In many of the commercial suckler herds in Ireland, there can be many breeds mixed through the cows when examining their recent ancestry.
However, in the suckler herd belonging to Jim Parkinson from Cahir in Co. Tipperary, the prominence of Limousin genetics is easily identified once you glance through the first few paddocks upon entering the farm.
For this week’s Beef Focus, Agriland made the trip down to speak with Jim about how he manages his herd of cows across a 70ha farm.
As previously mentioned, there is a 50-cow commercial suckler herd, mainly comprising Limousin breeding. The farm also hosts a 40 head herd of pedigree Limousin cows – under the ‘Marlhill’ prefix – which are mixed throughout the paddocks of the commercial cows.
Jim stated: “The pedigree cows get no preferential treatment in comparison to the commercial herd. They are all ran as one herd and must be fit to perform the same in terms of milking ability and fertility as the commercial cows.
In terms of the systems of production, the suckler cows are calved down in the autumn starting in the month of August – with Jim explaining that through a compact calving calendar, he has close to 80% of cows calved by the end of September. The remainder are spaced out over the following months.
The majority of the commercial bull calves born on the farm are sold as weanlings at ages close to 10-12 months through Mid-Tipp Mart in Thurles.
However last year, Jim made the decision to castrate 10 of his lighter bulls and retain them as bullocks because he felt that he wasn’t going to be getting the price that he wanted for them as weanlings.
The commercial heifers are preferably retained over the winter months, with the most suitable females being kept for breeding while the remainder are slaughtered at 20-24 months-old. These heifers are reaching 40;60 split between R-grades and U-grades.
“Weaning times can be based on the availability of grass on the farm,” Jim explained.
“If grass was tight on the farm, I’d target weaning them in May, but if I can keep quality grass in front of the cows while they are suckling, I won’t be in too big of a rush to wean them until June.”
The farm is laid across a setting of free-draining land and Jim has developed the farm to have roadways stretching across all parcels which allows easier access to paddocks.
Jim is currently farming alongside his family and wife Audrey is always at hand to provide assistance when needed.
Switching from milking to a suckler lifestyle
Up until 2007, Jim had been operating a 70-cow dairy enterprise on the farm but made the decision to convert the farm into a fully beef-focused system where he began the expansion of the suckler herd. He explained:
“I was milking cows for 35 years and I just got tired of it really. I see a lot of beef farmers starting to move into the dairy sector and it is tough work to be taking on, there is no denying that.
“It took a bit of planning to get to the number of cows that we are currently at, but once the dairy herd was dispersed, we started off with around 60 heifers being calved down. I don’t regret the decision of converting fully into the beef side of things.”
Focusing on Limousin breeding
Whilst walking through the fields of Limousin cows, Jim explained why he placed so much emphasis and focus on just one breed rather than diversifying out and aiming to take advantage of hybrid vigour. He said:
“Back in the 1983, my father introduced the pedigree Limousin cattle onto the farm and they were sort of the ‘go to’ beef breed for us then.
“When we started expanding the suckler herd, we had the pedigree Limousins already here so we decided to stick with the breed and buy in some commercial Limousin heifers and those females got me to the herd size that I have today.
“I had contemplated maybe running a Belgian Blue bull with the cows, but I changed my mind because I said to myself that I am safer sticking to the breed that I know best.
“The Limousin cows that I have tick all the boxes I want them to – they are quiet, have good milk and are fertile.
“I think myself that I am getting too far on in the years to try and be experimenting with different breeds at this stage,” Jim jokingly remarked.
Fresh herd of suckler cows
The herd of cows seen on the farm is relatively fresh and young in their appearance with very few cows showing their age. Jim explained:
“I would keep a cow up to the age of 10 if she is still functional.
“One thing I do find is that if you have a cow that is seven or eight years-old, the quality of their calves can tend to ease back once they get closer to 10 years old. I think this is down to the quality or yield of milk that she is producing, dropping.”
Docility is another factor that he states is crucial for the farm, especially when only having a one-man operation.
“We have a quiet herd of cattle overall, but the one thing that I would cull for is docility. I have no place for a wild cow around here.”
The herd is involved with the Beef Data Genomics programme (BDGP) and the Beef Environmental Efficiency Pilot (BEEP).
The home-bred replacement heifers are targeted to have high replacement indices. Jim also purchases in some commercial heifers to meet his replacement requirements and brings in some new genetics.
He explained that he used to have heifers calving closer to two-years-old but he has moved away from this as he prefers to see the heifers develop further before mating, and have them calving between 28-36 months-old.
Placing faith in stock bulls
Currently the whole herd (including the pedigrees) are running with four stock bulls, as Jim is placing his faith in their breeding and has enjoyed success by trusting in his animals’ genetics.
These bulls include Galbally Klogan (a son of Roundhill Saturn ET) and Galbally Liberal (a son of Keltic Hercules).
“I run the herd with high euro-star index bulls and try to produce quality cattle as best as possible.
“I can AI [artificial insemination] cows if I want to, but I prefer to let the stock bulls run with the herd because it just reduces the labour of having to monitor heats and walk the cows in for servicing.”
When asked if many of the customers buying pedigree bulls seek a bull that is sired by an AI sire rather than stock bull, he simply said:
“If a bull has the quality and figures to match, then the customers don’t mind. If they are buying off the farm they can see the sires here, so I don’t have to go down the route of using AI to sell pedigree bulls.”
Availability of grass for suckler cows
A lot of farmers may be jealous of the current grass covers seen on Jim’s farm as grass is in plentiful supply.
From visually studying the grass covers on the grazing platform, paddocks next on the grazing schedule are comfortably sitting at 1,150-1,400t/DM/ha. Paddocks that have been grazed are somewhat slow to recover but the hope is that growth will pick up in the coming weeks.
The cows were turned out on March 15 and had been fed on a diet of silage (74-76DMD) with around 1kg/head of straw mixed through. They received no concentrates while housed. The young calves had been fed on 1kg of concentrates/day.
To avoid the threat of grass tetany, he provides magnesium to his cows by both applying minerals into the water throughs, and placing lick buckets onto the pasture.
Silage ground has already been kept up for cutting and will consist of approximately 60ac for the first cut.
Jim does not complete grass measurings, but he does walk the farm every week to see how covers are progressing and make grazing judgements based on visual assessments.
The farm has received a heavy cover of slurry application and the plan is now to progress with applications of chemical fertiliser onto grazed paddocks in the coming weeks.
Selling Limousin bulls this spring
Jim has had a successful season selling bulls, with many of his sales coming from deals competed on the home farm. He was quick to state:
“If I can sell a bull at home I’d much prefer it than having to bring a bull to a sale, because it requires a lot of preparation and effort. In saying that, you need to be at the sales to promote your herd as well.”
Out of 16 bulls selling this spring, there are just four remaining, with the plan being to bring these two bulls to the Roscrea Limousin Premier Sale on Monday (May 3). The hope will be that these two young bulls find new addresses by the end of the sale.
Prior to being sold, the bulls are fed on a simple beef nut (16% crude protein) at a maximum rate of up 9kg/day.
Business as usual
The plan for the future is to ‘keep business as usual’ according to Jim. He stated that cow numbers may reach closer to the 100-cow mark by the end of the year but there are no plans, as of yet, to reduce numbers.
He stated: “Once the cows are content, I am content. I just want to ensure that I can make the farm profitable and keep the quality standards high and customers will appreciate the cattle I am producing,” Jim concluded.