Beef focus: Managing a 500-cow suckler herd in Co. Louth
Over the past number of years, I have had the opportunity to visit some eye-opening farming operations – some beef, some dairy – both at home and overseas.
Another farm to add to the ever-growing list is owned by Derry and Dermot McKeown, and managed by John Kingham and his five-person team: Niall McGuire; Declan Savage; Seamus McConnon; and Hannah McMonagle, with a part-time employee helping out at weekends and busy periods.
John, a passionate Charolais breeder from the young age of 13, started working as the assistant manager in September 2017, before taking over the reins in January 2018 – with the aim of making the suckler herd one of the largest in Ireland.
To do so, a large land base was needed – and that’s exactly what John has at his disposal, with the farm located in three separate blocks, covering over 1,000ac.
Since taking over the farm, John has increased the herd from 200 to 500 cows, with the aim of settling down around the 475-cow mark.
By the time next year comes around, the older herd will have been culled and replaced by young cows and heifers.
“You can’t beat a young herd; this thing of big hanging elders is no good. You need a good tight elder with the calves up sucking with a click of a finger,” John said, while explaining what characteristics he looks for.
When freshening up the herd, John purchased heifers from all over Ireland, including heifers from the well-known ‘Jalex Herd’ run by James and Nelson Alexander in Co. Antrim.
Looking around the paddocks on the farm, it is clear that not one breed dominates in the herd, with a wide range of breeds visible, and with progeny produced for a number of different markets.
“The main breeds are Simmental-cross and Limousin-cross, and I have a few Belgian Blues – not too many, but we plan to introduce more as the time goes on,” he said.
Going back over the years, the farm was run as a suckler-to-beef unit; however, selling weanlings (spring and autumn calving) for the farming market here in Ireland – or weanlings for the export market – is the main enterprise on the holding.
Approximately 80% of the heifers will be sold for breeding, while the remaining 20% will be used as replacements on the farm.
The majority of weanling bulls are sold direct off the farm, while heifers are sold in the marts at special sales.
“I want repeat customers to come back to me, and I want those heifers to go well for the men that buy them.”
As you can imagine, during the breeding season, a large team of bulls are introduced. The main breeds used are: Charolais; Limousin; Simmental; Red Angus; and Shorthorn.
In addition to the stock bulls, AI is used on some of the heifers and the sires this year, including: Elderberry Galahad (EBY); Lodge Hamlet (LM 4058); Fiston (FSZ); and Clenagh Lyle (CH 4634).
“I’m going to buy three new Charolais bulls and possibly a Belgian Blue – because there is a market for Belgian Blue in continental Europe.”
The bulls went out on April 1 and were removed in early August. The spring-calving herd was scanned in recent weeks and a high-conception rate was achieved, with John noting that 25 cows will carry twins; any cows not in calf are culled.
“If they’re not in calf, there’s a reason they are not in calf. If that problem is there, there’s a good chance that problem will be in her daughters; so there’s no point looking at them.”
The autumn-calving herd (200) will commence calving during the last week of September or the first week of October, while the spring-calving herd (300) will begin calving in January and finish up during the last week of April.
Given the volume of calves coming on stream, a strict health programme is implemented which includes a vaccination protocol and good-hygiene practices.
Paddocks, paddocks and more paddocks
Prior to John taking over the farm, stock were allowed to graze in large fields for long periods. This system has since changed and a paddock system was introduced.
In the height of the grazing season, large groups containing 33 cows and 33 calves graze paddocks for three days before being moved on to the next paddock, with a rotation length of 18-20 days.
Regular weighing complements the system on the farm and meal has been introduced to the weanlings to offset the drop in the quality of grass at this time of the year.
Soil samples indicate that some of the farm has a low pH and a programme was drawn up which involves spreading 1.5t/ac/year for the next six years.
In terms of infrastructure, roadways are present through the blocks of land; but, a new 74-cow calving unit was constructed which replaced the old unit, which had the capacity for 28 cows at any one time.
Modifications are currently being made to winter accommodation which is equipped with rubber mats. These modifications will allow for a better airflow throughout the slatted housing, which is home to a large number of animals during the winter.
A new handling unit will complete the construction work for this year.
“Over the next six or seven weeks, things should settle down and we’ll be able to get back to farming,” John explained.
Having enough feed
With so many mouths to feed over the winter period, completing a feed budget and acquiring enough fodder for the winter ahead is a top priority during the summer period.
To date, numerous silage pits have been filled and an additional cut is earmarked for mid-September. John incorporates wholecrop into his reseeding programme and 110ac were harvested this year.
