The top beef farmers pointing the way forward in these difficult times

Show stopper: Victoria Kells, Killeshandra, Co Cavan, with the Senior Champion, Dalehill Nadine, which sold for €5,200, at the Irish Charolais Cattle Society Premier Show and Sale of heifers, at GVM Mart Tullamore.
Show stopper: Victoria Kells, Killeshandra, Co Cavan, with the Senior Champion, Dalehill Nadine, which sold for €5,200, at the Irish Charolais Cattle Society Premier Show and Sale of heifers, at GVM Mart Tullamore.

Gerry Giggins

I had the pleasure of taking time out from my usual routine to judge the beef section of the Zurich Farm Insurance/ Farming Independent Farmer of the Year awards.

The shortlisted entrants were of exceptional quality. Their dedication to their individual farming systems in such difficult times can only be admired. All three farms delivered a picture perfect image for all that is great about beef enterprises in this country.

The very impressive winner of the beef award was Dara Walton, who runs a suckler beef herd in conjunction with a dairy calf to beef system in Cappagh, Co Kilkenny.

All cows calve in spring with a compact calving period. Calving commences in mid-January, with the intention of turning cows and calves to grass straight after calving.

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Friesian/Holstein bred bull calves and Angus/Hereford heifers are purchased at three weeks of age from Dara's brother, who is a dairy farmer.

Calves are reared and brought to slaughter from when they reach 21 months. Grassland management is of huge importance on the farm and grazing infrastructure is top quality.

In 2019, the farm grew 15 tonnes of dry matter per hectare. Paddock systems, roadways, water infrastructure and reseeding programme have all led to excellent grass utilisation and animal performance.

In co-operation with his brother, Dara has implemented changes in the breeding strategy and sire selection and these have delivered improved performance and confirmation from the calves from the dairy herd.

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Seventy per cent of the suckler cow herd is artificially inseminated, with the aim of improving the genetic potential of the herd.

All replacement heifers are calving down at 24 months. Dara is showcasing how a suckler beef herd and dairy calf to beef system can be run in conjunction, with a stocking rate of 3.22 LU per hectare and a beef output of 1,327kg/ hectare.

The other shortlisted farmers in the beef category were James Madigan from Ballyhale, Co Kilkenny and Eustace Burke, who farms alongside his mother Deirdre near Carrigaline, Co Cork.

One-man operation

James Madigan's herd is split between autumn and spring calving, which eases the workload for this one-man operation.

Male animals are finished as under-16 month-old bulls, with very impressive lifetime performance and carcass quality. James uses the best genetics from both AI and stock bulls. Genetics are selected for both maternal and terminal characteristics, with a Euro Star index value of €119.

Excellent grassland management, grazing infrastructure and a reseeding programme is in place around the farm, with a stocking rate of 1.89 LU and a beef output of 771kg per hectare.

James has invested in his own silage making equipment - a McHale Fusion baler - and this ensures high quality fodder. He has also invested in animal housing to ensure animal comfort and performance during the housing period

Pedigree herd

Moving south to Co Cork, the Burkes run a pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd consisting of 30 breeding cows plus followers. The herd is primarily autumn calving with the Burkes having moved from an all year calving system.

One hundred per cent artificial insemination is used.

This is combined with a strategic programme involving culling, synchronisation and the use of a teaser bull for a calving interval of 357 days.

All bulls are sold as breeding stock and all heifers are either retained for future breeding or sold.

The Burkes place special emphasis on growing grass, with 95pc of the farm reseeded during the last 10 years and improvements made to soil fertility.

The stocking rate has increased over the same period and now stands at 1.98 LU/ hectare.

There has also been big investment in animal housing, handling facilities and calving facilities. Straw bedded lie back sheds provide animals with excellent comfort, while calves have access to creep areas.

The Burke's are members of BDGP, BEEP, BEAM and Bord Bia Quality Assurance.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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