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Future Beef Newsletter April 2024

Dr. Peter Doyle, Teagasc Grange

Farm Update

Future Beef Breeding Webinars

Night 1: Journey to profitability: Farmer stories | Night 2: Getting your cow back in calf Night 3: Genetics for the futureTop tips for April

 Top tips April 2024

Dr. Peter Doyle, Teagasc Grange

Peter Doyle, Teagasc Grange

Peter Doyle is finishing off calving at Tegaasc Grange.

To date, 6 weeks of calving season is complete and 84 % of the cows are calved. Breeding season is beginning on the 1st week of May. Our aim is to achieve a 9-week breeding season and have over 80 % of the cows calving in the first 6 weeks. These targets are hugely beneficial from both a labour point of view and producing a uniform heavier crop of calves. To achieve these targets, careful management is required both pre-breeding and during breeding.

Currently we are monitoring cow body condition score (BCS), ideally cows BCS should be 2.5. Any thin cows (< 2.5 BCS), and in particular first calvers, are prioritised for early turnout. In light of the poor grazing conditions, there are currently seven cows + calves per grazing group to minimise damage. We have our replacement heifers picked in advance of breeding, so there is time to get them to 60 % of their mature body weight by the start of the breeding season.

A pre-breeding scan takes place the week before breeding. This gives us a chance to identify replacement heifers that are not cycling or any reproductive problems with cows. Last year 13 % of the cows in the Derrypatrick herd had reproductive problems at the start of the breeding season and these problems were rectified before breeding began. Cows will also receive a BVD and lepto vaccine 1 month pre-breeding.

Watch the video upate below.

 Now provides a good time to identify a team of sires, and match these to appropriate cows. On this farm, we are currently selecting sires based on the indexes, and in particular, looking within the indexes to identify key traits that will help improve profitability and help us overcome challenges within our system. Specific traits to select for within the indexes will vary on each farm, depending on the breeding policy and aims. A key aim of our farm system is to maximise calves per cow per year, and to produce heavy carcass weights that are fit for slaughter at 20 months of age off grass, which provides a challenge. Therefore, we are selecting AI sires to help overcome these challenges and are focusing on the below criteria within breed:

  • Calving difficulty less than 8 %,
  • 5 star for carcass weight PTA
  • 4 and 5 star for age to slaughter PTA
  • 1 and 2 star within carcass fat PTA (improves fleshing ability)
  • Greater than 70 % reliability for all traits

During breeding, good heat checking is essential. We complete 100 % AI on this farm, and heat detection methods include a chin ball on the teaser bull, visual checking four times daily and tail paint on the cows. The tail paint is topped up every 2 weeks. We start with the yellow paint, and after the cows 1st AI we change to green paint and after the cow’s 2nd AI we change to red paint and this colour code is very helpful to quickly identify cows that haven’t been served or cows that have been AI’d multiple times.  

Future Beef Webinar Night 1: Journey to profitabiliy: Farmer stories

 On March 20th the Teagasc Future Beef team hosted the first of a three part series of webinars. The overall theme of the series centred on a farmers’ guide to successful suckler breeding.

The focus of the first webinar centred on profitability and what breeding actions the farmers took to ensure that their systems delivered on profit. The webinar featured Future Beef Programme participants Shane Keaveney, Ruairi Cummins and Ken Gill.  The webinar was chaired by Martina Harrington, Future Beef Programme Manager and the panellists were interviewed by Gabriel Trayers, Teagasc Future Beef Programme Advisor.

Shane Keaveney highlighted that the big benefit in compact calving was from a labour point of view. He outlined that 90% of his herd calved in just 6 weeks this year and as a result he could totally focus on that job for that period of time.

There is a direct link to calving ease and conception rates i.e. a cow that calves easily on her own will go back in calf quicker that a cow that needed assistance. Cow body condition along with bull choice have a huge role to play. Ruairi spoke about how he pens the cows and feeds them to ensure that they are “fit” not fat at calving.

Lastly, Ken outlined the benefits of calving at 2 years of age. He has calved close to 50 heifers in the last couple of years and only three needed any assistance. However his advice was to ensure that the heifer is at least 380kgs at bulling time and he picks an easy calving Angus.

