Beef focus: Stabilisers increasing profits on Co. Tipperary suckler farm

Farming in Longford Pass, Co. Tipperary, Sean Hayden and his family run a herd of 97 spring-calving suckler cows on approximately 120ac. However, this is a suckler herd with a difference.

Originally, Hayden ran a herd of continental cows and operated a standard suckler-to-beef system. Young bulls were finished under 16 months, while steers and heifers were slaughtered under 30 months-of-age.

In 2013, Hayden was invited to visit Stabiliser breeder Billy O’Kane’s farm near Ballymena, Co. Antrim. Impressed with his lifestyle, herd performance and profits, Hayden decided to take the plunge and invest in his first Stabiliser bull.

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Sean Hayden and his daughter Lilly

“I was impressed with a number of things with the Stabiliser breed. Their docility; their ease of calving; the 24 month calving date; and their low maintenance attributes made them appealing to me. I used the bull on my existing herd of continental cows in 2013 and I haven’t looked back since.”

Hayden’s ‘multiplier herd’ of Stabiliser cattle is run under the guidance of the Stabiliser Cattle Company (SCC). He also runs a separate haylage enterprise on the farm.

The Stabiliser breed

Originally, Stabilisers were a four-way cross between Hereford, Red Angus, Simmental and Gelbvieh (a German cattle breed), with an equal share of 25% of each breed.

Other breed populations are constantly being sampled to see if they can strengthen the modern Stabiliser.

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The Stabiliser Cattle Company’s Richard Fuller introduced the breed to the UK in 1997; he bought 100 embryos from the US and set up the SCC.

Hayden commented on the genetics of the Stabilisers: “In America, they are bred for hardiness and toughness. I’ve been to US and seen what they can survive on feed wise. They are a very low maintenance breed.

In Ireland, they perform extremely well because of the feed they get. They would be bred to survive on very little. They are spoilt with the quality feed over here.

He continued: “They are an ideal breed for large numbers or part-time farmers, as they are very easily managed.”

Additions to the herd

After a successful first year running the stabiliser bull with his existing herd, Hayden purchased another purebred bull and 10 purebred heifers from the UK.

In 2015, another 10 purebred heifers were purchased. These amounted to approximately €1,800 each. Hayden now runs 40 continentals, 32 half-bred stabilisers and 25 purebred cows. Four purebred Stabiliser bulls are also found on the farm.

Replacement heifers are bred on the farm and some suitable heifers are sold for breeding.

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All purebred bulls are fertility tested and given the ‘once over’ by a vet before sale. Other bulls are finished under 16-months-of-age. The end goal is to run a 120 cow purebred Stabiliser herd.

Next year, Hayden plans to try and finish a batch of steers off grass; aiming for finish under 20 months of-age.

I don’t think it will be a problem. They show great growth potential and I think they will easily make this target.

Breeding and calving

Hayden recalled his experiences with his continental-dominated herd over the years stating: “I had problems with calving difficulty and some of the cows were a little wild.

“The calves are small and hardy and weigh about 35kg. They get up and suck straight away. It’s almost like running a dry stock farm,” he laughed.

Nearly 100% of the cows and heifers calve themselves. I check them first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

“The Stabilisers are extremely good mothers and always have plenty of milk. Last spring, I only had to pull two calves,” he explained.

By making the switch to Stabiliser cattle, the Tipperary-based farmer has reduced his calving interval to 363 days, which is well below the national average of 400. His mortality rate last year stood at 1.8%.

He said: “Last year, out of 90 cows, only two failed to go in calf.”

Feeding and finishing

The farm itself is fragmented. The grazing block is divided into 25 2.5ac paddocks, while the land situated 10 miles up the road is cut for silage and used for the haylage enterprise.

During the grazing season, Hayden operates a rotational grazing system and any paddocks which get too strong are taken out as surplus bales. He also tries to reseed 25ac every year.

The breed itself would be classed as very low maintenance and easily fed. Hayden commented on the comparison between his continental breeds and his Stabiliser cattle.

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“At this time of the year, all my cows are on 66% silage and 33% straw. I’m beginning to notice the continental cows going back slightly, while the Stabilisers are holding their own.

I will have to separate them and give my continentals an all-silage diet.

He continued: “The way I look at it is, I can feed 100 Stabiliser cows with the same amount of feed that is needed for 80 continentals – they are much more efficient.”

The average cow weight since 2013 has fallen by nearly 100kg, which enables Hayden to keep 15% more cows per hectare.

The Stabilisers’ offspring have great food conversion efficiency and have better growth rates; resulting in animals finishing faster, which reduces my feed costs.

Over their life span, Hayden feeds approximately 1t of meal/head to his finishing bulls. Bulls are fed 7-8kg of a coarse ration along with silage and straw prior slaughter. From the bulls that were slaughtered this year, 75% graded U, while the average age was 13.5 months. On the day, the bulls averaged just over 340kg.

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Heifers that are not sold or retained for breeding are sold as yearlings at approximately 400kg.

Keeping an eye on the future

Hayden is very happy with the way things are progressing on his farm. He has turned farm profits right around and switched to a system that works perfectly for him and his family.

In relation to the beef industry in Ireland, he said: “We need cows that are going to produce beef quicker and cheaper. This will increase profits and reduce green-house gas emissions.

In my opinion, Stabilisers are the way to go. I’m extremely happy and I would encourage every suckler farmer to try them – there is semen available.

“By switching to the Stabiliser breed, I’m now operating at lower maintenance costs and my profits are up close to €300/cow.

“The Stabiliser breed is the fastest growing breed in the UK. Anybody who I have talked to that has introduced Stabiliser genetics into their herd has never looked back.”

To facilitate rising cow numbers, in 2016, Hayden built a dry-bedded shed. He is also in the middle building another slatted unit, which he hopes to have finished before calving next spring. The slatted tanks will also provide more on-farm slurry storage.

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In relation to Brexit, Hayden stated: “It will be a challenge. But, it has woken up the beef industry in Ireland – they are starting to look for new markets, which are badly needed.”