no stock for the next six months - it was a horrible disaster.

"It was so hard to get used to having no cattle around the place in the days and weeks after they were removed,," says Pat who was left with a huge challenge to rebuild his dairy enterprise.

Many of the cows had been bred on the farm and nearly all had been in the herd for several years. While the challenge was daunting, Pat was up for the undertaking.

However, he took the six months before restocking was permitted to consider his options and decided to change from Friesian to Montbeliarde.

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The breed originated in the mountains of eastern France, and was officially registered as a pure breed in 1888. The tough climate of the mountains is believed to have shaped the Montbeliarde as a very hardy cow, able to cope with the coldest and hottest weather conditions, and with an excellent adaptation to all sorts of rearing systems.

For centuries Montbeliarde breeders have also been cheese-makers, and therefore have always paid special attention to milk solids and udder health.

Fourteen years after deciding to invest in the breed, Pat has no regrets and with the part-time assistance of his son, Alan, is successfully running one of the largest Montbeliarde dairy herds in the country with further plans for expansion within the coming year of quota free production environment.

"Having considered breeds other than Friesian, we decided to go for the Montbeliarde. We looked at a few herds around the country first and we liked what we saw so much that we decided to go for the Montbeliarde," he explains.

In autumn 2002 he went to France - home of the Montbeliarde breed - and picked out 100 heifers which became the foundation stock for the rebuilding of the herd.

They were ready to calve shortly after they arrived to their new home and delivered their first crop of progeny in September and October.


"We decided to go for the Montbeliarde because I felt that they are a lovely cow to look at, a lovely strong cow. The fertility is very good and the problems with lameness is a lot better than our experience with the Friesians.

"There is probably not as much milk as with the Friesian but overall they are some cow. We find the cows are doing up to 10 lactations - they have the longevity gene," Pat says.

There are 200 Montbeliarde cows calving down in the herd this spring and the immediate plan is to increase the herd to over 300 cows with 40 heifers calving this spring and another 50 heifers in-calf for the autumn. They plan to put 100 maiden heifers in calf this year for calving in spring 2017.

"We won't be keeping all of the heifers. We will be selling some of them," he explains.

"We have some cross breeding in the herd. When the quota was going we could not get enough Montbeliarde heifers and we bought 65 Friesian heifers to get ready for the end of the quota.

"They were put in calf to sexed semen by a good Montbeliarde bull and that progeny are being put in calf this spring - they are lovely calves. They are nearly all by two bulls, Triomphe and Cortil which are breeding very good progeny," he adds.

With the yearly milk yield averaging around 7,500l at protein of 3.52pc and butterfat of 4.2pc consistency to breeding is carefully monitored with the target always on achieving further improvement as every new generation arrives on the farm.

"We have a technician from France that comes over every year and selects a choice of two bulls for each cow and we are building up the herd with the best that we can get from France.

"We are being directed in the choice of the sire by what they are telling us. In the last few years we are going more for milk in the breeding. We are going for the top milk bulls that are available with the best solids," he says.

"They can be put in calf to any beef bull if you want to. We have put some in-calf to Limousin and they breed very good heifers for suckler herds. It does not matter what they are put in calf to, we find that the calves are worth big money. We are selling the Montbeliarde bulls calves at a week old and getting €300/hd for them," he adds.

He is now selling up to 25 bull calves every year for breeding out of the best of the cows in the herd and finds that most of them are being purchased by Friesian men who are using them for crossing breeding with British Friesian more than the pure Holstein.

There is a steady market for off-farm sales for all the available progeny and they are rarely offered at the sales.

His son, Alan, has finished college and is working with a nearby agri business as well as helping out on the farm.

"The BSE looked a total disaster for us at that time, but now I would not want to go back. It gave us an opportunity to look at alternative breeds and I really like the Montbeliarde," Pat says.

"I have no intention of changing from them although I still keep a few Friesian to see how they go but the main herd will continue to be Montbeliarde."

Interestingly on the multi enterprise farm, which has a sizeable acreage under cereals, more than three quarters of the total land area in use is rented.

"Our grazing block is only 90 acres - 70 owned and 20 rented. We have 300 acres of land rented. There is 100 acres of tillage - growing our own corn, mostly wheat, oats and barley, for home feeding and we have the straw for bedding," he adds.

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