Beef focus: Attention to detail key to success on a pedigree Limousin farm

Michael Sexton’s pedigree herd of Limousin cattle was established in 1991. His farm in Mount Scott, Mullagh, Co.Clare covers a total of 130ac, spread across five fragmented blocks of land.

The pedigree herd consists of 25 males and 75 females. Prior to starting his Limousin adventure, Sexton operated a dairy farm.

However, he bought his first Limousin heifer from fellow Co. Clare breeder Liam Williams in Kilrush and has not looked back since.

In 1996, the Co.Clare farmer visited the French region of Limoges on a trip organised by the Limousin society and Sexton was so impressed by the progeny of Gamin that he decided to return to France and purchase a Gamin stock bull.

This bull has paved the way for Sexton and led to the expansion of the breed and an extremely successful herd. The Gamin bull was used on his Limousin cows and heifers and Sexton also sold straws to fellow breeders throughout Ireland.

Micheal Sexton with Lifeboy, who came first in his class at the Limerick show earlier this year

In 1995, Sexton commenced showing his herd across the country. To date, he has been very successful in numerous shows, including: the National Ploughing Championships; RDS; Spring Show, where he was crowned overall champion; Irish Limousin herds competition; Clare club, where he has been awarded the first prize for the best large herd for the past ten years.

The Limousin herd

It was quite evident when AgriLand visited the farm that Sexton has a sharp eye for detail and puts a lot of time and care into his pedigree herd.

The majority of his herd is autumn-calving.

“I’m about 75% autumn-calving and 25% spring-calving. I like to sell the bulls at around 15-18 months-of-age – that way you have a great strong bull,” he explained.

Limousin

All heifers born on the farm are kept as replacements and the bulls are sold at special sales at Roscrea and Athenry marts. Prior to sale, all bulls are vet checked and fertility tested.

Breeding and artificial insemination

Breeding is a very important time on this farm and a strict policy is implemented. After the cow has calved – approximately three-to-four weeks later – she will be scanned. This allows the farmer to see if there are any reproductive problems.

“I scan my cows every six weeks before insemination and that way I’m able to tell if there will have any problems,” Sexton explained.

Limousin

Artificial insemination (AI) is carried out on all of the breeding stock. This is carried out by Sexton himself under the watchful eye of Dr. Dan Ryan – an international specialist in reproduction in beef and dairy cattle.

Sexton explained how crucial Ryan is to the entire set-up stating: “He is a great one. It’s great having him on board. He’s excellent at what he does.

He could tell you everything about the cow, like when she will calve and when she will be in heat.

“He could even tell you the hour she was bulled,” he laughed.

When it comes to breeding and choosing which straws to use on his heifers and cows, Sexton makes the decision based on two key traits – ease at calving and milk.

“I vary my Limousin bulls, but always use top-class sires. Easy calving is very important for me and lots and lots of milk.”

No tailpaint is used on the farm. However, Sexton keeps a watchful on his herd and outlines how some of the stronger autumn-born bull calves can pick up cows in heat.

“It’s amazing. Some of the older bulls indicate cows bulling and then I can AI.

My cows are all very docile. Docility is crucial for me because I’m using AI. I wouldn’t manage it if they were any other way.

“I have one stock bull that cleans up the herd for me, he’s by Bavardage. It’s nearly impossible to get a 100% in-calf rate to AI and then one shot from the bull and she keeps – that’s the way it goes.

“I have also flushed a few cows in the past. I have a few embryos on the ground at the minute by Sympa and Foreman.”

Calving

Before calving, the cows are put in special calving pens. If the cow or heifer is grazing in the paddocks, she will be brought in and fed a hay-based diet.

“They go into straw-bedded pens in order to allow the cow to get the calf into position for calving. I would never leave her in the cubicle shed.

Before calving, I take them off the grass because they are too swelled and too lazy to calve.

“No matter how well set up you are or no matter how lucky you are, there will always be an issue when it comes to calving. Calving is never plain sailing.

“Previously, I used to always leave them to calve in the fields. But, if you have a problem, there is a danger involved in that – the cow could end up doing anything out in the field.

