As part of the international contingent to the Sommet De L’Elevage show, the Irish Farmers Journal visited the farm of Frank and Jeac Rochette, a father-son duo who are operating a 55-cow suckler herd high up in the hills of the Massif Central region.

The herd is operating on 125ha of land, of which 65ha are owned, with the remaining 60ha wasted.

Similar to an Irish suckler system, the Rochettes focus on maximising grass intake and weight gain from grass, with 70ha of the land being used for grazing and fodder, with only 5t of concentrate feed used each year; the remaining crops are sold.

The remaining 55ha are used for growing wheat, barley and maize.

Catch crops are used for green manure to limit the spend on artificial fertilisers, with a mustard-radish mix used.

Land in the upper hill areas where the Rochettes operate trades for €2,500/ha, while in the lower more fertile valleys, land is typically sold for €10,000/ha

Traditionally, the farm held a herd of 80 Montbeliarde cows, with Jeac having built up the herd since 1983, when he joined his father in partnership. The herd was dispersed in 2013 in lieu of the suckler herd, with Aubrac being the breed of choice due to their hardy nature and ease of calving.

While the family admitted that the profitability of the suckler herd was less than that of the dairy, labour had been greatly reduced through the switch with the working day reduced by two hours.

All machinery work, including the tillage side, are completed by the family themselves, with a host of Claas and Renault tractors to hand, as well as the various implements required.

While cattle are not dehorned, the tips of the horns are removed for safety.

Herd management

Similar to pedigree herds here in Ireland, calving is concentrated in the autumn months, with 85% of cows calving between October and December. A target of one calf weaned per cow, per year is the main breeding goals behind the Rochette herd, with ease of calving an additional aim to cut down on labour and ensure cows begin to cycle soon after calving, to keep calving interval to 365 days.

With cows housed indoors over the winter period, the Rochettes aim to utilise AI breeding as much as possible. All cows receive at least one round of AI in January before one of the herd’s two stock bulls are used to sweep up empty cows. Twelve maiden heifers are retained for replacements each year, with 100% AI used on the heifers.

Heifers calve down at 32-36 months of age. When selecting breeding heifers to be retained, Frank chooses heifers with the breeds noted black points around the nose, eye and tail, those with a large chest and pelvis and a straight back. The farm had used some culard Charolais genetics in the past, with cross breeding something of a frowned upon practice in France compared to Ireland. The Rochettes reverted away from cross-breeding a number of years ago, citing the marginal increase in price for the cross-bred calf not sufficient for the increased calving difficulty that the use of the culards created.

Cows receive 0.5kg ration per day while indoors and suckling calves, alongside home grown haylage, with haylage the fodder of preference over silage. First-cut haylage is harvested at 15 bales/ha, with second-cut grass at a similar rate.

In-calf cows in one of the straw-bedded sheds to monitor for calving.

The financials

Weanlings are sold off farm at eight months of age through a local co-operative group, with the co-operative status giving the farmers greater power in arguing prices with purchasers. Calves are generally sold at 330-340kg liveweight, with this year’s calf crop selling for €3.28/kg on average (€1,082-€1,115/head). Minimal concentrates are fed to calves, with milk and grazed grass and fodder the main drivers of weight gain.

Farms in the region that are greater than 800m above sea level can be given Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status that co-incides with a price premium for calves, but the Rochettes are operating at 650m and cannot avail of this.

Cull cows form a major chunk of the beef eaten in France, with aged cows viewed as a delicacy. Aged beef cows receive a premium price in comparison to Irish cows, with €5.75/kg paid.

Carcase weights of mature cull cows on the Rochette farm have averaged 410kg resulting in average prices of €2,375.50/cow. Cows are culled on poor progeny or poor performance, with a 22% replacement rate for the herd. While straw and fodder are grown on farm, straw typically trades for €120/t with hay trading at €165/t.

The Rochettes have an impressive range of accommodation on-farm, comprising several large straw-bedded sheds.