Reality bites: Don't make excuses for poorly performing cows in your herd

Winter is coming...
Winter is coming...

Robin Talbot

One of the big questions in beef farming at the moment seems to be 'Is the suckler cow finished?' I certainly hope not.

All things dairy are flavour of the month at the moment. I attended the Teagasc national beef conference in Kilkenny last week which was entitled Profitable beef from the dairy herd.

The two main points I took away from the conference were:

1.To make money from fattening dairy bred calves, you need high stocking rates and, a point that was repeated by many of the speakers, an extremely high level of stockmanship and expertise.

2.The farmer speakers who have been operating some of these systems over a number of years all warned how important it is that the calves can be bought cheaply.

It was also interesting to hear the paper on rearing healthy calves where the emphasis was put on purpose-built calf rearing sheds and the speaker stressed how you can't rear healthy calves in unsuitable housing.

The question that I, as a suckler farmer, ask myself – and I would suggest that every suckler farmer needs to do the same – is whether the entire system's not viable or is it poor performance by individual animals within the herd that drags the whole system down?


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Most agree that it costs in the region of €600-700 per annum to keep a suckler cow. This is a good time of year for a farmer with a spring-calving herd to examine his herd of cows and calves before they are weaned.

How many calves are there in the herd that will not cover the cost of keeping the dam and leave a contribution to the farm income?

This isn't a pleasant task but it is economic reality. We are all guilty of making excuses for keeping individual cows but there should be no excuse; if she isn't performing she shouldn't be going back into the breeding herd for next year.

Here on the farm, calving is starting to wind down with just a few stragglers left. At this stage I feel safe commenting on what has been a fantastic autumn for calving cows. We already mentioned the difficulties we had calving the heifers but the cows were a dream.


Practically every cow calved unassisted, producing a healthy vigorous calf.

There was a complication with one of the cows having twins and we lost one twin.

Another cow had what appeared to be a perfectly healthy calf but after about eight hours, it was obvious that all was not well with him.

The vet diagnosed an internal blockage and he died quite quickly.

We have had four sets of twins so for the first time ever we have more live calves than cows calved.

Interestingly, the normal heifer/bull calf ratio has return to a 50/50 split.

Coincidentally or not, for the past two years that we had a high percentage of heifers, we had very few sets of twins.

In this past week, we have given all the groups of cows rearing the stronger calves their IBR booster shot.

At the same time, their calves also got their IBR live vaccine inter-nasally.

We were delighted with the health and the quality of the calves as we put them through the crush.

The beef bulls that we are finishing under 16 months appear to be thriving and they seem to spend all their time sleeping or eating. I've never seen such a contented group of animals.

These cattle will hopefully be slaughtered in December. Looking at them in the shed, I'm confident that we will have fairly decent carcase weights though I think a few of them will struggle to get the necessary fat cover.

For any bulls that we feel don't have a sufficient fat cover, the plan is be to feed them on for another two months.


We would like to take the opportunity in this column to wish John Shirley well as, after 43 years in agricultural journalism, he takes a break from the pen.

John has been ever present in my farming career and, no matter who he was writing for, whatever was the topic of the day, John has always demonstrated an informed and balanced view and set the standard for livestock reporting.

Robin Talbot farms in partnership with his mother Pam and wife Ann in Ballacolla, Co Laois.

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