Western suckler herd moves to 100% AI breeding

The Newford demonstration farm and suckler herd was set-up in 2015, with the aim to operate a profitable 100 cow suckler-to-beef enterprise on a grass-based system.

It aims to finish as many heifers and steers from grass as possible, at 20-22 months-of-age, with the remainder being finished in the shed.

The 67ha farm is run by Matthew Murphy with the support of Michael Fagan, a Teagasc technician, as well as a green cert student for three months during the spring.

The cows on the farm are Angus and Hereford crosses from the dairy herd; no replacements are kept on the farm (contract reared off-farm) in order to maximise production from grass.

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Speaking at this week’s National Beef Conference, Murphy said: “Fertility and milk production are not a problem, as these cows have good maternal and fertility traits.”

Why AI?

In 2015, Murphy decided to use AI and two stock bulls (Limousin and Simmental) on the cows. In order to reach finishing targets, sire selection and maximising the terminal traits of the progeny are vital.

“This has worked out very well so far for the herd. The cows on this farm are very good mothers; they have plenty of milk, are docile and go back in calf easily. AI is a proven, reliable tool to put terminal traits into our finishing cattle.

The cows bring the milk and by crossing them with high-reliability, terminal bulls with good shape, carcass weight and confirmation – we have an excellent grass-based finished animal.

“Trait reliability is a key component; high-reliability terminal sires will have calves on the ground that will hit their performance targets and leave a profit,” he said.

The story so far

In spring 2015, 98 cows calved down – 74 second-parity animals and 24 first calvers. 96 cows calved in 2016.

In 2017, 10 weeks breeding left the farm with 11 weeks calving. Starting on February 2, 83 cows and 22 heifers calved. These produced 107 live calves and 82% of the herd calved in the first six weeks.

In relation to calving, 71 cows calved on their own; 24 needed some assistance; seven were classed as having considerable difficulty; and the vet was on hand for just three calvings.

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“You might think with 24 cows needing some assistance that the herd would be classed as hard-calving. But, in the last three years, we have calved the guts of 300 cows and we encountered only one section. In my opinion, I would class the herd as an easy-calving herd,” Murphy said.

The calving interval is 349 days and the farm operates off a 0.9% mortality rate at birth rate – leaving the herd in the top 5% of herds nationally.

According to Murphy, calves per cow per year is the most important target that he has to meet every year.

If we do not have a calf, we have nothing to sell and that’s the making or breaking of any herd. 1.08 calves per cow is what we have this year and I am happy with that.

Heat detection

Heat detection is the key to a successful outcome when using AI. Two techniques are used – tail painting and vasectomised bulls.

“We use tail paint on the cows to see which cows were coming into heat. This is a very cheap and effective way to see which animals are coming on and we top this up once or twice during the breeding season.”

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Image source: Teagasc

Two vasectomised Friesian bulls are also used during the breeding season. These bulls have proven to be very successful and were purchased for €850 each.

The vasectomised bull and the chin-ball are key to the whole set up, explained Murphy.

I’m checking the cows five times a day, but the bull is checking them 24 hours a day – he is the best way of doing it.

After the breeding season is finished, the bulls are fattened and sold. When all costs were added up, the two bulls only cost €34 each for the 2017 season; resulting in a very cheap way to identify cows bulling.

Breeding

Breeding in Newford starts in November with the condition scoring of the cows. Thin cows are identified and separated into individual pens.

“For a cow to start cycling, as soon as possible after calving, she should be at a body condition score of 3-3.5 at calving.

With this in mind, we identified 22 cows at housing last November and them fed 2kg/day of soya hulls until the end of December.

“I believe that this relatively short period of concentrate feeding had the cows in better
condition at calving and, thus, helped them return to heat much quicker,” he said.

The breeding season began on April 24; AI was used for six weeks up until June 2, when the two stock bulls were let in for four weeks.

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Cows and calves went to grass on March 13 and remained outdoors full-time. At the beginning of April, cows were already seen coming into heat and their numbers were recorded daily as part of routine herding.

Once-a-day AI is carried out on the farm and is conducted by Murphy himself. This means that if a cow was bred in the morning and was still showing heat in the evening, she would get another straw the following morning.

This involved putting the marked cows (marked by the teaser bull) into the yard for AI at 12pm. The cows were checked at least five times daily and cows would be pulled out each morning from the two groups.

Cows are docile and – with the help of reels, a paddock system and a farm roadway – Murphy is able to carry out this work on his own.

“I was very sceptical of going down the AI route; especially with two very good bulls on the farm.

It takes time to check and get cows into the yard. But in my opinion the calves on the ground, and their performance to date, have more than convinced me of the advantages of using AI.

The two stock bulls have now been sold and Murphy plans on using 100% AI next season.

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Image source: Teagasc

2017 scanning results have revealed that 93 out of 99 cows bred are in pregnant – a 94% in-calf rate. 64 cows held to the first service (65%), while 18 held to the second service (18%). 11 cows held to the stock bulls (11%) and six cows were empty (6%). These empty cows will be culled from the herd.

Sire selection

Murphy classes this as one of the most important jobs he does on the farm. This is a key decision as the progeny of these bulls will be finished on the farm.

“It is critically important that the calves are easily calved; have good growth rates; perform well at grass; have good shape and confirmation; kill out well; and most importantly, leave profit on the farm,” he explained.

Criteria for sire selection:
  • 5-star terminal index;
  • >80% reliability;
  • <7% calving difficulty;
  • >30kg predicted carcass weight for mature cows;
  • <6% calving difficulty for first and second calvers;
  • >25kg predicted carcass weight for first and second calvers;
  • Straw cost <€15.

Progeny performance

All calves are weighed once a month on the farm to track progress. When this year’s calves were weighed in September and compared to the 2016 progeny, results indicated an increase of 30kg year-on-year.

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Source: Teagasc

The same can be said for the 2016-born calves. They weighed, on average, 15kg heavier than 2015 born stock.

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Image source: Teagasc

Murphy stated: “It has become clear that the key to becoming a profitable suckler-to-beef farmer is to use the best genetics available that will work on the farm.

In my opinion, to achieve a positive outcome, I will use AI on all cows and will be able to predict the type of animal I will have at slaughter.

“AI might not suit every suckler farmer. But for someone that was quite sceptical in the beginning, I will be sticking with it for the foreseeable future,” he concluded.