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Ticking the beef breeding boxes down Wicklow way

Ticking the beef breeding boxes down Wicklow way

Located just outside Aughrim, Co. Wicklow, John Pringle operates a mixed suckler and sheep farm on 62.48ha of grassland. The suckler herd consists of 45 mainly Simmental-sired cows, while a lowland flock of 225 ewes are also carried.

John, a participant in the Teagasc Future Beef Programme, hosted a recent Teagasc/ICBF breeding farm walk, where attendees were given an overview of John’s herd and production system. Details of the Suckler Carbon Efficiency Programme (SCEP), which is set to close for applications at 23:59pm on May 22nd 2023, were also provided.

Teagasc Business and Technology Advisor to the farm, Peter Lawrence provided an overview of the performance being achieved on the Wicklow holding, where bulls are finished under 16 months (375kg carcass at U-3- grading) and heifers at 22 months (307kg carcass at R=3+ grading).

He explained: “In suckler farming, there are a number of key performance indicators that we really need to focus on.

“In 2022, John’s herd produced 0.94 calves per cow per year, which is positive compared to the national average of 0.87. The calving interval was also 21 days shorter than the national average, at 372 days, and mortality up to 28 days was 0%. On farms nationally, this figure was 2.07%.

“The key to a successful suckler enterprise is having a cow produce a calf every year and then getting these animals to perform on the farm. The first part of this is ensuring the breeding season is a success.”

Table 1: Key Performance Indicators 2022

 John Pringle's farmNational average
Calves per cow per year 0.94 0.87
Calving interval (days) 372 393
Mortality at 28 days (%) 0 2.07
6-week calving rate 70 55
Percentage of heifers calved at 22-26 months 100 24

Breeding season success starts before calving

John’s breeding policy is based on the use of two stock bulls – a Simmental and a Shorthorn – with the latter targeted at animals requiring an easier calving sire, mainly first-time calvers. However, preparations for breeding commence long before the bulls are turned out and it starts with the late-pregnancy nutrition of his cows.

With all cows calving in spring, John has a preference for having his cows “fit and not fat” at the time of calving (body condition score of 3). This is achieved by offering silage with straw or hay from January onwards. For two weeks pre-calving, all cows and heifers are also offered 250g/head/day of soyabean meal to boost mammary development and to ensure cows have adequate colostrum at the point of calving. A comprehensive mineral package is also used during the dry cow period to boost calf vigour at birth. A vaccination programme for E.coli, rotavirus, corona virus and IBR is also employed to ensure calves are provided with sufficient quantities of antibodies at birth, thus potentially reducing the workload during a busy spring of calving and lambing.

Crowds in attendance at the farm walk

Once calved and turned to grass, John’s cows have the opportunity to gain ~0.5 of a body condition score before the bull is introduced. Having cows on a rising plain of nutrition from calving to breeding ensures that submissions rates in the first part of the breeding season are maximised. Failure to achieve this or having cows too thin returning to the bull will delay oestrus and cause an increase in the calving spread on the farm.

Retention of own replacements

Last year, just 24% of heifers nationally calved at 22-26 months, whereas 100% of heifers on John’s farm calved in this window.

When asked why he chooses to calve the heifers at 24 months, John explained: “It is something that we have been doing for 30 years. It works well for us.”

For farmers considering making the move from 36 to 24-month calving, John said: “Don’t be afraid to make the move, just ensure your heifer is well grown and you are using an easy calving bull.”

A selection of heifers on John Pringles farm

Martina Harrington, Future Beef Programme Manager, who has worked closely with John for the past year, explained that many farmers are slow to make the move from calving at 36 to 24 months, but it was a sure way of improving the efficiency of a suckler system.

“We can see on John’s farm that calving at 24 months works. Many farmers are slow to calve heifers at 24 months of age because they are worried about calving difficulty or stunting the cow.

“There are many myths associated with calving heifers at 24 months of age but it is the most profitable option for suckler farmers. It reduces the cost of rearing the heifer, increases the productivity by having an extra calf as opposed to letting the heifer run dry for an extra year, and research work has shown that it will not stunt growth.”

Read more: Calving heifers at two years of age

Selecting the right heifer

John places a lot of emphasis on selecting the right heifer as a replacement for his suckler herd. Not only does he examine the physical attributes, a focus is placed on the genetics – Replacement Index values – and the performance of the heifer’s dam.

“There’s a number of key things I look at when selecting a heifer. Firstly, she has to be born early in the calving season – indicating she’s from a fertile cow – and she has to be well grown. Along with looking at the Replacement Indexes of the heifers, I also look at their dam. If a heifer rates highly on the stars but I’m unhappy with the performance of her dam, she’ll be crossed off the shortlist. She also has to have good legs and feet, as I want her to remain within the herd for years to come; if she’s not functional, it makes it even more difficult for her to achieve this.”

