New president of the Irish Angus Society intent on preserving traditional bloodlines of country's 'best' performer
Growing up on the family livestock farm in north Kerry, John O'Sullivan got to know a lot about the Angus breed from a very early age.
His father, Timothy, travelled regularly to the street fairs and markets in the county and the surrounding areas of west Limerick and north Cork buying and selling Angus cattle.
He was a man who loved livestock, particularly the Angus breed, which provided a livelihood for him on his farm at Rahavanig, situated between Listowel and the seaside town of Ballybunion.
He regularly entered his young Angus bulls for the Annual Bull Show and Sale at Fitts' Paddocks in Limerick, which was one of the largest and best-known bull sales in the country from the early years of the 20th century up to the 1970s.
His son, John, recalls: "I remember the work he'd put into caring and preparing the Angus bulls in advance of the sales and I suppose he passed on that love of animals to me by the attention that he showed to breeding and showing the best.
"He was an Angus man through and through because he always maintained that they were capable of holding their own with any beef breed and were more suitable to the Irish conditions than the continental breeds, with ease of calving and easily maintained," he added.
John followed up his interest in animals by qualifying as a veterinary surgeon and setting up a practice in his own area of north Kerry.
The original Rahavanig Angus herd was founded in 1992 in north Kerry with foundation stock from Knockmountagh Dunlever and a small herd called the Lacken herd from Hillstreet in Roscommon.
It's a decision that has led to John's election as President of the Irish Angus Society for 2019.
In between, he had built up a herd of 84 pedigree Angus cows, using AI and ET, having purchased some of the best foundation stock in the country; suffered the devastation of the liquidation of the herd under the Disease Eradication Scheme; changed from running his own veterinary practice to working as a veterinary officer with the Department of Agriculture; and moved to Westmeath to re-establish his pedigree Angus herd.
The liquidation of the herd in 2002 following an outbreak of brucellosis, which had ravaged herds in Limerick and north Cork during the 1990s, was "a big blow", wiping out the work which had gone into building up the best breeding lines.
"We managed to rebuild the present herd from some of the original breeding lines by purchasing stock from some of the well-known breeders in Meath, Louth and Roscommon, which has worked out well," he said.
John is presently farming on 200 acres at Castletown Geoghegan, of which 60 is owned and the balance rented and leased, while his work with the Department of Agriculture is based out of the department office at Tullamore.
"We started in Westmeath in 2002, buying back some heifers that we had sold from the original herd and new purchases from Knockmountagh, Drumcrow, Clooncolligan and Aughnamona herds, and also bought the entire Drumdeevin herd when it was dispersed," he said.
"This time we changed tack and only used stock bulls, buying proven sires such as Flowerhill Prince and Drumcarbin Plankton and other stock bulls that had a significant impact on the herd, including our home-bred Rahavanig Lord Horace, Steil Tommy and Dubhgiolla Fear Mor. The two latest additions include 2015 Irish Angus Elite Champion Drumcrow Laporto and Clooncolligan Noddy," he said. "I believe that breeders should stick to the traditional Irish Angus bloodlines and I am not in favour of some of the imported genes getting into the breed because the traditional Irish Angus is still the best animal for performance under Irish conditions," he said.
"I have seen the Angus breed in many parts of the world, and I have to say, I haven't seen anything that can do justice to what we have in this country.
"We sell about 25 bulls annually, with 75pc to 80pc selling to repeat customers. Most bulls now sell at 18 to 24 months, which is a big change from when we started when all bulls were sold as yearlings. Our customers do not want an overfed show bull - they want a bull to serve 30-plus heifers and probably mop up cows as well. He has to be fit, not fat," he said.
"We still have a strong customer base in north Kerry, where half of our bulls find new homes every year. All sales are from the farm - we do not show our cattle at summer shows," he added.
The breed has seen rapid expansion over the past two decades, boosted by the premium for the breed at the factories and very successful promotions, in particular the ABP-Aldi contract and the Certified Angus Beef Producer Group.
Since first offering its private-label Angus beef range in 2008, Aldi claims to now account for up to 33pc of Angus retail beef sales in Ireland.
In 2018, Aldi agreed to continue as the lead sponsor of the Aldi Irish Angus All-Ireland Bull Calf Championships until 2022.
It represents an investment of €100,000 by Aldi, ABP Ireland and the Irish Angus Cattle Society over the next four years. Since the competition was launched back in 2012 in conjunction with its partner companies, participation has increased by 40pc and the annual competition sees Ireland's very best Irish Angus bull calves and their breeders battle it out for a share of a generous prize fund each year.
With the suitability of the Angus as an easy calving breed for crossing with the dairy herds, the expansion of dairy cows since the abolition of the milk quota in 2015 has seen Angus account for nearly 40pc of beef breeds used on the dairy herds in the country.
However, John has a note of caution on the continued expansion.
"I think that we may be coming close to what the markets can take and need to be careful not to get into an over-supply situation," he said.
As to his ambitions for his term as president of the Society: "I would like to see us putting more into ensuring that we preserve the traditional trials of the Angus.
"My aim as president is to continue the good work of my predecessors in promoting Irish Angus genetics and bloodlines because I believe they are the best.
"Of course, we can blend some of the 'new' Angus genetics into our breeding programmes to help the breed evolve and develop, but we have to be very careful to protect our core values of easy calving and easy-fed cattle that produce a premium product at the end of the day."
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