As you travel along the main M8 Dublin to Cork motorway, there is little in the form of suckler highlights to break the monotonous motorway miles.
I’m always on the lookout for Jim Parkinson’s red Limousins just south of Cashel but after that it just seems to be black and white with the odd Jersey thrown in the further south you go.
Last week, I found another suckler gem to watch out for. Nestled grazing the foothills of Watergrasshill is the Ryalls’ pedigree Angus herd.
The husband-and-wife duo run the Fellfort pedigree Angus herd, producing bulls predominantly for the dairy market.
Like most pedigree beef breeding operations, it runs in the blood, with Ben’s father having bred Angus, Shorthorns and Herefords and Ben’s uncle, Jim, running the famous Knockane Charolais herd prefix.
“We’re surrounded by dairy farmers and we have built up a market over the years with a lot of our customers now repeat customers,” Ben says.
“We used to buy commercial cattle and feed them. To be honest, it wasn’t really farming at all. We were only really farming their ears for premiums at the time.”
The Ryalls sell 30 to 40 Aberdeen Angus bulls every year. “We like the Angus because they are a very easy breed to farm and there is very little assistance required at calving time.
“We breed what the customer wants and we get on well doing that. They aren’t into pampering or showing or heavy feeding.
“We produce functional bulls that will go on and do a good job.
“That’s what our customers want so that’s what we give them.”
The Ryalls changed to all autumn calving a number of years ago with the need to have a stronger bull for sale in spring being one of the main reasons.
“We find that farmers generally look for a bull a month out from breeding, or maybe even later than that, so spring-born bulls were really under pressure to serve a lot of cows from May onwards.
“Since moving to only autumn calving, we find that we now have a lot more time for ourselves.
“Calving at Fellfort starts on 1 August and finishes at the end of October. This means we are breeding indoors. We were working off 25% AI before we installed the system but we have now been able to move to 75% AI.”
Two stock bulls have been used to mop up in the past.
Ben has a clear objective of what he wants in a cow and like some pedigree breeders there isn’t a show ring element to confuse things.
Ben knows that efficient cows are profitable cows and he has tailored his breeding programme to suit.
“My ideal cow is 650kg to 700kg. I want my heifers to calve at two years old. I think this crack of calving heifers at three years old is pure nonsense.
“There isn’t an earthly reason in the world why everybody shouldn’t be calving at two years old. I want her to have a calf every year. I want her to calve easily and I want her to be quiet. It’s as simple as that,” Ben says.
The Ryalls use ICBF genetic indexes in their bull selection process. Many pedigree breeders have a difficult relationship with ICBF figures but the Ryalls have embraced them as a tool in the decision-making process.
“We have to embrace science and what it has to offer. We don’t rely completely on figures and we keep track of visual traits in the selection process. That’s part of the enjoyment in the job for us.
“We’re not afraid to test new sires and we use a few Gene Ireland bulls every year,” he says.
The Ryalls also participate in the ICBF Greenbreed pilot project on DNA testing calves at birth.
“We keep meticulous records and the DNA registration confirms this. We’re in BDGP and BEEP-S and find both programmes both helpful financially and interesting to participate in.”
What does the dairy farmer want?
With a lot of talk around the quality of calves coming from the dairy herd I ask him has he seen any changes in what dairy farmers are looking for?
“To be honest, easy calving is still number one, along with short gestation at number two.
“There are some dairy farmers starting to look at the dairy beef index, especially the few that might be taking some cattle through to beef. I see more of them looking at reliability as well. They want a bull to do exactly what it says on paper.
“Nobody will entertain hard calving anymore and you couldn’t blame them for that.
“We are conscious of the dairy beef index in our bull selection for breeding and we are trying to improve things all the time in that regard.”
The herd is very much run on a commercial basis. Cows calve in autumn and, once housed, are offered good-quality silage with calves offered creep at the rate of 1kg/head/day in creep areas.
Things are kept pretty simple during the winter, with turnout taking place as early as possible in spring, typically in February, if at all possible. Maiden heifers are generally turned out first.
Cows are weaned in June/July, with three main grazing groups during the summer months – maiden heifers, cows with bull calves and cows with heifer calves.
Bulls generally stay out until December and are then housed on straw. Bulls are fed 1kg to 3kg/head/day of ration and the best-quality silage on the farm. Bulls are then sold off the farm from Christmas onwards.
The Ryalls invested in a new piece of technology to help both breeding and animal monitoring in the herd. “We’ve never been shy about trying new things and we saw the Allflex Sense Hub technology working in a herd we visited and we thought it could help us out here,” Ben says. It’s a herd monitoring tool which monitors everything from rumination to heat activity.
Cows can be monitored via an ear tag or a collar, with most suckler farmers opting for an ear tag.
Artificial intelligence is going to play a greater role on farms in the future and this is one example of how it could transform breeding programmes. The cost of the unit is €2,500 for the base station and €80/tag excluding VAT.
The Ryalls have installed the system which will reduce their stock bull requirement from three bulls to two bulls. “We could pay €5,000 for a good stock bull so we see this as another option instead. We are really happy so far with the app on the phone which is easy to use. We would have picked up cows in heat last autumn that weren’t showing strong heats and we would have missed them,” Ben says.
“With the level of detail there is around the timing of AI, we see it as an opportunity to use more sexed semen in the future if the opportunity arises.”
The system also acts as a health monitoring tool and has the ability to pick up sick animals at a very early stage, enabling earlier treatment and better outcomes.
“We’ll continue doing what we are doing and try to get better. There are loads of exciting developments coming down the tracks with breeding.
“I’m really excited about sexed semen and the prospects it could have for our business,” Ben says.
“I am worried about the next CAP. You might say we’ll be OK on good land, etc, but our BPS and other supports are critical to the survival of the suckler herd. We’re running a semi-intensive system here and I get the feeling we are going to be squeezed further with the current proposals.
“We’ve already taken a big hit in the last few years with convergence and intensive suckler farmers squeezed out by Government policy.
“We genuinely can’t plan the future at the moment because we don’t know where our future BPS payment will be.”
The Ryalls are clear in what they want. Elaine says: “We want to farm to live and not live to farm.
“We don’t want the next generation to think that they have to be chained to this place. Both of our children are studying for their careers outside of farming and if the farm fits in with that, well and good and if it doesn’t, that’s fine too,” she adds.
Ben had a close call in January 2006 when his jacket got caught up in a PTO shaft of a slurry tanker and pulled him in.
“I was one of the lucky ones. It was the classic PTO accident, the one you see in the video or in the photo but you never think it’s going to be you. I just leaned across to shut off the vacuum pump and my jacket caught and I was dragged in.
“I was very lucky. I had the tractor in the 1,000 rev box and because it was running at low revs, the pressure of me getting caught up in the shaft stalled the tractor and that meant I got out. I severed a main artery but I was able to make a phone call to my brother,” he says.
Ben spent four hours on the operating table, two weeks in hospital and then two years rehabilitating getting back to strength and getting the use of his arm back.
He has reduced power in that arm but it could have been a lot worse. This wasn’t his toughest battle though and, after the accident, he suffered from very bad depression which took a long time to get over.
“I was on a lot of medication at the time and I was worrying a lot about the farm and I suppose it just all got too much.”
Looking back, Ben says it taught the family a few valuable lessons.
They see the need to have a yard that anybody could walk into and do the daily chores and they set about making some changes to enable this to happen, if needed.
“I have great admiration for Embrace Farm, the support group for farm accident sufferers and their families and the work that they do. I think something like that group would have really helped me at the time.
“I regularly talk now with people who have had farm accidents like myself and that bit of a chat can work wonders for people.”