Watch the webinar back here:

 The first night  of the Future Beef webinar series examined the use of key performance indicators (KPI’s)  as an  aid  for farmers to become more efficient in the breeding performances of their suckler herd. Ultimately, an efficient breeding herd that is hitting all the KPI’s will lead to profit . The main KPI’s discussed were;

  • Targeting 1 calf/cow/year
  • 365 day calving interval
  • Less than 2% Mortality
  • Aiming to calve over 80% of the herd in 6 weeks and
  • Calving heifers at 2 years of age

Shane Keaveney , Future beef farmer was first up and two ICBF calving reports  from 2014 and 2023 were shown . The 2014 report highlighted a calving interval of 437 days well below the national average. While mortality was low, the calves per cow per year was poor at 0.77. In that year only 25% of the heifers calved between 22-26 months of age.

As Shane had chosen a career in suckler farming , he set about making changes to make the farm more profitable.

Calving report

Figure: Shane's 2014 Calving report

Shane outlined what how he went about building a suckler herd that was fit for purpose ;

  • Purchased maternal Saler females and a Purebred Saler bull
  • Kept the best replacements for breeding
  • Decided on 1 calving season-Spring
  • Reduced the breeding season by 2 weeks each year
  • Culled some older cows that were calving too late
  • Ensured that the cows and heifers were at the correct body condition at two critical periods ie calving and at breeding
  • Kept a close eye on the bull to ensure that he was fertile
  • As the males from maternal system were not suitable for the live trade so started finishing at u 16 months – this increase output/sales from the farm
  • Adopted a simple system that suited the farm.
  • Replacements heifers were given priority treatment to ensure that they hit target weights e.g 380kg+ at 16 months

While it has taken sometime the 2023 calving report demonstrates a complete transformation . The herd is now in the top 10% of all suckler herds in the country.

Calving report

Figure: Shane’s 2023 calving report

Cow Body Condition

The correct body condition of the cow both at calving and at mating are critical  to ensure that she will go back in calf again in the breeding window. Ruairi Cummins explained that he wants the cow “fit “ at calving and be gaining condition again post calving. He had some very practical advice;

  • The first calvers are a priority group so he weans them earlier in the autumn. They will get a few weeks are grass before housing
  • At housing he gives the herd a visual assessment and will group  according to body condition . They are then fed accordingly.
    • Fleshy type cows and are fed haylage .
    • Medium fleshed cow are offered good silage mixed with haylage and
    • Thinner cows and maiden heifers are given top quality silage only
  • Post calving Ruairi will get the cows out to grass as soon as possible. Breeding will start at the end of April and ideally the cows will be out 6 weeks in advance of that date .

Calving at 2 years of Age

Ken Gill has been successfully calving all of his heifers at 2 years of age for sometime now. In the past couple of years he has calved 50 heifers and only 3 needed any assistance. Nationally there is less than 25% of all suckler farmers calving at 2 years . Maybe there is a lot of fear around a heifer that young not being able to physically calve  and as a result will need a lot of assistance. Also fear around that the heifer will not going back in calf and that it will stunt growth in the longterm.

Ken outlined that choosing the right heifer genetically coupled with a good size and an easy calving sire, there is no difference whether it is a  heifer or mature cow that is calving for him. The heifer needs to be at least 380kgs at time of insemination is a key point.

When choosing  replacements , Ken will use the figures from the replacement index and all will be 5 star. Prior to breeding, he will draft off any heifer below 380kgs and AI the remainder. They breeding season will last 6 weeks only ie a heifer will only get two chances to go into calf . Ken believes that this policy has ensured the overall herd in highly fertile and is very functional to calf and rear a good calf.

Future Beef Webinar Night 2: Getting your cow back in calf

The second webinar took place on March 25th and focused on the challenge of ‘getting your cow back in calf’. The featured participants were Future Beef Programme farmers Aonghusa Fahy and John Dunne, who were joined by Prof. David Kenny, Head of the Teagasc Animal Bioscience Research Centre. This webinar was also chaired by Martina Harrington, Future Beef Programme Manager and the panellists were interviewed by Aisling Molloy, Teagasc Future Beef Programme Advisor.

The average gestation length of a beef cow is 288 days. However the average length of time before she starts cycling after calving is 55 days. If she has a typical 21 day cycle, this means that there are only two opportunities to breed her to maintain a 365 day calving interval.

Aonghusa Fahy from Ardrahan, Co. Galway outlined how he uses a vasectomised bull and the ‘MooHeat’ technology to help him with heat detection on the farm, particularly as he works full time off farm. This allows him to use AI to breed replacements on the farm, and he then uses a stock bull to mop up. Record keeping is crucial to him for getting cows back in calf.

