The 2023 breeding season has got off to a rapid start in Newford Farm, the suckler-to-beef demonstration farm located in Athenry, Co Galway. Farm manager Stephen Frend reports that as of Tuesday 9 May (day 16 of breeding), there were 68 cows (85%)and 20 heifers (80%) inseminated since breeding began on 24 April.

The farm moved to 100% artificial insemination (AI) in 2017 following a couple of years of running an AI breeding programme for six weeks and stock bulls for another five to six weeks. At the time, breeding performance in the herd was running 80% to 85% of cows in calf following six weeks of AI. That leaves the stock bulls with very little work to do, while posing a significant cost to the system.

The main emphasis behind using stock bulls was to minimise labour input. However, the farm trialled once-a-day AI in 2016 and 2017 to good effect, and this practice has been adopted since then. The the breeding season was subsequently cut to 10 weeks with only a couple of cows inseminated after week nine in the last three seasons. This meant the labour input did not change drastically while there has been no adverse effect on breeding performance, with once-a-day possibly enhancing reproductive performance.

Once-a-day AI in practice

As the name suggests, cows are inseminated once daily, typically around 12pm. Any cow that is still showing strong signs of standing heat on the evening will be selected for insemination again the following day.

This compares to the traditional AM-PM rule whereby the advice is to inseminate cows approximately 12 hours after showing signs of standing heat. So, cows in heat in the morning are inseminated in the evening, while cows in heat in the evening are inseminated the following morning. The 2022 breeding analysis record of Michael Fagan, Teagasc, showed that in 2022 a total of 17 out of the 82 mature cows (20%) put forward for breeding were inseminated on two consecutive days, ie there were 17 cows showing strong signs of standing heat in the late afternoon/evening of the day they were inseminated. This has ranged on average from 15% to 20% in recent years.

The additional cost to the farm in such a scenario is the cost of the straw, with insemination in recent years, mainly carried out by Stephen. This cost is seen as justified given the high level of labour in the 100-cow herd that moving animals possibly from three groups to the yard morning and evening would bring, and also the perceived benefits in enhancing cow reproductive performance.

Reproductive performance

Breeding performance is one area that the herd has excelled on in recent years. The submission rate in the first three weeks of the breeding season has averaged from 95% to 98% of cows. Conception rate to first service has averaged in the region of 65% to 68%, while conception rate to second service has improved in recent years and is being recorded in the region of 85% to 88%.

The empty rate has typically averaged in the region of 8% after a 10-week breeding season with just a handful of cows calving after the first six weeks of the calving season.

The exact reproductive performance for the 2022 season is not available due to the fact that eight cows were lost to TB. During breeding, 61 of the 82 cows were served once (74.2%), 19 twice (23.2%) and two a third time (2.4%). When scanning occurred, 54 cows (72%) held to first service, 13 to second service (17%), one (1%) to third service and seven empty (9%).

Six of the empty cows were expected while from the cows lost to TB there was only one suspected as being empty, but, this is irrelevant now as these cows were not present at scanning.

Heifer performance

The breeding performance of heifers in 2022 was the best the project has achieved. From the 23 heifers put forward for breeding, 13 (56%) held to first service, seven to second (30%), one (4%) to third service and two were empty. The upshot of the positive breeding performance was 95% of the herd calved within six weeks in 2023.

Heat detection aids

The farm is using a number of heat detection aids. Vasectomised bulls have been central to heat detection since making the switch to 100% AI. These bulls have been fitted with a chin ball and Moocall heat collars are also being used. Tail paint is applied to cows and the colour is changed following each insemination.

Some farmers reading about the range of heat detection aids used in Newford Farm comment that the number of aids used is overkill. However, the process has delivered excellent results in recent years and there is also a demonstration element in trialling what works best. At this stage, the farm would be slow to move away from the heat detection aids use with heat activity easy to identify.

Sire choice

There has been a slight change to the criteria used to select sires in 2023. The criterion of greater than three days less predicted transmitting ability for age to slaughter has been added to tie in with the farm’s aim of finishing heifers off grass at 16 to 18 months of age and also in increasing the number of bullocks finished off grass.

The remaining selection criteria are broadly similar and laid out as follows;

  • Five-star terminal index on a within and across breed basis.
  • Less than 8% calving difficulty for mature cows at a minimum of 70% calving reliability figure.
  • Greater than 35kg predicted carcase weight for mature cows.
  • Less than 5.8% calving difficulty for young cows at a minimum of 70% calving reliability figure.
  • Greater than 25kg predicted carcase weight for young cows.
  • Minimum conformation score of 1.86.
  • Less than 6% calving difficulty at a minimum of 80% calving difficulty reliability for first-calvers.
  • Greater than 25kg predicted carcase weight for first calves.
  • At least -3 days for predicted transmitting ability for age of slaughter.
  • AI straw cost of less than €20.
  • When this criteria was used Ewdenvale Ivor was the continued sire choice for heifers. Gstaad, Lapon and Whitecliffe Orwell remained on the bull team from 2022 and as detailed in Table 1 were joined by Garnedd Nelson, Grangwood Royal Oak and Birchpark Rufus.

    Newford open day

    Newford Farm, established by Dawn Meats and Teagasc and support by the Irish Farmers Journal and McDonald’s, is holding an open day on Tuesday 23 May 2023. The event takes place from 2pm to 6pm and will comprise of a farm walk with four stops discussing the farm’s physical and financial performance, breeding and genetics, grassland management and animal performance including finishing strategies.

    There will also be a stand discussing the farm’s new environmental focus, with Newford Farm now participating in the Teagasc Signpost Programme and Future Beef Programme. There will also be a number of practical demonstrations covering key aspects of production while a number of industry stakeholders will also be in attendance.