“When a cow is calving, she is in a different environment. I have all the lock in barriers in place. It’s too risky. I can lock all the cows heads in and go behind them.

Limousin

“I’m always very careful when it comes to handling my cattle. You could have a lovely quiet cow but when she calves, that’s when she could do the damage. You can never be too careful,” he explained.

All calves are fed colostrum after birth. After three weeks, hay and crunch is introduced. Creep gates are located throughout the sheds to allow calves access to this fodder.

Limousin

Adapting to technology

Sexton is no stranger to keeping up with the times and outlines new technology as one of the main reasons he runs a successful herd. It also allows the farmer to manage his herd better.

“I use Moocall and it’s the best thing that has come in around the place. It really is great. I get the text straight to my phone. It’s very successful.

I don’t know how we ever survived without it.

“I’m using it since it came out first and it does a super job when it’s used properly. I also have a camera which can be displayed on my phone and I can check the animals anywhere.

“I was at a wedding only a few weeks back and I knew a cow was coming close to calving. I opened up the phone and had a look at the cows in the pen and I could see she had her tail out. I rang home and got her looked after.

“It’s great from a management point of view,” he explained.

A difficult year

It was evident by having a quick look around at the fields that land was extremely wet. Sexton explained how farming in his area is very tough in the wet weather.

“What is really destroying things down here is the amount of rain that is falling. There’s two extra months feeding gone already this winter and there is heavy covers of grass sitting in paddocks loosing quality.

The land wasn’t so bad in August and next minute the rain came and land got worse and worse.

Commenting on the difference between 2016 and 2017 he said: “I remember last year, farmers were putting out fertiliser in September to get the last bit of grass going.

“This year, cattle had been housed by September. I didn’t bring my cattle in until the first week of November last year.

“I let the cows out to grass in the first week in April. That is early for this part of the country. Other years have varied, but hopefully we will get an early spring because the winter started so early.

“I was forced to house early. Some of my cattle went inside at the end of August and the rest in early October. I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to feed any cattle outside and I have the facilities to manage them inside.”

Sexton harvests two cuts of silage – amounting to 55ac in total. The first cut of silage was harvested on May 23 and the second on July 18.

The silage was tested and the first cut came back at 71% dry matter digestibility (DMD) with a protein content of 14%. The second cut tested at 68% DMD and the protein content was 12%.

“I was very lucky to get my silage cut when I did. The weather conditions have been extremely tough. Several people around the area got caught out.

I find if you are geared up to cut at the end of May, the weather is normally okay. But, it doesn’t suit everybody.

“We have a different soil type around here. We have red soil, boggy soil and you have muddy ground where we are,” the Clare native explained.

“Red soil will be ready for harvesting in May, but muddy ground won’t be ready for a month after that – that’s why I shifted from pit silage to bales. I made a pit up until about five years ago.

Limousin

“I was losing quality because I used to have to leave the harvesting until it was all ready to cut, because of the various types of land that I have.

“The problem over this side of the country is that the soil is lacking lime. We spread lime two years ago and we got a great response. The only thing is it makes the ground very soft, but it is great stuff,” he said.

Looking to the future

Sexton commented on the outlook for the beef sector in Ireland stating: “We are not getting paid enough for the quality product we are producing. Ireland is not getting paid enough.

“Why is there such a difference in the price paid to farmers in England and we are producing high-quality stock. We are not getting paid for what we are producing.

Everything is too expensive now; the input costs are way too high.

In relation to Brexit, Sexton stated: “It will seriously effect the beef sector. I suppose a hard border not being put in place is a good start, but I genuinely don’t know what will happen come Brexit.

On a more positive note, Sexton outlined how farming plays an important role in the community.

“I’m heavily involved in the Clare Limousin Breeders Club and we have our 20th annual dinner dance on December 29 in the Bellbridge House Hotel in Spanish Point, Co. Clare.

The Maloney family is generously raffling a pedigree heifer for the ICU in Limerick hospital at the dinner dance,” he concluded.