John Dunne from Portarlington in Co. Offaly discussed the issues he has encountered with both infertile and sub-fertile bulls on the farm which saw his suckler cows drop from 90 to 50. He is now building the herd numbers back up by using a synchronisation protocol on his heifers and cows, and has started fertility testing stock bulls on the farm.

Professor David Kenny has vast experience researching all areas of cow and bull fertility in the beef herd and discussed the biological reasons that can affect it, along with developments in sexed semen that is becoming more widely available as an option for beef farmers.

You can watch the webinar back here:

 What affects conception rates in suckler cows?

According to Prof. David Kenny, fertility is multifactorial. It is affected by:

1. Body condition score at calving

A cow needs to be in moderate to good condition to reduce the interval between when she calves and when she resumes cyclicity again. The more cows that are cycling earlier in the breeding season, the better the chance of conceiving in the first 3 weeks of breeding season.

2. Stock bull

Assess his fertility prior to breeding season. Just because he was fertile last year doesn’t mean he will be this year. Complete a full vet health check to include locomotion, limb quality and general health. He has a lot of work to do in the first 6 weeks of the breeding season and can lose up to 10% of his body weight.

 3. Heat detection is critical

Having the time and/or technology to detect heats is very important – you won’t get good results otherwise.

 4. Cow nutrition

They must be on a consistent diet and conception rates can decline by up to 50% due to fluctuations in this such as poor growth, bad weather or a grass shortage. Maintaining a steady supply of grass is key.

 5. Mineral deficiencies & reproductive diseases

These can contribute to issues but in general both are small factors from trial results carried out across the country.

Fertility issues

John began having breeding issues on his farm in 2018. He has had suckler cows for 35 years and always had good conception rates with stock bulls. This particular year he purchased a stock bull and ran him with the heifers on an out farm for 12 weeks. At the end of the season when the heifers were scanned, none of these were in calf which was a huge hit to his cow numbers. Unfortunately John also had a sub fertile bull on the farm and stated that he caused more damage as he appeared to be active and some cows were going in calf to him.  In response to all this, he increased the dairy calf enterprise on the farm to help financially and has also made some changes in terms of his stock bull management and by starting a synchronisation programme on the farm which is outlined below.

Stock bull management

Now when John buys a stock bull, he firstly quarantines him from the herd and gives him time to acclimatise to the farm. A health check and fertility test are carried out by his vet. The bull is turned out to grass when the weather is suitable and is left in with the cows 2 weeks after the synchronisation programme is complete.

A young bull will only run with 20 cows and a mature bull will run with up to 40 cows.

John has considered buying a replacement bull but knows that he would have to be changed more regularly as his daughters would be coming along in the herd. You also have to buy a genetically superior bull which is expensive. The synchronisation programme is saving him buying an extra bull now, and also gives him access to the best genetics.

What affects a bull’s fertility?

Anything that can affect a bull’s general health can affect his fertility according to Prof. David Kenny. Locomotion and limb health are important for him to track and mate cows. Anything that affects inflammation or a rising temperature in the body such as a chill or infection will also affect fertility.  The survival and manufacture of sperm is very sensitive to heat and it takes 60 days for a new batch of sperm to reach the stage where it is capable of putting a cow in calf. If a bull is infertile it could be something that happened up to 2 months ago! While hard to determine figures, it is estimated that 5% of bulls are fully infertile and up to 25% are sub fertile. David outlined how vigilance is absolutely critical to identify repeats and potential issues when using AI and having a stock bull.

Heat detection

A key theme of the webinar was the importance of heat detection during the breeding season Aonghusa monitors cows and heifers regularly for signs of heat and scans them 3-4 weeks pre-breeding.  He records heats in an app and it gives a notification that a cow/heifer is due on heat 19 days later.

A dairy beef bull calf is bought in and reared on milk replacer every year on the farm. He is vasectomised in September at 250-300kg and housed with the weanlings over the first winter. Aonghusa fits a Mooheat collar on him which also helps him to identify when cows are on heat, particularly when he works full time off farm. Each cow is given a unique tag and when the bull is in contact with her during a heat, a notification text is sent to Aonghusa’s phone. It cost approximately €1000-1500 for 50 tags, a collar and the annual subscription. The subscription costs €350/year thereafter. No wifi connection is needed for the technology as it works off a GPS system. At the end of the breeding season the bull runs with empty cows that are being fattened is finished in September to avoid any temperament issues with him the following year.


