Farm Ireland

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Cracking the genomics beef code

Colm Conlon has hit the Beef Data Genomics scheme targets five years ahead of schedule - We find out how he did it.

Eyes on the prize: Colm Conlon has over 50pc of his herd rated four or five star
Eyes on the prize: Colm Conlon has over 50pc of his herd rated four or five star
Corlurgan Madison: Colm found his latest bull - a Saler - on Donedeal
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The first of 30,000 letters outlining the genetic status of beef farmers' herds will start to arrive in the post this week.

It will be the first time that many suckler farmers will find out what the star rating of their herd really is - and how far they've to go before they hit the key targets set out the in the Beef Data and Genomics Programme.

Colm Conlon has a lot in common with other suckler men. He runs a one-man operation, with 65 cows on a heavy, fragmented farm in Drumlin country on the Monaghan-Armagh border.

However, Colm is different from the majority in one crucial respect - his commercial herd has already reached the final 2020 target of having 50pc of his breeding herd classified as four or five star.

So what did he do different? Here's Colm story.

"We were milking cows until 1994, when I was still working away off-farm as an electrician. We were at that point where we either had to make a lifetime investment in our dairy facilities or we could cash in the quota and buy some land and switch to beef. We chose the latter.

"I came home full-time around the time that my brother died, and a few years later my dad took the early retirement scheme. I was calving about 30-40 cows and buying in a lot of stock from around to finish and taking a heap of land too.

"But during the noughties I realised that I wasn't making much, so I decided to switch focus. I took less land, and concentrated on building up cow numbers and improving my own pasture.

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"By 2010 I was up at 80 cows, and profits were better. But the spring of 2013 hit me hard, because the farm was just not able to cope with the stock numbers that I had.

"So I decided to tweak the system again, this time scaling back the cow numbers to 60, but focusing on better quality animals. You're at nothing if you're only getting a middling calf out of a cow that you have to house for a seven month winter up here.

"That's when I bought my first Simmental bull. He didn't cost a lot and he had a good milk index and was only 4pc for calving difficulty, which is important on a fragmented farm like this. But he didn't have a great star rating and I could see the difference in the ring over the following years when I invested more in my bull.


"It was the next bull that was the real game-changer for me. He was another Simmental, Drumnagar Champion, but he was five star for maternal (€230) and four star (within breed) for terminal (+24kg carcase weight). All his daughters have ended up being four or five star, and I think they're turning into super suckler cows. The bulls progeny were also hitting 330-340kg weaned at eight months. I like to be able to sell the bulls straight off the cows because it keeps the system simple.

The heifers are kept on until about 12 months, which helps spread out cashflow. He cost just under €4,000, but I can see the value he left behind him now. His only weakness is that he is not blood red - I've noticed at the replacement sales that buyers don't want stock with Charolais blood or a mousy colour.

"These types of sales are becoming much more important to me since our discussion group facilitator, Mairead Kirk, started up a maiden heifer sale three years ago.

"This year I averaged €3/kg for the animals I had in that, compared to the €2.60-2.70/kg that I was averaging in Castleblayney or Ballybay.

"The average prices at that sale have also been increasing by about €200/hd each year, with bigger crowds coming each time.

"There was a 92pc clearance of 60 heifers in the catalogue this year, with an average of €1,270, or €2.97/kg. The top price was €1,750 for a 530kg Limousin crossbred. All of the top priced lots had maternal indexes of over €110.

"I use DIY AI on the cows during the winter, but you'd be struggling to find Simmental bulls with four or five star ratings for both maternal and terminal.

"Some bulls also fell really badly - like APZ (Curaheen Apostle) was supposed to be the bull a few years back - now he's only one star on the maternal index.

"I know that the lack of good data behind a lot of these bulls is the problem, and I suppose that we have to start somewhere, but it is frustrating.

"The other thing that caught me out over the last year or two was the fact that foreign bulls didn't have an index.

"So even though I was using good bulls from England or France, they weren't being recognised by the system. I think that's going to change over the coming years but farmers should watch out for that.

"I decided to go with a Saler bull this year - Corlurgan Madison. I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that price was a factor, because I saw him for under €2,000 on Donedeal. He has a replacement index of €288, a calving difficulty of 1pc and is +8.9kg for milk.

"He's three years old and has already done two seasons on the farm that I bought him from, so I've no concerns with fertility.

"But I've also had a good experience with Salers because I bought about nine crossbred Saler heifers in 2004, many of which are still in the herd today. I found them hard wearing and easy to look after, and I've used semen from a Saler bull called Rio that has impressive daughters in the area.

"The Salers have really good maternal indexes, and their terminal index isn't too bad either. They've plenty of milk and really wide pelvis and good pins. I also like the fact that they will leave a calf with plenty of colour.

"Their only drawback is that their kill-out is probably not great, and I'd had a little question mark over their docility."

Genomics scheme at a glance

€52m a year available to beef farmers

Designed to improve the genetic merit of the national beef herd

Will pay participants €100 for the first 10 cows, and €80 for each remaining cow

Participants must be BVD compliant, tag and register calves within 27 days of birth

Farmers will also be required to record calf quality, scour and pneumonia, milking ability, docility and culling reasons

One of the most contentious requirements is that 60pc of the cows, heifers or calves must be genotyped annually, at a cost of approximately €30/hd

Four or five star requirement for:

- 80pc of AI usage from June 2016

- Stock bull by June 2019

- 20pc of the reference number (suckler cows calved in 2014) by October 2018;

- 50pc of the reference number by October 2020;

Complete a Carbon Navigator by 2016;

Stay in scheme for six years

Attend four hour training course for which farmers will be paid an extra €166 each

Farm facts

• 80ac at Oram, Co Monaghan

• Fragmented farm, with land on both sides of the Border

• Starting to reseed 10pc and drain 5pc every year

• Planning to start measuring grass

• Switched from straight nitrogen to compounds after soil sampling in 2013 revealed that much of farm was at index 1 and 2 for phosphorus and potassium

• 55pc of the female herd is rated four or five star

• Bulls sold off the cow at eight months; heifers at 12 months, to spread cashflow

• Maiden heifer sale organised by Teagasc facilitator Mairead Kirk has now become a key premium market outlet

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