Farm Ireland

Monday 21 January 2019

The French connection - how the Aubrac breed has gone from zero to 170 herds in the last 20 years in Ireland

Estimated 7,000-8,000 Aubrac calves being born each year

Mireille McCall with the oldest Aubrac bull in the country, 14-year-old Nolorgues Unicorn, one of the stock bulls on the farm at Kilcullen
Mireille McCall with the oldest Aubrac bull in the country, 14-year-old Nolorgues Unicorn, one of the stock bulls on the farm at Kilcullen

Martin Ryan

Her decision to order the first import of Aubrac cattle into this country has etched Mireille McCall's name into the annals of Irish pedigree beef breeding.

The 75-cow Aubrac breeding herd of Mireille and her husband Kim on their 200-acre farm at Calverstown, Kilcullen goes back to her endeavours to establish the breed in this country in the late 1990s.

"There was a lot of breeds to choose from at that time. We had been keeping some continentals but we found them very big animals for our farm, and we were actively looking for an animal that would be easier to maintain with the idea of having more of them on the same acreage," says Mireille. "We were really looking for something that was that bit different from the rest when we saw the Aubrac in a breed catalogue. When we had a look at them, we really liked what we saw and felt that they were really what we wanted," she added.

In early 1997, she purchased nine Aubrac females, which became the first live animals of the new breed imported into this country - and the first birth from a live import of the breed into Ireland was born on the Kildare farm in February 1997, from which the present herd has been built.

Today, there are almost 170 Aubrac herds across all counties in the country with an estimated 7,000-8,000 calves being born each year.

On January 30, 2018, the Irish Aubrac Cattle Breed Society and Irish Herd Book will be 20 years in existence, of which Mireille was the first society secretary and first herd book Registrar.

She is presently secretary of the 19-member national council, working on arrangements to celebrate the anniversary in early summer which members of the society in France are expected to attend.

The first meeting of the new breed council was held at the Hibernian Hotel, Mallow on April 23, 1998 at which James O'Brien, Dromskehy, Clonbanin, Mallow was elected the first chairman and Kim McCall elected the first vice-chairman, while his wife, Mireille, became the first secretary and was Herd Book Registrar for the first 12 years of the breed development in this country.

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The original interest by Irish breeders in Aubrac goes back to the early 1990s when a number of breeders, mainly in the south of the country, imported embryos at a cost of around £800 each, among them Sean O'Driscoll, Skibbereen who is understood to have been the first to successfully breed Irish Aubrac from the imported embryos.

Mireille McCall, who is a native of Dijon in the heart of the Burgundy region, used her local knowledge of France to make contact with the Union Aubrac directly and was put in touch with breed technician, Philippe Labarbarie, who arranged for her visit to see herds.

"I went to France in 1995 and had a look at the Aubrac. The French herd book people brought me to see some herds, but we could not work out at that time how to bring them back to Ireland," she recalled.

"Some time later I came across a Salers breeder who said that he was going over to buy some Salers and suggested that I go over and all the animals could be brought back together - and that is what I did in the autumn of 1996," she added.

The first nine females imported were on the Kilcullen farm in January 1998. The first calf was born to Jasmin the following month and named, Nanib. Thereafter the herd was completely converted to pedigree-registered Aubrac.

Twenty years later she is convinced that her decision to invest in Aubrac has been fully vindicated.

"They have lived up to our expectations one hundred per cent. We find them very good... it was the correct decision," she said.

"Low maintenance is very important because it is the money that is not going out that you make your margin from and that is very, very important. They are very placid animals and finish very well so they are versatile," she added.

While up to 12 of the male progeny of the herd each year are registered and planned for breeding, most of the progeny are now sold as weanlings with plenty of demand to finish them as commercial beef animals "because they are an easily finished breed and perform well as beef animals".

The herd continues to make history within the breed. Nolorgues Unicorn, a 14-year-old stock bull, is still performing well on the farm and is the oldest Aubrac bull still working in Ireland and believed to be the oldest 'working' bull of the breed in Europe.

He is the sire of Ballinclea Babette, bred by Ernest and Lionel Mackey, Donard, Co Wicklow, which was awarded the coveted Royal Dublin Society Overall Suckler Cow, "Champion of Champions", in 2015.

ICBF has taken in two Aubrac bulls as part of the GeneIreland test programme.

For Mireille McCall, there is no going back and she is looking forward to marking a milestone for the breed in this country later in the year.

Back from the brink of extinction

Thirty Irish Aubrac breeders recently travelled to the Aveyron region in France, the home of the Aubrac cattle, to compare the progress of the Irish sector and discuss lessons to be learned for the future growth.

The visit was organised and led by Mireille McCall, who was returning to her native country, and she was accompanied by James Donnellan, chairman of the Irish Aubrac Cattle Breed Society Ltd, council members and some breeders.

The first stop was the Benedictine abbey in Aubrac village, which for centuries has been a stop-off point on one of the Camino pilgrimage routes.

The breed was first developed there in the 17th century. Aubrac cows provided milk for cheesemaking, and draught bullocks were trained to work the land in these hilly areas until the early 20th century.

After World War II, the competition from tractors and specialist dairy breeds took its toll on the breed which came close to extinction by the 1970s, but committed breeders got together to halt the decline. The Union Aubrac was formed in 1979 and the breed has grown rapidly since and there are an estimated 207,000 Aubrac cows spread across France.

On David Cayrel's farm in Le Buisson, 55pc of the Aubrac herd are bred to Culard Charolais and the heifers fattened at 30 months, for the Fleur d'Aubrac scheme. They are finished on hay, and a specialist concentrate mix, killed at 550kg carcass weight, and fetch €5-5.20/kg.

On Les Vialettes farm at Severac le Chateau they viewed the 65 cow suckler herd which consists of Aubracs and some Limousins. Calves are finished for veal at under eight months on milk, grass and a two-thirds homegrown cereals and one-third organic concentrate mix. These calves sell for €7/kg.

"The final visit was to Chaudes-Aigues, the farm of Union Aubrac president Yves Chassany. This is a difficult farm, where the ground is very dry, and soil quality poor and the farm converted to organic three years ago," said Mireille.

"The emphasis on this farm is very much on breed selection, and the priority being a good maternal cow.

"The home farm provides good spring grazing before the cattle are sent to the hills for the summer.

"Climate change is a problem in France, too, but unlike Ireland, where the seasons are getting wetter, here it's getting drier," she added.

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