Cow type, optimum grass use and calf health are the focus for Dara Walton at his suckler and dairy-calf-to-beef enterprise on 135 acres at Cappagh, Co Tipperary, on the Kilkenny border.
The reigning Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Beef Farmer of the Year has farmed full-time for the last two years, having previously farmed part-time for 12 years while working as a distributor for a specialist agricultural company.
Dara’s drive to create a viable farm business centred on grass-based production points to the possibilities for the future of the Irish suckler herd.
“We’re in a strong position in Ireland with grass-based production,” says the UCD Agricultural Science graduate. “Grass is our biggest competitive advantage as we can get cattle to grass for the majority of the year. It’s the biggest way of keeping our costs down.”
Passionate about farming from an early age, Dara bought his first land at the age of 24 and has invested in extensive reseeding, fencing and farm facilities.
He and his wife Muireann have a nine-month-old daughter, Elouise and live off farm, across the Kilkenny border in Callan.
The suckler herd consists of 60 spring calving cows with mostly Limousin, Simmental and some Belgian Blue genetics.
Having invested in a foundation herd of mostly Simmental dams, all replacement heifers have since been bred on-farm. Crucial to that breeding programme has been a selection for functional traits.
“Fertility is number one. I need to have a cow calving every 365 days,” he says. “I’m not obsessed with milk in a cow and I don’t pay too much attention to stars.”
Dairy genetics have gradually been removed from the suckler herd. Comparing the calves off cows with dairy cross and solely beef genetics, Dara claims that only one has the shape, breeding and potential to grow into a U-grade animal.
“I find that the calf off a milkier cow with dairy genetics might be in better shape come weaning but by their second year, the calf off the cow with more shape than milk will always drive ahead.”
The herd is easily fleshed, which lowers the cost of feeding. Cows are fed straw to slim down when initially housed, and there is never a need for ad lib silage.
Cows are run in the same groups all year round, which has led to easier management, reduced fighting and fewer calving problems.
Heifers are run with the main cow herd to get used to the farm system and therefore are extremely docile. The majority can be scratched in the field, which makes handling and calving much easier.
The herd is covered by a mix of AI and two stock bulls, a Limousin and a Charolais.
Dara takes care to organise his week to have time for life off farm at the weekends when possible.
“I operate a five-day week for AI, Monday to Friday, with the bulls let in only at weekends to avoid bringing cattle into the yard on those days.
“Bulls are matched to cow type and a selection of terminal and maternal sires are used. All heifers are bred to Salers with the aim of producing an easily calved, fast-growing weanling with size and colour.”
This year, the first cow calved on January 24, and 70pc of the herd calved within the first six weeks. Calving is run efficiently with a high intake of colostrum and hygiene at its core.
Dara has capacity for 10 calving pens but most often uses five or six easily cleaned pens which are viewable by farm cameras — necessary when you live off-farm.
“There’s no cow that goes in to calve on the bed of a previously calved cow,” he says. “I try to have every cow calve in a nice clean bed, and each pen is limed and cleaned out daily.”
An effort has been made to allow for the easy and safe movement of stock between calving pens, and all sheds are flexible to facilitate maximum use of space.
This year’s calves have been out since January 30, with the aim being to get cows milking off grass as soon as possible.
For the first number of weeks, cows and calves were let out to grass during the day and brought back in at night. Calves are given access to a straw-bedded lean-to and cows stay in cubicles which were installed in 2018.
In a recent move that Dara says has brought a few questions from onlookers, calves wear calf jackets.
“I got the idea off Twitter. I was talking to a guy who has calf jackets and limited calving facilities,” he explains. “He was calving his cows and putting them out the next day with the jackets on them. The calves were the hardiest I’d ever seen.
“Meanwhile, I was getting bits of crypto and pneumonia, and I thought the jackets would give the calves that extra bit of protection.
“If I can prevent having to get a vet to the yard to treat any calves, then that’s money well spent in my view. It’s more of a prevention than cure approach with them. For me, it has worked. I haven’t had to put a needle in any of them this year so far.”
Dara also rears 40 Friesian bull calves — which he buys off his brother Pat, who farms nearby, at two to three weeks old — plus 20 Angus and Hereford heifer calves.
Calf rearing has been fine-tuned, with hygiene and a simple calf diet carefully adhered to.
Like those of the suckler herd, calves are housed at night on a thick straw bed and let out to grass during the day when weather permits. Dara describes the early move to grass and fresh air as crucial to calf health.
“It’s key that every calf gets a good start,” he says. “They come to me healthy and after that it’s about keeping them clean, well bedded, and well fed.
“I keep a close eye on them and, in general, I don’t tend to have any problems.”
All bull calves are castrated in July and weaning takes place before October.
“It’s usually September but weather will dictate. If the weather starts getting wet, the cows are brought in and they’ll be weaned,” Dara says.
Carrying all stock to their second year, Dara has developed a streamlined system of group rotations to make best use of quality silage and shed space.
“I’m flexible with when I sell my cattle,” he says. “That’s why I don’t run them as bulls. I can sell them any time. If marts are not good, I’ll carry them a bit further. I watch the markets and when trade is good, I let stock on.”
The Angus and Hereford heifers are finished in September, and this year the first group of Friesian bulls were killed on November 15 and the last on January 15.
Passionate about Irish agriculture and the potential for future growth in the sector, Dara Walton feels we could all do more to fight the stereotype of Irish farmers being “spent and outdated”.
“Farmers are now becoming more and more educated,” he says. “We’re taking on the best of technology.
“We should be looking at ourselves as businesspeople. I run my own business.
“We need to change the image that is portrayed of us.”
Dara’s beef system makes full use of the best resource our Irish climate has to offer — grass.
Maintaining that environment and the efficiencies it enables his farm to have are vital.
He questions the portrayal of Irish farmers, and beef farmers specifically when it comes to climate change.
“I think farmers are easy targets at the moment in the climate change debate,” he says.
“We need the people representing us to be educated and strong on the specifics of climate change.
“We also need more young farmers representing us.
“Irish farmers are the solution to reducing our carbon emissions, not the problem.”