John finds it difficult to find time in the spring for heat detection due to his dairy beef and tillage enterprises, along with the spring herd calving. He started synchronising 2 years ago where he bought in commercial heifers and bred them to AI. Last year he synchronised the heifers again, along with some cows. Conception rates were back last year to 50-60% but he is back up to his target cow numbers of 85 calving this year.

From a labour perspective he only has to get the cattle into the yard 3 times for their veterinary treatment and AI, and he plans the dates out in advance with his vet. It costs approximately €75/head including the AI straw, but he emphasises how good conception rates are required. At 50% conception rates it costs €150/calf on the ground so he is aiming for 70% conception rates this year.

The recommended synchronisation programmes for heifers and cows are outlined below. Heifers should be cycling before using the protocol outlined.

Heifer synch. protocol

Figure: Synchronisation protocol for heifers

Cow synch. protocol

Sexed semen

With sexed semen becoming more widely available for beef farmers, Prof. David Kenny described the sexing process. The semen is passed through a laser and separates the male and female sperm based on a 3% difference in DNA content. It damages sperm and it’s more fragile as a result. It is placed in cows/heifers at a slightly later time, closer to ovulation, because it doesn’t have the same lifespan.

Synchronisation gives more control for doing timed AI, especially if relying on an AI technician. Conception rates are 10-20% lower with sexed semen vs. conventional straws.

John is sticking with conventional AI straws at present and will focus on improving conception rates first. Aonghusa used it on 2 cows last year and 1 cow held in calf. He found that the timing was hard to get right if heifers/cows were bulling at night as he didn’t know what time the standing heat was at. However he plans to try it again this year. Click here for further information on using sexed semen in the beef herd.

Future Beef Webinar Night 3: Genetics for the future

An ounce of breeding is worth a ton of feeding – never a truer word was spoken, however you must ask the question – what are you breeding for?

This was the focus of night three of our future beef breeding webinars when we were joined by Wesley Browne a full time farmer in Monaghan, calving 90 suckler cows in the spring of the year – finishing his males as bulls under 16months of age and selling his surplus heifers as replacements. The farm is fragmented and there are only stock bulls used on the farm

His key focus areas are

  • Profitability –
    • Calf per cow per year
    • 200 day weight of >300 Kg
    • Meeting factory specifications with the bulls
    • Reducing the age of finish to reduce cost
    • Having a heifer at 400 Kg to bull in May
    • Having a saleable heifer

Trevor Boland based in Dromard in Sligo is a part time farmer, calving 50 suckler cows from July to September, selling the bull calves at 11-12 months of age and the heifers at 1.5 – 2 years old. His key focus areas are:

  • Profitability
    • Calf per cow per year
    • Heavy weanling – this is his key output
    • Need to improve carcass weight in the cow
    • Want to hold milk
    • 100% AI
  • Labour – Trevor is working off farm so he needs
    • Easy calving bulls
    • Simple system
    • Help with heat detection

Watch the webinar here:

Wesley is a full time farmer, farming 90 spring calving suckler cows on 58ha of land in 4 blocks just outside Monaghan town in co Monaghan.

The bulls are finished at 15.3months, 386Kg and U= 3=. The heifers he does not keep for himself are sold as replacements heifers to other farmers.

Immediately when we look at what Wesley requires, its top class genetics, a milky cow to produce a heavy weanling to reduce the cost of the finishing period.  She should have good conformation to be capable of breeding a U grade bull and the bull bred to her must also have good conformation to produce a U grade animal at 15.3 months.

Wesley is also selling replacements, a key consideration has always been her colour.  Wesley says “farmers want a nice red heifer with a white face. But with the introduction of BDGP and then SCEP these purchasing farmers also wanted to buy females that were eligible for the schemes”.

For Wesley, this is not an issue as he has been following genetics for many years and has been using stock bulls to complement one another. “I want a functional cow, to calve down at 24 months, to give me a live calf per cow per year and produce a good animal to finish under 16 months”.

How has he achieved this? Simply, he has looked at the attributes of each bull and mixed and matched bulls to produce the replacements he wants, “one bull cannot do everything for you”. As we have said Wesley is chasing milk, he wants a good heavy weanling, so let’s take his Simmental Bull – SI474. He is +29.3Kg on carcass which is a good weight, +1.52 on conformation, so a plainer animal, +10.5Kg on milk so really strong here (you wouldn’t want him much stronger). He also has a negative calving interval of -2.09 days, this is excellent as Wesley wants a calf per cow per year.

