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Monday 23 April 2018

Quiet to handle how Stabilisers transformed this suckler farm's profit and labour demand

The Stabiliser composite breed of cattle is winning over converts in the suckler sector

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Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Tipperary farmer Sean Hayden was smitten with Stabiliser cattle from the first moment he saw them, because of their docility.

Back in 2013, Sean's children were coming to an age where they could help out with the sucklers on the family farm at Longford Pass near Thurles, but he felt that this just wasn't safe with the Continentals they had at the time.

Then he got a phone call from AIBP about a trip to see a new breed of cattle called Stabiliser on the farm of Billy O'Kane in Ballymena, Co Antrim.

"I couldn't believe what Billy was saying, that he was making a few quid out of suckling," says Sean.

Stabiliser heifers on the Hayden farm
Stabiliser heifers on the Hayden farm

Though highly sceptical on that front, Sean felt that, even if Stabilisers didn't make any more money than his existing stock, at least the kids would be able to work with them. So he bought a Stabiliser bull.

The following year, being happy with the first cross calves out of his existing cows, Sean bought another bull.

He also bought 10 pedigree heifers from the UK which, due to the exchange rate at the time, ended up costing €1,800/head landed.

Billy O'Kane is among a group of farmers in the North currently selling breeding Stabiliser heifers that are close to pedigree for stg£1,000, approx. €1,100.

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In 2015, Sean bought a further 10 pedigree heifers. His ambition now is to move to a pedigree Stabiliser herd.

Because Sean has discovered that not only are Stabilisers quiet to handle, they have transformed his suckler enterprise in terms of profitability and labour input.

Sean Hayden host farmer and Stabiliser breeder
Sean Hayden host farmer and Stabiliser breeder

Sean farms 107ha, of which 7ha is rented. His suckler herd is now comprised of 30 purebred Stabilisers and 57 commercial cows, being run on 49ha. He also has a haylage enterprise.

ICBF's Herdplus figures show the herd's calving interval is now 363 days, compared to a population average of 400, mortality at birth is 1.3, compared to 4.8, and calves per cow per year is .96, with the average at .82.

But one of the most striking figures, especially in the context of the current push to reduce age at first calving, 100pc of Sean's heifers are calving down at 22 to 26 months, compared to a figure nationally of 24pc.

Equally impressive is the transformation in his Teagasc Profit Monitor which, three years ago, showed a profit of 'zero'.

With the heifer progeny being kept as replacements, the 23 males sold so far have been as young bulls, through the mainstream commercial route, at under 14 months, weighing 341kg and grading from R= through to U+, with one R-.

Premiums of up to 10p/kg are being paid for Stabiliser-sired young bulls, steers and heifers with some UK processors, but there are none as yet in Ireland.

Profit

Sean's net profit has jumped to €475/ha, excluding premia. This is comprised of a gross output of €1,643, less variable costs of €737/ha and fixed costs of €431/ha. Output is 753kg per ha and 331kg per LU.

In terms of labour, Sean describes managing Stabilisers as, "almost like running a herd of drystock". "There is no comparison with Continentals in terms of calving. All you really need to be is a pair of eyes."

Again, though sceptical about Billy O'Kane's assertion that cows close to calving didn't need checking overnight, Sean now only checks them last thing at night and first thing in the morning, and has not encountered problems.

"They calve easy. Even with heifers, it's not an issue. Also, I often had problems getting big heavy Continental calves to suck, but Stabiliser calves at an average birth weight 30 to 35kg are up fast and hardy. It's a huge advantage," says Sean.

Born in the USA from a mix of British and continental breeds

"Our aim is to produce an efficient functional suckler cow without any dairy blood". This is according to Richard Fuller, one of five Yorkshire beef producers who set up the UK's Stabiliser Cattle Company in 1996.

While breeding the Angus Friesian heifer to a Continental bull was fine back in the 1970s and 80s because the resulting carcass was suitable for the market, Mr Fuller says changes in the dairy sector mean the type of cross-bred now coming available is producing meat that is "pretty uncookable", as it has too little fat.

Among the other reasons why he believes there is no place in the suckler herd for modern dairy blood is their higher energy requirement, reduced cow longevity, increased calving difficulties and slower re-breeding.

Given that up to 70pc of the cost in a suckler system is tied up in the dam, Mr Fuller began looking around for an alternative suckler cow, that is "smaller and really efficient", a journey which has ended with the Stabiliser.

The Stabiliser is a composite breed, developed in America in the 1970s.

It's made up of 5/8 British breeds and 3/8 Continental maternal breeds, including Angus, Red Angus, South Devon, Simmental and an old Bavarian breed called Gelbvieh.

"It's vital that the cow is moderate in size, because this allows higher stocking rates," he says, pointing out that Stabiliser cows are about 600 to 650kg.

"It's about the optimum size to get maximum output", says Mr Fuller, adding that his "dream ticket is a Stabiliser cow crossed with an Angus bull".

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