Determined to make a success of a 100 cow suckler-to-beef system

Thomas O’Connor was crowned the 2015 Macra na Feirme Beef Farmer of Year and he is determined to make a success of the suckler-to-beef enterprise on the family’s farm.

O’Connor farms in partnership alongside his parents Tom and Monica in Athy, Co. Kildare, where they operate a mixed enterprise consisting of suckler-to-beef, pig, sheep and tillage enterprises.

The 100 cow suckler takes pride of place on the family’s farm and O’Connor believes that there is a future for such an enterprise in the Irish beef industry.

Despite the predicted increase in dairy-bred beef animals in 2016, O’Connor said there will always be a market for better quality continental cattle.

Speaking at a recent Macra na Feirme farm walk held on his farm, O’Connor said that the basis of his beef enterprise is simple, “you have to produce an animal that the factory wants.”

O’Connor believes that there will be adequate room in the market for both the suckler and dairy-bred cattle and he hopes that the suckler bred animal will continue to play a role in prime beef sales.

Thomas O'Connor (second from the left) speaking at the farm walk
Thomas O’Connor (second from the left) speaking at the farm walk

O’Connor’s production system

O’Connor runs a herd of 100 cows, the majority of which are Limousin with Charolais stock bulls used to produce terminal stock on the farm.

In 2015, the farm had an output of 1,800kg liveweight per hectare, which compromised of both bull and heifer beef enterprises.

All of the progeny on the farm are brought to beef at various ages and this year O’Connor started to finish young bulls at under 16 months of age.

Almost 80% of all the Charolais cattle slaughtered on the farm graded U, he said and there are more Es than Rs slaughtered on the farm on an annual basis.

Last winter, the young farmer picked out the 30 best young bulls for finishing and these bulls had a kill out of 60% producing 388kg carcasses.

However, he said that this enterprise produced a lower margin compared to the 19-month bull system also operated on the farm, but moving the bulls out the system early allowed him to purchase another 30 heifers for finishing.

Cows and spring-born calves on O'Connor's farm
Cows and spring-born calves on O’Connor’s farm

“The carcasses made €50-60 less than the heavier carcasses, but we were able to compensate with the additional heifers,” he said.

The remaining bulls on the farm are finished at 19 months of age, he said after eating approximately two tonne of concentrate over their lifetime on the farm.

Along with finishing all that home-bred calves, O’Connor also purchases 50 weanlings on an annual basis to finish side-by-side with his own cattle.

Young bulls destined for slaughter at 19 months of age
Young bulls destined for slaughter at 19 months of age

Sourcing suitable replacement heifers

As all of the animals born on the farm are brought to slaughter, the farmer said that all of the replacement heifers are purchased in near-by marts.

These year’s replacements are a mixture of Aubrac, Belgian Blue and Limousin heifers sourced from dairy herds.

Video: Cows and calves happy at grass on Thomas O’Connor’s farm

Despite all of the cows in the herd been bought in prior to the introduction of the Beef Data and Genomics Programme, the young farmers said that the herd is already ahead of the targets set out in the EU-funded scheme.

He said that 88% of the cows that went to the bull this spring met the four or five-star replacement index requirement set out by the scheme.

Along with impressive euro-star ratings, he said that the average calving interval on the farm is 363 days, with all of the cows calving between March 3 and May 5.

Grassland management

The production system on the farm is very much grass-based and the farmer added that the first weanlings are generally turned out to grass during the first week of March.

He added that the last of the cattle were housed on November 25 last year.

The farm is laid out is a number of paddocks using wooden stakes and electric fence wire, which is raised in some paddocks to allow the calves to graze ahead of the cows.

Electric fences are raised to give cows access to the grass ahead of the cows
Electric fences are raised to give cows access to the grass ahead of the cows

Pre-grazing covers of 1,800kg are targeted for cows and calves, he said, as the cows are able to clean out any of the stemmy material in the paddocks while calves have access to fresh leafy grass at all times.

O’Connor said that he first began to measure grass on the farm in 2015 and so far this year grass measuring has allowed him make an additional 150 bales of surplus grass silage.

Surplus bales made on O'Connor's farm
Surplus bales made on O’Connor’s farm