But Wesley is finishing bulls and he wants them to grade so he uses a strong Limousin bull,.  LM0940 is a large bull who is +37.7Kg on carcass and  +2.65 on conformation.  This bull is used to put size and conformation into a replacement heifer.  He is only +2.3Kg on milk, so he is not taking away from the milk in the herd, but he is also not adding anything either.   So Wesley has to be careful. He is +2.53 days on calving interval, so he is not helping to keep that 365 day calving interval.

Wesley has 90 cows and runs them in 3 separate groups, so he wants another bull.  What should he choose.?For the last number of years Wesley has had a Saler bull – SA1124. Again he is lighter on carcass at +21.3Kg, is plainer on conformation at +1.39, he has lots of milk at +7.5Kg and he pulls back the calving interval with – 6.4 days.

So when Wesley looks at the contribution of each bull, he is building the cow type he wants and producing the type of stock his market wants.


Trevor is in a completely different system. He has a 50 cow, autumn calving herd on 47ha in 5 blocks. He is selling the males at 11 months of age as bulls, targeting a live weight of 500Kg. The females are sold at 1.5 – 2 years. He is using almost 100% AI and calving all his heifers at 24 months.

The focus for Trevor is to breed heavy, top quality cattle as all are sold live off the farm. For this he needs a milky cow, with good carcass traits and good fertility.

Trevor has a full time job off farm and therefore his time is limited, he can’t leave work at the drop of a hat to calve a cow, so he has tended towards easy calving’. To focus the brain he wants a short calving spread and a short breeding season- “if they could all calve down on the one day that would be great”. As he calves outdoors from July onwards facilities are not an issue. He keeps the cows close to calving around the yard, so if there is any issue its easy to run them into the calving pens.

In the past Trevor used very easy calving, low carcass weight bulls.  As a result, the carcass weight on the cows has slipped.   His carcass for the overall herd is +16Kg, the milk figure is +6.6Kg and the calving interval is -2.13 days. The target is to push up the carcass weight, while maintaining or slightly improving the milk and keeping the fertility in the herd to produce a calf per cow per year.

Trevor Boland’s Beef EuroStar report March 2024

Eurostar Report

Drumline S LM9577 is a great choice.  He is +39.1Kg on carcass. When you add this to Trevor’s existing cow herd at +16.6Kg he will add power. He is not a choice to breed replacements for everyone, if you already have a large cow, he will produce even larger replacements.

Drumline S bull

He is +4.5kg on milk, so again exactly what Trevor is looking for, he will add milk but not too much as his own milk figure is currently +6.6Kg, and lastly he is very high at +2.73 on conformation, which will add conformation to Trevor’s plainer cows, like 233.

Cow no 233 to be bred with Drumline S – to give higher carcass traits, keep the milk and fertility

Cow details

The big thing here is Trevor has looked at his cows, decided the cow type he wants and has picked a bull to give him that.

The final huge advantage to Drumline S for Trevor is he has sexed semen, so Trevor can synchronise his cow and or heifers and use female sexed semen to get his replacements, he can then use pure terminal bulls on the rest of the cows for better quality weanlings.

On the calving ease, he is only 3% calving difficulty in mature cows, with a reliability of 72%, so this is good for the mature cow, however, on heifers he is 7.0% calving difficulty with only 61% reliability. Therefore Trevor will use him only on the mature cows and see how he goes next year.

Once the replacements are sorted, Trevor is looking to push the quality on the rest of the weanlings and has picked two Charolais bulls – Lapon CH4321 and Pottereagh Mark CH4160, see their figures in Figure 1. They will produce heifers like 859 below, excellent terminal but you would not keep her for a replacement heifer, she has no milk.

Heifer 859 sired by Lapon

Heifer details

The calving difficulty is high on these bulls, but Trevor is okay with this as he has a Saler type cow and he has invested in a Sense Hub system.   This can alert him to any difficult calving’s, but he is confident that the cows he has picked will be able to calve them.

For the heifers calving at 24 months Trevor uses Ewdendale Ivor LM2014 and Highfield Odran SA2153. Two easy calving bulls on heifers at 6.0% and 5.7% calving difficulty, respectively.

Trevor Boland’s selection of bulls for the 2024 breeding season

Bull choices 2024