In addition to the pit silage and wholecrop, over 500 round bales of silage have also been made all from paddocks that went too strong for grazing; 516 large square bales (8X4X3) of hay and 500 large square bales (8X4X3) of straw were also saved.
“So, with this, I should be OK for fodder this year,” he joked. “We had great growth this year; serious, serious growth.”
Contractors are employed to carry out the majority of machinery work on the farm, including slurry spreading and silage cutting.
Like every other beef and suckler farmer in Ireland, John said the show cannot continue on at current beef prices. He noted that his prices for his weanlings to date are 40c/kg behind 2018 returns on average.
“We need beef prices to move. When you’re paying wages and running machines, we need every bit of it. The farmer can’t take the hit all the time; he just can’t.
“The factories are not running at a loss. The price of beef in the retailers never fell, but yet the farmers’ wage was cut.”
However, he said: “We have to look at the bigger picture. The factories are at fault to a point, but you have the retailer as well. The retailer needs to be looked at. I think everything as a whole in the beef industry needs to be looked at.
“We need more transparency – from factory to retailer and from retailer to factory. There’s a lot going on in that aspect,” he added.
“The suckler farmer is like a pyramid, and if you turn that pyramid upside down and put the point at the bottom, everything else involved grows out; but, you have to look after the point at some stage because the point will give way.
“And, if that point gives way, the whole lot will fall on the ground,” John explained.
Ireland’s dairy-beef industry has found itself propelled into the fast lane. Since quotas were abolished in 2015, the national dairy herd has increased in size.
As a result, there has been a proportional increase in the number of dairy calves coming on stream for beef production.
“There’s loads of talk about buying the calf from the dairy farmer; but, there’s no profit at the end of that either. What’s that all about? We need a margin.
“I think fair play to the dairy man; I’ve nothing against any dairy man.
“But saying that, his product is milk. He should not be getting the same €/kg for his beef because he’s not a beef man, he’s a milk man.”
Diving deeper into the dairy-beef debacle, John highlighted: “A beef man is specified in beef and beef only. A dairy man should not be getting top dollar for his beef.
“No dairy farmer should be allowed to use a continental bull. He’s dairy so he’s dairy; nothing else.
“They should not be using a Belgian Blue bull. The calf is coming from a dairy cow; all the beef genetics won’t be there. You won’t get the weight for age and then you have a 30-month calf that’s no good.
“Any man that thinks a 30-month calf is a great job isn’t farming; they should be gone by that stage – long gone.
“Dairy is dairy, beef is beef and suckling is suckling; that’s it,” John added. “The dairy man has his fingers in everything. And I’m not running any man down, but that’s my view.
“There’s too many O and P-grade cattle running around. We need more markets for them [male dairy calves] – even if they only get €10 for the calf – he’s a by-product,” John outlined.
Ireland’s agricultural industry has been targeted as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and the finger has been routinely pointed at beef and suckler systems. Furthermore, the carbon footprint of beef is also a hot topic at the moment.
John said: “If I walk out the door now, it’s the cleanest air I’ll breathe. If you go up into the middle of Dublin, it’s a different atmosphere up there.
“How come no one is talking about the planes in the sky? Cattle were here a long time before anything else,” John added.
On the topic of activists, he outlined: “Each to their own. If that’s what you believe, fair enough. Don’t drive it down someone’s throat. Don’t invade someone else’s property because they’re doing something with animals.
“There is not one farmer in Ireland who is out to hurt any animal. Every farmer looks after their cattle perfectly. And probably gets battered in the middle of it all and still hugs the calf,” he explained.
While there are not many positives that beef farmers in Ireland can turn to at the minute, John has no intention of stepping away.
“The only positive you can take from it at the moment is in the hope that China opens up big time. You have a Government that doesn’t care about rural Ireland; all they care about is Dublin.
“Dublin is flying; fair play to it. What happens if Dublin falls?
“Beef and suckler men, and indeed all farming, kept the whole thing going when the recession hit. If you kill that man now, what happens when the next recession comes? It might not be so far away.
“Suckler farming is all I know; but, the whole thing needs change. I’d like to think beef farming is going to pick up. I think if we can ride this storm for another six-to-seven months until March next year, get over Brexit, and hopefully we will know where it’s going then.”
John expressed his disappointment at the EU-Mercosur trade deal which was politically agreed at the end of June this year.
“The Mercosur thing needs to be scrapped; it makes absolutely no sense. France will not let it go through anyway, but Ireland has to say no too.
“There are too many organisations hanging off the farmer. We need a minister with a bit of go in him or her; someone that actually wants to drive the thing on and not hold it back.
“We don’t have that at the minute in my opinion and the Taoiseach doesn’t care either,” he concluded.