Beef Focus: ‘If a cow is producing quality calves, she has enough of stars for me’

Producing quality cattle is the drive for success on the farm of Owen O’Neill, which is located in Bagnelstown, Co. Carlow.

The farm is operating both commercial suckler-to-beef and suckler-weanling enterprises – with a strong herd of 70 early-spring calving suckler cows consisting of Limousin, Charolais, Belgian Blue and Simmental crosses to boast.

AgriLand spoke with Owen recently to get an insight into how his vision of breeding the right type of beef animal is on the list of priorities.

Owen O’Neill

Farm overview

Owen has been running his beef herd for over 20 years when he took over from his father Michael back in 2001.

His father still plays a role in the farm as he keeps an eye over the cows when he gets the opportunity. Assisting Owen in his day-to-day activities is his wife Louise and their daughter Sarah.

In terms of grassland, the farm has a cover of over 140ac consisting of both owned and leased land.

The calving season begins in late December / early January and carries right through until the month of March.

As previously mentioned, the farm sells its weanling bulls at approximately 10 months old, both privately to local finishers and through the mart – with some bulls also being purchased for export.

From the heifers bred on the farm, Owen selects between 10-12 heifers each year to hold on for replacements. Meanwhile, the remaining females are destined for slaughter and brought on for finishing by 23 months-of-age.

Owen claimed:

From the animals that I have, I like to have a bit of quality to them and the potential to grade well when it comes to killing – it’s the only hope you have if you want decent returns.

“The heifers I have been killing over the last couple of years has seen the majority achieve over a U-grade.”

Breeding

The farm is currently using a 50:50 split of both AI (artificial insemination) and natural service with Charolais and Limousin stock bulls. There is no breed taking pride and place as such, with Owen using a mix of AI continental sires in the breeding season.

“I serve the cows with AI as best as I can while they are in the shed, because once they leave in early April it’s up to the stock bulls to do their work.

“I’d use Charolais, Limousin and Belgian Blue AI sires and try to match the cow’s strengths and weaknesses to the bull.

“In terms of Charolais sires, I like some of the old favorites such as Crossmolina Euro [CSQ], Lanzac [LNZ] and I used a bit of Knockmoyle10 Loki [CH4159] this year as well.

“On the Belgian Blue side, I use Argan De L’Ecluse [S1241] and Imperial De L’Ecluse [S905]. With the Limousins I use Millbrook Dartangan [MBP] – then for the heifers Elderberry Galahad [EBY] is used.

When the cows are turned out to grass, I put the Limousin stock bull, who is a son of Ampertaine Elgin, out with the more muscular cows and with some of the maiden heifers.

“The remaining cows are ran with the Charolais stock bull, who is a son of Texan Gie.”

Showing career

Like a number of farmers during the summer months, Owen takes to the commercial cattle show circuit to compete with his animals at agricultural shows the length and breadth of the country.

His strategy involves buying in some animals for showing while also picking out the best calves from his crop. The hope is always try and claim a red rosette along with some prize money to help cover costs.

Owen explained:

“We would show cattle during the summer and at the Fatstock Show and Sale in Carrick-on-Shannon. I have had varying success over the years. I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of winners at the Tullamore show.

“I had the top-priced animal at the Fatstock Show and Sale in Carrick-on-Shannon back in 2016, with a Limousin heifer calf. She sold for €5,500, which was a great boost after breeding her myself.

“I sold a full sister to her at a special Elite sale held up in Stranorlar Mart back in November 2020 and she sold for €4,000.

The showing is a good interest to have. You meet people every weekend and we are all in the same boat trying to get a prize – that is what keeps you going every other Sunday.

“My own daughter helps me at the shows now and she competes in the young handler competitions as well. It’s a good interest for kids to keep them interested in cattle.”

carnew mart, bullocks
Owen showing his champion bullock recently at Carnew Mart

Although there were no agricultural shows to go to over the past year, this didn’t stop Owen from claiming a Champion rosette recently – as a bullock he exhibited at a recent show and sale in Carnew Mart was tapped out as supreme.

“I sold the bullock two weeks ago at the show and sale. He weighed in at 1,052kg and he made €2,900, so it was a good ending to his career.”

 ‘Good calves don’t come about by accident’

There is a lot of work involved in breeding some of these good commercial calves for showing, as Owen states:

“Some of these good calves don’t come about by accident. In order to try and breed a few quality calves for showing I do a bit of embryo transfer [ET] work.

A heifer that is planned to be flushed this spring

“I flush some of my better cows or heifers that I would have been showing over the years. I then implant enough of embryos into Hereford or Simmental bred recipient heifers to have about three or four ET calves every year.

If you had one good quality calf out of it you would be happy – if you had any more than that it’s a bonus.

BDGP

The farm has been participating in the Beef Data Genomic Programme (BDGP) for the past five years and has signed on for the optional one-year extension.

The herd has ticked all the boxes when it comes to meeting the requirement for the scheme, yet Owen’s breeding focus is not fully based on an animal’s Euro-Star Index.

“The herd fully qualifies when it comes to the requirement of having four or five star ratings on the Replacement Index.

Some of my better cows wouldn’t necessarily have that good of stars, but I wouldn’t go down the road really too much of culling cows because they have low star ratings.

“If they are producing the goods in terms of a quality calf every year, well then she has enough of stars for me,” Owen concluded.