As John has applied for SCEP, a focus is also placed on the star-ratings of the retained replacements, with genotyped heifers being five-star on the Replacement Index being preferred. Over the course of the programme, John and other farmers participating in the scheme, will have to meet a number of requirements, namely:

  • 31st October 2023 – 50% of reference number must be genotyped 4/5 star on the Replacement Index;
  • 31st October 2025 – 65% of reference number must be genotyped 4/5 star on the Replacement Index;
  • 31st October 2027 – 75% of reference number must be genotyped 4/5 star on the Replacement Index.

Pearse Kelly, Teagasc Head of Drystock Knowledge Transfer, and Niall Kilrane, ICBF, also spoke at the farm walk and provided some clarity on what the figures entailed within the Replacement Index actually represent.

Pearse said: “The beef breeding tools we have in Ireland are world class and lots of other countries are envious of the services available through the ICBF.

“Many farmers have questioned the role of EuroStars over the years, commenting on their effectiveness. In suckler breeding, the Replacement Index is the best tool to breed the next generation of replacements. It has been proven over the years to work and delivers on farm. There is always going to be the odd exception, where a one-star cow performs. But, overall, five-star cows perform better. On average, five-star cows have a short calving interval, produce more calves per cow per year and more of them calve at 22-26 months of age.”

Pearse Kelly and Niall Kilrane discussing the replacement heifer strategy on John Pringle's farm

Photo caption: Pearse Kelly and Niall Kilrane discussing the replacement heifer selection criteria on John Pringle's farm

Giving a breakdown of the Replacement Index to the farmers in attendance, Niall said: “It compromises of a number of sub-indexes and these indexes can be used to make improvements to your future herd. By examining the Replacement Index of your herd, you can identify areas that need improvement or the areas where your herd is already strong.

“The overall index provides a star rating and a financial value to an animal, with five-star animals being in the top 20% and one-star animals being in the bottom 20%. Some of the key sub-indexes contained within the Replacement Index are carcass weight – which will have an impact on the carcass weight of the resulting calf from the heifer, milk and calving interval.

“Farmers often think that the milk figure relates to the milk yield of the cow; instead it relates to weaning weight. If we take a heifer that’s +11kg for milk for instance, her calf will be 10kg heavier on average than that from a +1kg heifer if the same sire is used.”

The Replacement Index also contains a calving interval sub-index, with Niall explaining that a negative figure is preferred as it means that your heifers will calve closer to the 365-day target each year. On the other hand, if heifers with positive calving interval sub-indexes were selected, it has the potential to extend the calving interval of your herd.

The bulls

Although much of this article has focused on the female element of John’s farm, the stock bulls present also play an important role, as they are used for 100% of the matings on the farm. Two stock bulls are present. The Simmental bull has a Replacement Index value of €141 (five-star across breed) and a Terminal Index value of €110 (four-star across breed). His main purpose is to breed replacements from the suckler herd and to produce finished animals. For the latter, his +30.4kg of carcass is a positive.

Although happy overall with the performance of this bull in terms of the calves delivered, John is a little bit worried about his daughter calving interval (+1.04 days), which may posse challenges when trying to reduce the herd’s calving interval back from 372 days back to 365 days.

The second bull, a Shorthorn, has a Replacement Index value of €138 (five-star across breed) and a Terminal Index value of €129 (four-star breed). This sire has +26.2kg of carcass and a calving difficulty of 4% for beef cows.

As mentioned, John will participate in SCEP and the presence of these stock bulls puts his farm in a good position for meeting the stock bull requirement of the scheme which are:

  • 2023 + 2024 – 80% of calves sired by a four/five star bull on the Replacement or Terminal Index;
  • 2025 + 2026 – 85% of calves sired by a four/five star bull on the Replacement or Terminal Index;
  • 2027 – 90% of calves sired by a four/five star bull on the Replacement or Terminal Index.

Along with meeting the sire requirements, these bulls have the potential to sire suitable replacement heifers to meet the 2023, 2025 and 2027 genotyped heifer requirement outlined above.

Farmer survey

Suckler farmer’s attitudes toward the beef Euro-Star indexes are currently being investigated. The aim of this study is to explore the attitudes of suckler beef farmers towards the Replacement and Terminal Indexes to improve the uptake and use of the Euro-Star indexes.
Complete the survey, which should take no more than five minutes, here.

John Pringle is a participant in the Teagasc Future Beef Programme. For more information on the programme, click here.
Also read: Suckler Carbon Efficiency Programme 2023-2027
Listen: Your questions on the EuroStar Index and SCEP answered