Farm Ireland

Saturday 17 March 2018

Opinion: Stabilisers may be needed to steady our suckler market

Stabiliser heifers on the Hayden farm
Stabiliser heifers on the Hayden farm
A suckler cow and its calf
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Last week, I attended an Open Day for a breed of cattle I have only recently heard of, Stabilisers. I came away asking if they could be the saviour of commercial Irish suckler farming?

Stabilisers look small and plain, especially the calves. However, Antrim farmer Billy O'Kane, who's been farming Stabilisers for the past 12 years, has a different take: "They are a bank manager's breed, not a red rosette breed."

The underlying principle of Irish suckler production has long been cross-breeding; marrying the good bits of both parents to produce a marketable offspring whilst maintaining hybrid vigour.

But what if, instead of repeatedly reinventing the wheel, there was a breed which had the benefits of cross-breeding without having to cross-breed and, also, that the offspring is more uniform.

Stabilisers claim to combine the fleshing ability, marbling, and moderate size of the British breeds with the muscle, growth and efficiency of the Continental breeds, whilst retaining 75pc of the hybrid vigour of a first cross.

A smaller cow means a smaller carcass. But this is what we are being told the market wants. Smaller cows mean you can keep more of them so total output is not compromised.

Instead of trying to sell the kind of carcass that we want to supply because this is what we are used to producing, could we supply what the factories want… and make more money?

Could this be possible and, moreover, could it form the basis for a premium, identifiable, Irish suckled beef animal, raised on grass by its own dam, which has no dairy input.

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It's an exciting thought.

Other interesting aspects are the Stabiliser's ease of management and their docility.

Rather than a breed society as we would be familiar with, the Stabiliser project is being run through a UK commercial company called the Stabiliser Cattle Company (SCC).

For most farmers, the likely entry route to the breed would be to buy a Stabiliser bull to breed replacement heifers.

The SCC recommendation is that this breeding back would be done for at least a few generations to gain the full benefits of the Stabiliser as an efficient maternal breed.

Another point worth mentioning is that pedigree stock are not shown other than, say, at Open Days.

Apparently this is because the SCC don't want appearance becoming a distraction from the only thing they feel that matters - efficiency.

Some people may be put off by this raw commercialism, but is this its strength?

We have about 20 Stabiliser sired calves this year. While we would not usually breed our own replacements, we will be hanging on to them.

Sean Hayden's event attracted a crowd of around 150 and it was obvious from the questions asked that there is a good deal of interest - as well as some understandable suspicion - about Stabilisers.

For every question, the SCC seems to have an answer.

Producers of other traditional breeds will point out that they also yield marbelled meat but the SCC say Stabilisers lay down less back fat.

Other things that strike me:

1. The name. To me, Stabilisers are something to stop kids from falling over when they are learning to ride a bike. On the other hand, perhaps the name's obscurity makes it more memorable!

2. Stabilisers will not appeal to weanling producers. There are people in this country who would give their eye teeth for a strapping white Charolais "wanelin" bull.

3. Breeding bulls are priced according to specification, ranked across 20 traits. But we sell our finished stock on spec so is this really any different?

Commercial Irish suckler production is at a cross-roads. Perhaps Stabilisers offer a way forward. At the very least, they should be part of the conversation.

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