Having previously operated as a dairy farm for decades, Mark Cox and his uncle Leo Waters made the change in 2012 to suckling on their farm just outside Sligo.
Mark, a Harper Adams graduate, has been a great help to his uncle from a young age, and in recent years has become much more active in decision-making on the farm.
While both Leo and Mark had a passion for dairying, health issues meant that Leo had to reduce the workload. As Mark is married and based in Galway, it means he only has weekends to spend on the farm along with the odd evening when needs must.
In 2012, they took the leap and sold the 24-cow dairy herd and went about changing to sucklers.
“We started by buying maiden heifers at the special Simmental replacement heifer sale at Ballymote Mart. We had looked at other breeds, but soon settled on Simmental crosses as we felt that they suited the system we were trying to run,’’ said Mark.
He added: “I suppose we were very lucky at the time we bought the heifers; there wasn’t as much talk about the maternal index or maternal traits and the special Simmental sales in Ballymote had not really taken off at that stage. We ended up buying the maiden heifers at about €900/head.’’
Leo said that they didn’t get them all in the one day. They started out at the Ballymote sale and moved on from that, buying them in twos and threes.
“Along with the bought-in heifers, we also bred some up from the dairy herd. This seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but we now have very few of these cows left.”
As Leo isn’t as fit as he once was, and as Mark spends the majority of his time in Galway, they had to devise a suckler system that suited both parties. The main slatted shed was built in 2008 under the Farm Waste Management Scheme, and it was designed with sucklers in mind. The five-bay slatted shed has cubicles behind three pens. The remaining two pens can be used for drystock.
Behind the cubicles are three straw-bedded pens suitable as calf-creep areas. There are also two to three calving pens and a crush all under the one roof. This means that once cattle are in the shed, most jobs can then be completed by one man.
As Leo used artificial insemination (AI) on the dairy herd, and because of his age, a stock bull was not the preferred route, so they chose AI.
For ease during the breeding season, they decided on an autumn-calving system so that all cows and heifers would be bred in the shed to reduce the workload on Leo. Calving takes place from September to November mainly, with a few stragglers in December.
“Autumn calving suits me best. All cows are in the shed during breeding, which makes it easy for me to separate cows out that are bulling and move them to the crush for insemination. If breeding had to be done at grass, we wouldn’t be able to use AI, as I just wouldn’t be able to separate cows in the field and bring them in to the yard for bulling,’’ said Leo.
Too much milk an issue at weaning
Mark and Leo put a lot of emphasis on bringing milk through in the cows. Initially, they bred some first-crosses from the dairy herd, but they have moved away from these because they just had too much milk.
Most farmers would be delighted at the thought of having cows with plenty of milk, and it is a major bonus from a liveweight gain view point.
However, the main issues they had with these first crosses was that they were much harder to dry off. They were also more prone to mastitis and were harder to get back in-calf. All of these issues stemmed from them having too much milk.
Mark said: “Because they were programmed for milk, they were much harder to deal with in an autumn-calving system. We generally didn’t have issues with milk scours like some people may complain about. But our main issue was that they produced more milk than the calf needed and tended to milk off their back in the shed despite being supplemented with meal. This resulted in them being more difficult to get back in-calf.’’
Leo added that the next issue was at weaning. He said: “It is hard to get them dried up enough, and because we wean in July/August, fly activity is usually very high, resulting in higher incidences of mastitis with some of them.’’
Because of this, the two main reasons for culling were mastitis and poor fertility.
Now there are very few first-cross cows from the Friesian herd left on the farm and the majority of the herd is now made up of Simmental-cross and Limousin-cross cows.
Supplementation and silage quality critical
Like any autumn-calving system, keeping energy intake of the cow as high as possible after calving is critical. With cows housed soon after calving or calving indoors, silage and concentrates are the main energy source for the freshly calved cow. For that reason, both Mark and Leo put a lot of focus on silage quality.
First-cut silage is usually closed off in mid-April and cut in early-June. In previous years, silage was tested and is normally close to 70% dry matter digestibility (DMD), which makes it high-quality and suitable for autumn-calving cows.
In addition, cows are supplemented with about 2kg of concentrates per day until they are back in-calf.
In an autumn-calving system, it is essential that the cow-calf bond is broken so that the cow comes in heat quicker,giving you a wider window to get her back in calf
While this can be costly, it is a necessity according to Mark so that the cows do not lose too much body condition. The target is that cows calve down in a body condition score (BCS) of three and fall by no more than a half a condition score between calving and breeding. Mark and Leo try to ensure that the cows are at a BCS of 2.5 at minimum at breeding.
On-off suckling a great success
Once calves are over a month old and cows are housed, then the calves are let out to grass by day from the shed. They have free access to a fresh strip of grass every few days and each evening are fed about 0.5kg of ration in the calf creep. Mark finds that, along with supplying high-energy grass to the calves, the fact that they spend most of the day outside has meant a saving from a disease view point. This has been very evident, although Mark said that they had some issues with pneumonia last year.
Another benefit Mark finds is that the on-off suckling brings the cows around in heat much faster.
“In an autumn-calving system, it is essential that the cow-calf bond is broken so that the cow comes in heat quicker,giving you a wider window to get her back in-calf. The heats do seem to be a little stronger also.’’
Leo added that, from a labour point of view, it adds very little extra work. He is herding the cows morning and evening anyway, so it is easy to let out the calves for the day.
“Once I go out to the fields with nuts, the calves follow me back in again. This also is a major benefit during the grazing season as cows and calves are used to getting herded.’’
Weight and quality at sale crucial
Replacement heifers are now bred on the farm from either Simmental or Limousin AI sires. The sires of all other calves are chosen on ease-of-calving and terminal beef index. As Mark spends a lot of time away from the farm, ease-of-calving is crucial in keeping losses and costs down. However, because the cows are milky, this helps drive weaning weight and sale weight.
The 11 bull calves sold last autumn under 12 months of age weighed 392kg on average, while the heifers sold had an average weight of 391kg at sale, but these were slightly older and sold in early spring.
Both Mark and Leo said that weights last year were back on what they usually achieve. This was down to poor weather all through the summer which affected weight gain. In a usual year, the weight at sale in the autumn is around 430kg to 450kg for the bulls and around about 400kg for the heifers.
Occasionally, they hold some of the later calves until the following spring and sell them as stores. By doing this, they have sold calves of up to 500kg. In terms of sale value, because the calves are all AI-bred, calf quality is usually very good.
Mark said that in good years they can average €1,100 for the bulls, but last year they got them into €1,000/head.
In general, the calves are not spoiled with concentrates prior to sale, there is no ad-lib feeding carried out and the most feed calves would be on, prior to sale, would be about 1.5kg of concentrates per day. The calves are sold in either Dowra or Ballymote mart depending on the trade at the time.
The hope would be to sell some heifers in the coming years as replacements in order to add a little more value to sales. This has not happened as of yet because they are still growing the herd size.
Mark and Leo have brought through skills learned from the dairy enterprise into the suckler system. Mark and Leo use weekly grass measurements during the grazing season. Grass is allocated every few days through the use of temporary electric fence wires.
Grass measurements combined with use of the grass wedge means that they can make decisions quickly on grass supply and make correct calls in relation the removal of surplus grass. This means that grassland management on the farm is excellent ensuring that licensing gain is maximised right through the grazing season.
This article first appeared in the Irish Farmers Journal Beef & Sheep magazine.
FBD €uro-Star €200 competition winner goes to Galway