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Best Bred

Farming in Ballinagh, Co. Cavan, Simon and Kenneth Johnston – a father-and-son team – work with 35ha of fragmented farmland all within a two- or three-mile radius of the home block. Operating a suckler-to-store system, the pair hosted a Teagasc/Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) suckler breeding farm walk on the farm recently, aimed at providing suckler farmers with the requirements expected to maximise their payments as part of the new Suckler Carbon Efficiency Programme (SCEP).

With an increasing interest among suckler farmers in using more AI, farmers also heard about different heat-detection methods and synchronisation options for cows and heifers, as well as information on the relatively new concept of sexed semen for use in the suckler herd. 

The system

Partnership duo, Simon and Kenneth, run a spring-and autumn-calving system – selling stores, both heifers and steers – in marts such as Carrigallen and Granard. Offering these animals for sale in batches anywhere between 14 and 20 months', the average weight for the heifers on sale day was 495kg at 504 days of age in 2022, while their steer comrades averaged 610kg for steers at 568 days'. The stocking rate on the farm is 116kg of N/ha or 1.5LU/ha – a figure Teagasc advisor, Niall McCabe said represented a typical drystock farm in the Cavan region. 

Breeding and health 

Breeding performance on the farm is relatively good with 0.94 calves/cow/year born in 2022 – ahead of the national average figure of 0.87. The 2022 calving interval stood at 375 days – 18 days shorter than the Irish suckler farm average. 

Mortality at birth and at 28 days' was 0 per cent in 2022, which would suggest good management practices and attention to detail pre-and post-calving. Simon noted that having the cows in good condition, vaccinated against leptospirosis and scour – along with providing a pre-calving mineral – and adequate levels of colostrum are key to their success. 

The suckler cow present on the farm is a typical Limousin/Charolais cross with strong terminal attributes – suiting the buyers of the Johnstons’ progeny for finishing. And while the herd was originally terminal trait focused, a breeding plan has been developed over the years to also breed replacements from the herd with increased milk and fertility, while not compromising on carcass weight or conformation. 

This is done using 100 per cent AI involving a team of both maternal and terminal sires and using information from the ICBF Euro-Star report to match bulls to cows and heifers. The average Replacement Index of the team of bulls selected for the 2023 season is €190, while the Terminal Index sires average €148. 

AI and heat detection

As there is no stock bull on the farm, close attention to detail must be maintained on the farm when it comes to heat detection. Simon uses both a vasectomised bull – equipped with a chin-ball harness – and scratch cards to help him identify heifers or cows that are bulling. 

Progressive Genetics breeding advisor, Deirdre Toal, said: “The dairy breeds tend to make the best teaser bulls because they’re so active. But it’s important to have them in good condition when they are going out to work. It’s also important to have them vasectomised at least six weeks before the breeding season; you don’t want them putting anything in calf,” she added. 

On the subject of scratch cards, she said: “These basically work like a lottery scratch card, you put them on the back of the cow – across her backbone – and when she’s mounted, the grey colour is scratched off and a bright orange colour is displayed.”

Synchronisation is also becoming more popular in suckler herds, given the success Irish dairy farmers have witnessed. This is mainly due to a reduced workload, the benefits of a more compact calving period and a uniform calf crop come weaning. The use of sexed semen has grown greatly in the dairy herd, but there has also been an increase in the number of suckler farmers enquiring, Deirdre noted, especially among farmers wishing to breed their own replacements. 

“Sexed semen is double the price of a conventional semen straw, with 10 per cent lower conception rates in maiden heifers and 15 per cent lower conceptions rate in cows. And you are only 90 per cent sure to have a female calf – you still have a 10 per cent chance of having a bull calf. Having said that, if you have specific heifers or cows that you want to breed replacements from, it’s worth using. There is the potential to use sexed semen on the best cows and heifers going forward and use high terminal sires on the rest of the herd to breed top-quality males.”

Suckler Carbon Efficiency Programme

Also on the evening, both Teagasc and the ICBF were on hand to discuss the requirements of the new SCEP. The scheme, which will run for five years, will include four mandatory measures: replacement strategy; genomics; weighing; and surveys.

Payment rates will be based on a historical reference number of animals. However, unlike the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP), farmers will have scope to reduce numbers without penalty each year and this option will be available each spring. Farmers will be presented with their suckler calving data from 2016 to 2021 inclusive. For this timeframe, the best three years from which an average will be determined will be the scheme reference figure. 

In the case of young farmers or those with no data for the years 2016 to 2020, they will be regarded as ‘new entrants’ and will provide a target for 2023 at the application stage. Payments of €225/ha for the first 15 eligible hectares and €180/ha for the remaining eligible hectares are available. However, the total hectares claimable will depend on the farmer’s reference number divided by 1.5. 


  • Bord Bia SBLAS membership;
  • Submit a BISS aapplication;
  • Calve down at least 50 per cent of the reference number of animals every year;
  • Every participant will be required to attend a half day livestock handling course before the end of year two;
  • There will be mandatory training on the implementation of the actions under the scheme in the first two years of the contract.

In addition to the above eligibility requirements, SCEP has four mandatory actions which focus on replacement strategies, weight recording, genotyping, and data recording.

The replacement strategy element covers both dams and sires on the successful farmer’s holding. In terms of sire requirements, 80 per cent of the calves born in year one and two of the scheme must be sired by a 4- or 5-star sire. This target increases to 85 per cent in year three and four, before climbing to 90 per cent in year five. 

The dam requirements are as follows: 50 per cent of the reference figure dams retained on the holding must be 4- or 5-star in year one and two. Again, like the sires, progression is required with this target climbing to 65 per cent in year three and four and further increasing to 75 per cent in year five.

In addition to the replacement strategy, to be eligible for payment, successful applicants must weigh 70 per cent of the reference number of animals on the holding annually, with the weights submitted before the first of November each year. And at least 70 per cent of the reference number of animals on the holding must be genotyped annually over the duration of the programme, without repetition. While participants are also expected to provide a range of data through animal events, records and surveys.