by Julie Hazelton Simmental is noted for its dual purpose attributes and when it comes to breeding milky, functional suckler cows the continental breed is at the forefront of the breeding programme for County Down farmers Francis and Fergal Watson.
The father and son team farm over 750 acres near the villages of Rubane, Kearney and Cloughey on the Ards Peninsula. They were hosts of the 2011 Northern Ireland Ploughing Championships, and run a herd of 250 suckler cows, the majority of which are spring calving.
“We’ve been using Simmental stock bulls for years,” stated Francis, who ceased milk production in 2008. “We used to run a British Friesian dairy herd alongside 110 suckler cows, but since we stopped dairying the suckler herd has more than doubled in size.”
The mainstay of the suckler herd traces back to British Friesian cross cows and also comprises of other continental crosses. However, over the past two or three years Francis and Fergal have been using Simmental as the main maternal sire. “The Simmental is the ideal cross on other breeds. The females have hybrid vigor, good big frames, are very hardy. The more Simmental blood the better!”
When looking for a Simmental stock bull Francis Watson aspires to buy a red coated bull with good conformation. “I specifically like red bulls as they stamp the Simmental markings on other breeds. I like a long, growthy bull with a good broad back, but not too sharp at the shoulder. Sound legs and feet are also important, as well as calving index.”
Stock bulls are purchased at the Northern Ireland Simmental Cattle Breeders’ Club ‘s official show and sale at Dungannon Farmers’ Mart. The herd’s senior stock bull is Ashland Teviot, an October 2006 born bull bred by current breed club chairman, Pat Kelly, and son Frank, from Tempo, County Fermanagh.
Ashland Teviot was purchased for 5,000gns and was the reserve supreme champion at the Simmental Club’s sale in April 2008. Sired by Raceview Nigel, his dam is the Hast daughter Corlesmore Clodagh. With a calving ease score of +3.5 this bull is in the breed’s top 10%, and is +6 for milk which is ideal for breeding replacement females.
“Now over five years of age, Ashland Teviot is still going strong and has really made his mark on the herd. Daughters are like peas in a pod, and have a good temperament and plenty of milk,” added Fergal.
The herd’s junior stock bull is the February 2010 born Knockreagh Barney, bred by Val and Conrad Fegan, Rostrevor, County Down. Bought at Dungannon last year, he was a second prize winner and came under the hammer at, 3,800gns. Sired by the Cleenagh Flasher son, Omorga Volvo, his dam is a home-bred Ballinalare Farm Nemesis daughter. His daughter calving ease score is +2.6, also in the breeds top 10%.
Francis added:”This time last year we had four Simmental stock bulls, but unfortunately one got hurt, and the other was getting too closely related to the younger females within the herd. This spring we’ll be on the look-out for another couple of Simmental bulls.”
Heifers calve into the herd at two-years-old, and all cows and heifers are calved in the house and turned out to grass from the end of February onwards. “Most of our land is close to the shore and the fields are made up of good free draining soil. Weather permitting we put the cows and calves out in small batches,” explained Fergal.
“This is a closed herd and we breed all our own suckler replacements. We are gradually trying to improve the quality of our suckler herd, and have been focusing on using good quality Simmental bulls and retaining our best home-bred heifers. The Simmental crosses are docile, milky, easy calving and have great mothering ability. The Simmental is noted for its longevity, and in the future we would like to be in a position to sell surplus heifers.”
Calves are weaned at between seven and eight months of age. “The Simmental cows have plenty of milk and the calves are in great bloom, which reduces the need for expensive creep feed,” added Fergal.
Three cuts of silage are harvested annually using a forage wagon. “We have new swards rich in clover and this high sugar, high protein silage is fed to the youngstock, while the ryegrass swards produce stemy silage for the dry cows,” explained Fergal.
The Watson’s grow 300 acres of cereals annually – barley, wheat and oats, as well as 25 acres of kale and 25 acres of fodder beet. Half of all home-grown cereals are used as animal feed, while the remainder is sold off the farm.
Cattle are housed from mid November onwards. Cows are kept in large open-fronted sheds which are straw bedded. They receive a diet of silage, straw and minerals which is fed using a Keenan feeder wagon.
“We like to buy premium quality minerals. We have no doubt that minerals are the answer to improved cow health and fertility within the herd. Minerals are expensive but worth every penny. Last year we scanned the entire herd and 94% were settled in-calf,” added Fergal.
During weaning the bullocks and heifers are separated into batches and fed a diet of silage, fodder beet, straw, minerals and cereals.
Simmental heifers are hand-picked and retained as herd replacements, while the bullocks are finished for beef at between 20 to 24-months of age. “We are very selective when it comes to picking replacements for the suckler herd. Those that don’t make the grade are finished alongside their male counterparts,” added Francis.
Occasionally the Watsons sell bullocks and heifers at Ballymena Mart, but the majority of their beef cattle are slaughtered at ABP in Newry , mostly receiving U and R grades. Heifers weigh between 320kgs and 380kgs deadweight, while the bullocks reach weights of 400kgs and over. “The Simmental ticks all boxes on this farm. The heifer calves make ideal suckler replacements, while the bullocks have the potential to put on weight and are finished on a par with other continental breeds,” concluded Fergal.
The Watson’s farm is fully self-sufficient, and with the help of four full-time employees Francis and Fergal can harvest all of their own silage and cereal crops, as well as carry out routine ploughing, slurry spreading, hedge cutting, fencing, maintenance and building work. They are nearing completion of a three-year land improvement and drainage programme using the farm’s track digger.