Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

Why the decision to switch from dairying to pedigree beef breeding has proven a winner for this farmer

Jennie and Seamus Aherne with Rubyjen Harry's Fox sold for €6,600 after being judged Male Champion at Tullamore.
Jennie and Seamus Aherne with Rubyjen Harry's Fox sold for €6,600 after being judged Male Champion at Tullamore.

Martin Ryan

Switching from dairy farming to running a pedigree continental beef breeding herd was a massive change in both culture and lifestyle for Seamus Aherne.

Dairy farming was a tradition on the family farm at Towerhill, successfully carried out for more than 40 years on the holding near Cappamore, in east Limerick.

There had always been a liking for a little bit of continental breeding running beside the dairy herd, which was producing up to 43,000 gallons of milk per annum, and the favoured second choice of breed was Simmental.

"We had some Simmentals on the farm since back in my father's time," says Seamus. "I took over in 1977 but we had a Simmental bull since the early 1970s. My father used to go to Kilkenny and buy a Simmental bull that we would keep for three or four years and then we would go back and buy another."

It made sense then that any decision to increase the pedigree herd would have a definite leaning towards the Simmental breed.

"The decision to get out of dairy farming was a big one," says Seamus, but it was very unlikely that dairy farming would ever have earned for him the success which he has achieved as a pedigree breeder, particularly in recent years.

"I'd say that 2017 has been our best year ever in the Simmentals," he says, adding "we were very successful and got good prices."

Towerhill Happy Harry sold for €8,000 at Roscommon in March and the following month Rubyjen Harrys Foxy from his daughter Jennifer's herd on the farm was named class winner and male champion at Tullamore.

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He went on to secure the highest price at the Irish Simmental Cattle Society Show and Sale where he sold for €6,600 to the Simmental herd of Harte Peat Ltd in Clones.

The successful trend has continued through the year with €4,900 and €4,400 being paid for two bulls at the most recent Simmental Show and Sale at Roscommon.

More progeny from the herd will come under the hammer at the Simmental Society Autumn Evening Show and Sale of bulls and heifers at Tullamore Mart on December 8 which has an entry of 22 bulls and 20 heifers. The show starts at 5pm followed by the sale at 7pm.

Having run a Simmental bull with the dairy herd for many years, the decision to establish a pedigree Simmental herd was taken in 1984.

"When I decided that I would buy a female and breed my own bull I bought one female and the first year she had a bull calf and he went on to become the herd sire," says Seamus.

Grangepark Miriam was a Herrscher daughter purchased from Hibernian Livestock, Co Kilkenny and was followed the next year by the purchase of Island Natalie, a Hamlet daughter bought from Alfred Sweetman, Mullinahone, Co Tipperary. To this day the entire herd has been bred from just these two foundation females with Hamlet being one of the original imported bloodlines.

The first pedigree animals in Towerhill herd were registered in 1985.

The small pedigree herd, which increased to about 10 cows, continued to be run beside the dairy herd until 2008 when the decision to change from dairy farming to pedigree beef breeding was taken.

"The reason that we switched from dairying was because of the labour demand. We had no help and with a spring and autumn calving herd we were milking seven days a week for 52 weeks of the year and we were being burned out from it," says Seamus.

"As well as that, the family was not showing an interest in the dairy farming but they were very interested in the Simmentals," he adds.

"I never regretted it but it was a big decision to take at that time and it made a big difference to our income when it happened," he explained.

"We were producing over 43,000 gallons and would know roughly what the income for the year would be.

"Under the system we were operating - spring and autumn calving - we had a milk cheque every month for the whole year.

"We were going to miss that, but the family were all grown up by 2008 and we had not to meet the same commitments as previously," he adds.

"I enjoyed milking always, I loved it. It was always very interesting, but it was very demanding seven days a week. Looking back I have no regrets for changing.

"It has worked out well for me," he said.

His daughter Jennifer is keenly interested in farming, particularly in pedigree breeding. She has now registered her own herd, Rubyjen Simmentals, continuing the breeding success. Says Seamus: "We gave her a heifer [to start her own herd] for her 21st birthday and she has built up her own herd. She is the backbone of the herd now."

Jennifer bought one Simmental from the late David Wall but other than that her herd is all home bred.

"Hamlet was one of the original breeding lines that came in and he bred very well for me. Most of the cows in the herd now are from that line," says Seamus.

"I like the Simmental for their milk - their milk is selling the Simmentals at the moment - that is what farmers are going for. I sold two bulls last year to suckler farmers who previously had other continental breeds and bought them for their docility," he says.

"They are docile as can be and that makes them easy to handle which suckler farmers are looking for," adds Seamus.

Towerhill Winston paved the way

One of the first animals from the herd to be shown at shows was Towerhill Winston, a Seabank Pedro son, who was a first place winner at Limerick Show in 1989. He was later purchased by Northern Ireland breeder, Cecil Mcllwaine for his Corrick Herd. Winston bred successfully within the Corrick herd and across Northern Ireland, siring the AI bull Corrick Competitor and he features in the breeding of another AI bull, Woodhall Premier. The first National Title for the Towerhill Herd came when the Hillcrest Butcher son Towerhill Edward won the All-Ireland Yearling Bull at the National Ploughing Championships in Carlow in 1995.

Towerhill Romeo captured the National Yearling Bull Championship at Strokestown Show in 2002 and was later purchased by Kildare breeder Richard Farrell for his Bishopscourt Herd.

The Towerhill Herd has been a keen supporter of the Tully Performance Testing Centre with Towerhill Nathan topping the Simmental breed in spring 2003 and selling to NI breeder Malachy Hamill for his Kilcorn Herd in Portadown, Co Armagh.

Another first for Towerhill Simmentals came in November 2011 at the Roscommon Premier Sale when the 10-month old Towerhill Christy was purchased by Gerald Smith for his Drumsleed Herd in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Seamus has also devoted time to both the South Western Simmental Club and the Irish Simmental Cattle Society. Over the past 30 years, he became the longest serving club chairperson of the six clubs, serving as south west chairperson for 20 years. He is club president currently. Seamus also represented his club at national level serving on national council from 1996 to 2004 - serving a term as vice president.

In 2016 he was presented with the Simmental National Hall of Fame award in recognition of his life-long contribution. His daughter, Jennifer, is currently a member of the society's national council.

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