Farm Ireland

Friday 23 February 2018

Model herd... of award winning Charolais

Strong maternal traits are the foundation of Hubert Nicholson's award-winning Charolais suckler herd

Hubert Nicholson with some of the Charolais herd on his farm at Slane
Hubert Nicholson with some of the Charolais herd on his farm at Slane

Martin Ryan

Ease of management is the trait around which the success of the Charolais herd on Hubert Nicholson's farm has been built over the past two decades.

Established 24 years ago by Hubert, the Heemskerk Ireland Ltd herd at Fennor, in the shadow of the historic Hill of Slane, ticks all of the boxes on the 'model' suckler herd checklist.

"My aim is to breed for the maternal traits" says Hubert.

He singlehandedly runs the herd of 116 sucklers, whose progeny perform at an average of 1.21kg/day "off grass only" from birth to weanling stage.

It's a performance which many of the suckler farmers who enjoyed a recent farm walk on the land would be very pleased to be able to replicate on their own farms.

The open day on Hubert's farm, was organised by the Irish Charolais Cattle Society to demonstrate what can be achieved with the breed, and what is realistic in a practical farm situation.

The Slane herd - winner of the Charolais Society Suckler Herd of the Year award for 2015 - is an excellent example of what can be achieved by focusing on development of the maternal traits of the breed for suckler production.

The 116 breeding females in the spring calving herd comprise 52 pedigree Charolais, with a further 60 Charolais crossbred and a few Simmentals.

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"I plan to have the cows calving between mid-February and mid-April and use synchronisation to keep the calving pattern compact", explains Hubert.

"I don't want the calves too early in February because it is longer to get them out to grass - there is no meal fed - and I like to have the calves in good batches for ease of management", he added.

Like all beef production units calving time can be very busy on the farm.

"I aim not to have more than five or six cows calving the same day, because that is about what can be handled in a one man unit."

Sires for the herd are carefully selected for their maternal traits and ease of calving with the focus on breeding replacement females to make good mothers.

The majority of the bulls used over the years have been tested through the ICBF Maternal Gene Ireland Programme.

Hubert recalls some of the early test bulls like Mandela Veron and Dromiskin Viceroy, two bulls which had very positive impacts on the herd as has had Coom Indurain and Heracles both of which have been used heavily.

"I have found that Croom Enduran is very good for easy calving and I am very happy with the length of the calves after Heracles."

Two stock bulls have also made an impact on herd.

The first bull is Dreena Bevis, a nine year old sire who has a calving figure of 4.3pc and a five star replacement index. Bevis is a son of Vera Cruz out of a Doonally Olmeto bred cow.

The second is a young homebred sire, Fennor's Inferno. This young bull is sired by Rancard and he also boasts a five star replacement index.

Both bulls were selected for their ease of calving and their maternal traits.

Hubert is quick to highlight the huge emphasis he always puts on sire selection for easy calving, milk, fertility and most importantly docility.

Over the years sons of bulls like Repair, Meath Alcazar and Urtillo BP have been used within the herd. The majority of the cows on the farm today are bred down from these lines.

The system of production in place on the farm is calf to weanling for the bulls, and calf to yearling for the heifers.

The bulls are sold privately off the farm to repeat buyers annually who then bring them to bull beef. The majority of which are slaughtered at under 16 months of age.

The heifers are sold in early spring as yearlings, with the top 25-30pc being kept as replacements.

The performance figures are very impressive with the weanlings averaging a daily live weight gain of 1.21kg/day from birth, solely on their mothers off grass.

So what is the secret of success for such performance without meal feeding?

"Grass quality is very important. With the spring calving I try and hit the peak time of the year for grass quality and operate a rotation of reseeding 10-15 acres of the farm every year," he says.

The herd's calving interval in 2014 was 393 days considerably shorter than the national average of 412 days.

The average number of calves produced per cow in the herd in 2014 was 0.89, which was well above the national average of 0.79. Hubert is continuing to target further shortening the calving interval.

The herd demonstrates exactly what can be achieved from good milky cows, that calve every year, producing calves that are vigorous at birth with a will to survive and underlines what the Charolais breed can produce as a maternal type animal.

The visitors to the farm could not but be impressed with the herd and the practical approach which Hubert has adopted to getting the best out of the breed.

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