‘Out of 105 heifers and cows calving down, we had 110 live calves at the end of the season’

Last week, Teagasc commenced the ‘Let’s Talk Cattle and Sheep’ Series – a webinar which will run online every second Wednesday for beef and sheep farmers.

The first topic up for discussion was ‘Suckler Breeding Targets’ with a presentation by Teagasc beef specialist, Martina Harrington.

This was followed by an update from Teagasc’s Michael McManus on the Derrypatrick suckler herd in Grange, with the discussion facilitated by Teagasc cattle specialist, Alan Dillon.

These webinars are broadcast using Zoom, so viewers have the opportunity to get involved in the discussion with questions answered live.

In the following article, Michael McManus answers some timely questions from Alan Dillon on the Derrypatrick Herd.

What is the system on the farm?

At the minute, we have 100 suckler cows made up of 50% Limousin dairy-cross cows, while the remaining 50% are Limousin and Simmental-cross suckler-bred cows.

The average weight of the cows – when you take into consideration calved heifers and the mature cows – is 620kg.

The herd is a spring-calving herd with replacement heifers calving down at 24 months-of-age and all animals are slaughtered off the farm; bullocks are slaughtered under 24-months and heifers are slaughtered under 20 months-of-age.

How did the 2020 calving season go?

We are quite happy with how the calving season went; it went very well. It started on February 14 and ended on May 4. We calved down 105 heifers and cows with 110 live calves. We had nine sets of twins and lost four calves in total.

Of the 105 calves, we had 71 bulls and 39 heifers and the average birth weight overall was 43.5kg. The calving season lasted for 11 weeks, so quite a tight calving spread. 84% of the heifers and cows calved in the first six weeks and 95% calved in the first nine weeks.

The average birth date was March 10 and we turned out the first cows and calves on March 23. We try to match our calving date when we expect to get cows and calves out grass.

Heifers pictured in 2019

In terms of intervention, out of the 105 animals which calved down, 66 cows calved unassisted, 34 required some assistance and six required veterinary intervention. Two of these were Cesarean sections and the other four were malpresentations – we were just unable to calve them.

What’s bulls have been chosen for the 2020 breeding season?

As part of our ongoing breeding trial, we are continuing to use 100% AI – using 16 different bulls across four breed types.

The cows are served to Limousin, Simmental and Charolais sires and heifers receive Aberdeen Angus bulls. Some of the Charolais bulls include Fistion and CH2218, while the Limousin bulls include LM2014 and LM2206.

In addition, some of the Simmental bulls are QCD and CQA.

What are the criteria when selecting bulls?

The current criteria has to match the ongoing experiment which is comparing the performance of the progeny of sires’ maternal traits.

In other words, we want to see if there is a difference in performance of the calves right through to beef, including carcass traits in sires which are high or low on the replacement index.

For example, teams of high and low replacement index bulls were used for the 2019 breeding season with an average replacement index of €151 and €91 respectively.

Some of the criteria that the bulls have to meet would be they have to have a greater reliability of 80%, 5-star within the breed and 4-star across breeds. And a maximum calving difficulty of 8%.

What’s the breeding strategy for heifers?

For heifers, it is relatively similar. The main thing is that we use less than 8% calving difficulty on the beef heifer index. It’s very important when the heifers are calving at two years-of-age that we don’t give them too hard of a calving bull early on.

Other criteria is similar to the cows. The bull must be 5-star within the breed and 4-star across breeds, with 80% reliability. The heifers are all served to Aberdeen Angus bulls.

Heifers pictured in 2019

How do you carry out heat detection on the farm?

The breeding season started on May 4 and we are on day nine of breeding today [Wednesday, May 13] with 53 cows and heifers submitted – some 46% submitted so far [Wednesday, May 13].

There are four groups of breeding animals – three groups of cows and calves and one group of heifers. Each group has its own teaser bull equipped with a chin ball.

The cows are tail painted yellow for the first service and once they are served they are tail painted blue. This is an easy way of identifying cows that have not been served yet and checking to see if there are any problems.

The tail paint is topped up weekly when cows are being brought in for AI. For example, if we went out next week and we had three or four cows bulling, we would bring in the whole group and top up the tail paint.

The cows are also checked four times/day from 7:00am to 8:00pm. It’s working well for ourselves here. We’re using the AM:PM rule. So, any animals seen bulling in the morning are served that evening and cows seen bulling in the evening are served the following morning. This is also working well.

Another aid we are also using is a pre-scan. All the heifers and cows were pre-scanned before the breeding season. Any cows over 39 days after calving were scanned.

It was a great way of picking up cows that were not cycling. The scan picked up three cows that needed to be cleaned out and two cows which had not cycled.

Last year, the breeding season lasted about 10 weeks, so this year we will be carrying out a scan at nine weeks and from that result we will be decided how long we will continue breeding. Obviously, I’d like to tighten it up up to nine weeks, but we will see at that scan.

Steers pictured in 2019

Are there any stock bulls on the farm?

No. We use 100% AI and last year we had a 91% in-calf rate after 10.5 weeks. We were happy with that performance and will be hoping for something similar this year.

What is the cows’ plain of nutrition after calving before turnout?

When the cows were housed this year, they were in good condition. They were on 70% DMD silage. We then decided to cut them back to 80% allocation to avoid getting over-fat.

This year they calved in good condition; we want them fit rather than fat. Some of the heifers got 2kg/head of concentrates 10 days before turnout – that was the only meal thy was fed. Only because we didn’t know when we were going to get to grass, so to just to keep the heifers in good condition pre-turnout.

At the minute the cows are entering into covers of 1,700kg DM/ha in 48-hour allocations. And, we are achieving good graze-outs in the current weather.

What is the diet for heifers to calve at 24 months in Teagasc Grange?

We try to buy in the majority of the heifers in the autumn. If they are bought in the spring sometimes they are playing catch up. Obviously, it takes time to get a nice-quality heifer.

This way you have the winter to put your own stamp on them and have them up to speed in terms of vaccination etc.

Dairy-cross heifers are 320kg come January or February and the beef heifers would be 420kg going to the bull. This year’s heifers were bought in November 2019 and they required no meal. They got 76% DMD silage ad-lib and they gain approximately 0.5-0.6kg/day over the winter.

If they were behind target we would introduce 2kg of a high protein concentrate for growth to catch up.