Italian bulls deliver the goods in Tipp
North Tipperary farmer Paul Slattery is getting impressive beef results from crossing a Piemontese bull with his Holstein Friesian cows, reports Martin Ryan
His neighbours in North Tipperary were mystified when they saw that Paul Slattery had put a Piemontese bull with his large herd of Holstein-Friesian cows in the middle of the prime mating season.
"I'd say that they were a few eyebrows raised all right," says Paul, who farms top quality dairy land at Clashnevin between Nenagh and Toomevara. "A few people asked me what was I at and warning me that I was going to ruin the herd."
Although it is more than a third of a century since the first of the Piemontese breed were imported into Ireland from Northern Italy where they are a dominant breed, the progress of the breed in this country has been slow.
The Italians love the Piemontese for the double muscling animal's performance for beef production and the popularity of the meat for its flavour and tenderness.
Most of the breed numbers in Ireland are to be found within suckler herds, many of them being used to cross breed with other popular beef breeds, which leaves Paul Slattery a rare exception by deciding to pioneer running a Piemontese bull with a high yielding dairy herd.
Paul is an intensive dairy producer on 106 acres owned at Clashnevin, plus 20 acres leased nearby on which he pushed his dairy herd to 215 cows before easing back to the current herd size of 180 cows.
Last year the herd produced an average of 8,315 litres of milk and 687kg of solids with meal feeding topping two tonnes/cow when the farm suffered severely from the drought during the summer heatwave.
Average production this year is predicted at 8,500 litres/cow with meal feeding at 1.7-1.8 tonnes/cow "because the intake of meal is delivering the higher solids".
He remembers his father, Tommy, used a Piemontese bull on Belgian Blue cross cows some years ago, targeting the Italian market for weanlings off the suckler herd on the farm at that time, but when that market died off he did not bother further with them and went back to developing the dairy Holstein-Friesian herd.
"Six years ago I started using Hereford and Angus bulls for cross-breeding in the herd, after providing for replacements, because I wanted to try and put more value into the calves," says Paul. "I shortened the breeding season with the Holstein-Friesian bulls to five or six weeks and used the beef breeds after that, but I found that became a bit of a hit and miss different years with the prices that were going for the Hereford and Angus calves," he added.
"Some years were great and others were average enough. I was looking for something that was easy to manage and a bit more beef with very easy calving and better returns."
After spending some time researching what may best meet his target objectives, he became interested in the Piemontese breed as the most promising. He was more convinced that Piemontese offered opportunity after seeing Niall Gleeson's herd at Borrisoleigh, not far away in North Tipperary.
"I saw the calves he was getting off Friesian cows and, seeing them as yearlings, I thought that they were good beef animals and straight away I was very interested that the Piemontese was what I was looking for," he says.
He purchased a bull from the herd at Borrisoleigh and ran an Angus and Piemontese with his herd at the same time. There was no difference in the gestation period between the cows in-calf to the Piemontese and the Angus, and the 25 cows in-calf to the Piemontese "all calved themselves with ease".
He found that there was a ready market for the Holstein-Friesian x Piemontese calves at prices ranging from €20-€60/head more than Hereford or Angus, adding up to a tidy bonus on sales off the farm.
In 2018 he ran a Flechvieh, a Montbeliarde and two Piemontese bulls with the herd after using Holstein-Friesian for the initial weeks of the season. All the Piemontese cross calves were forward booked by neighbouring dairy and beef farmer, Tim Howard.
The oldest of the 2019 crop are now approaching four months, and Tim is "very happy" with their performance because "they are every bit as good as three to four-month-old continental cross calves and already starting to show the double muscling".
"There is a suckler farmer interested in buying the heifers for breeding and I will decide whether to finish the males as young bull beef or bullocks," he says.
"They are certainly showing the potential to grade well, even at three to four months and I reckon they are better than some of the continental cross calves off the dairy herds for finishing as beef," he adds.
Paul Slattery is optimistic too about the future for the route in crossing with the herd which he has taken by using the Piemontese to follow on after the Holstein-Friesian.
"I don't think I would go back at this stage. I am positive about calf beef if it is done right for the top markets and we have to target the best markets to get a return," he says.
"One of the big advantages of the Piemontese is that they are very tough. The calves are very hardy when they are born and there is fire in them although they look small and they are light in weight.
"Without assistance they are up to the cow within half an hour to an hour if you are not there to feed them and they have a very good survival instinct in them," he adds.
"At six weeks they are just starting to show their shape and at six-12 months they are taking off and you'd start to see the extra muscle in them."
Paul is not easily convinced of the breeding merits of bulls based on their figures and insists on only buying stock bulls from herds after he has seen the dams, even if that requires travelling North to inspect the herd.
At this stage his Flechvieh came out of Antrim, a Montbeliarde from Fermanagh, and the two Piemontese running with the herd are from Borrisoleigh and Kildare.
He is very conscious that the route he is following in breeding is far from the conventional for dairy farmers but he is gaining more confidence that his system has a lot to offer, particularly as the offspring of the dairy herd comes under pressure on their potential for finishing as beef animals.
"I'd say that they (neighbours) are still watching me and some of them also thought that I was mad going to Northern Ireland to buy bulls," he says. "But I find that they are more extreme in some traits and I like what I am getting. I always want to see the herd that they are coming out of because that tells me a lot on what I can expect and it is working for me anyway."
Can Piemontese be the solution to increasing the value of surplus calves without the risk of difficult calvings? It may be that Paul Slattery has found the solution for the dairymen.
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