Producing beef on your farm in an effective way requires lengthy thought and consideration. Every aspect of your farm, your methods and your livestock needs to be examined to ensure the best possible outcome and profit. Choosing the right breed of cattle is of the highest importance.
Without a breed that suits the farmer’s resources and home-climate, beef production can become unprofitable. Every farmer is different and understanding why you breed the cattle you choose is important in getting the best out of your land.
The cattle that are chosen for slaughter are turning your grass into beef, your land into profit. There is a wide variety of cattle available today with about 250 recognised breeds worldwide; in Ireland’s expansive beef market, the choice is as important as ever.
Ireland’s Current Situation
Around 690,000 beef cattle are slaughtered in Ireland each year, out of the 1 million born across the country. Only 10% of this meat is consumed on Irish soil; 90% of our beef is exported, providing top global food retailers with tonnes of beef each year. Ireland stands currently as the fifth largest beef export nation in the world.
Since the beef industry is so crucial to the Irish economy, many systems are in place to correctly monitor the breeding patterns and statistics of cattle.
At this point in time, there are around 24 breeds recorded in Ireland on the database for the ICBF (Irish Cattle Breeding Federation). The percentages on this database indicate that the top breeds in Ireland are crossbred and pure Charolais, Limousin and Angus. However, when delving into the specifics of breeds most commonly used in Ireland it appears that dams are usually Limousin, Charolais, Simmental, Hereford or Angus, while terminal sires are quite often breeds of Charolais, Limousin or Belgian Blue.
Identifying Your Own Situation
Before choosing a breed, some things need to be seriously considered:
-The age at which your cattle will be slaughtered
-The ideal weight at the time of slaughter
-The environment that your cattle will be reared in
-Your marketing strategy
Keeping costs down and tailoring the herd to your specific production conditions is vital. One thing to keep in mind is that your main focus should be to produce the most beef per acre at the lowest possible cost, as opposed to producing the most beef per cow.
In cases most likely outside of Ireland when farming takes place in regions of drastically varying temperatures throughout the year, some variations of crossbreeds may be needed that can adapt to both tropical and sub-zero temperatures.
Define Your Goals
Beef farmers need to ask themselves important questions about their business aims.
They need to know at what stage they will be done with their cattle and whether or not they plan to sell weanlings, grass-finish their cows, or sell them just before the finishing stage.
It’s important to know what age you wish your cattle to finish at and whether or not larger-framed cattle would be more suited to your needs with a later finishing age and higher finishing weight.
A farmer needs to be aware of how long their ideal production process lasts. Some may prefer a shorter, condensed time-period and some may wish to have a lengthy, steadier supply of beef.
Another important factor is how you may wish to rotate your cattle’s grazing locations.
In the case of Irish weather, farmers are no strangers to high levels of rainfall, changeable conditions and a general lack of extreme temperatures throughout the year. It’s important to know your own climate and recognise the kind of winters and summers your cattle will face, for example:
Will your cattle breed be suitable for the terrain? Rocky areas can be detrimental for hooves that aren’t bred for harsh ground. Excessively soft ground with high moisture levels can be just as bad for cattle if their breed isn’t matched to boggy terrains. Some farmers may find that hooves need to be consistently trimmed in conditions such as this. The ground your cattle will live on needs to be counted in as a factor for how much your beef production will thrive. For example, the Sussex breed is considered to be well-matched for harsh terrain and hot temperatures, and some variants of Ayrshire cows are known to do well in more or less any climate regardless of terrain or weather.
A cattle farmer can experience many times of hardship through no fault of their own, if disease spreads unknowingly across nations’ herds. It’s important to keep in mind the current climate regarding cattle health. There are times and places where parasites and illness are rampant and farmers need to be on high alert. The sturdiness of your herd should reflect the current health landscape of your area. Salorn, Texas Longhorn, British White and Barzona are just a few breeds from around the world that have been identified as particularly disease-resistant.
The level of threat your cattle may face is something to consider when choosing your breed. Some cattle types have stronger mothering-instincts than others and in a landscape where predators can easily reach your calves it may be vital that your dams are willing to protect not only their own offspring but those belonging to the rest of the herd also. Some breeds that have been characterised by strong mothering abilities are Shorthorn, Brahmousin, Santa Gertrudis, Brahman and Pinzgauer.
Breeds of Today
Each breed has a rich history to research, no matter where it originates. There are many organisations with information that is readily available, specifically online, who advocate for different breeds and provide support to farmers on the path of choosing the right herd for them. Only a handful have been mentioned here so far and in Ireland there are associations dedicated to just 20 breeds at the moment, according to the Department of Agriculture. The main beef cattle breeds catered for by a specific organisation in Ireland are:
- Belgian Blue
- Blonde d’Aquitaine
- Holstein Friesan
- Norwegian Red
- Meuse Rhine Issel
- Speckle Park
There is also the European Association of Specialised Beef Breeds Society Ltd for more information on specific breeds.
Cattle are usually divided into Tropical and European breeds.
Tropical breeds are resistant to extreme heat but may be more difficult to keep nourished during tough winters. Their birth weight is generally lower, and they often mature later. Tropical cattle have a larger frame size than European cows and they are known for their longevity and strong resistance to parasites.
Of course Ireland is more inclined to see the breeding of European cattle due to our oceanic climate. This type of cattle is further divided into the categories of Continental and British.
Continental breeds include Limousin, Simmental, Charolais and Salers. Their frames are smaller than tropical breeds but quite a bit larger than British breeds. They are renowned for yielding high amounts of meat from their carcass with a good ratio against bone, fat and other waste. Continental breeds are normally heavier at their finishing weight in comparison to British breeds. However, with heavier weights there comes a later finishing age. Hot climates aren’t necessarily a problem for these cows and their adaptability is quite strong. Continental breeds are also considered ideal for dual purposes as they produce fair standards of milk as well as beef. Weight gains for continental cattle are also high.
British breeds include all cattle types that have been developed in the geographical region of the British Isles and according to most definitions this does include Ireland. Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn and Devon cattle are considered British breeds. As the climate is considerably damper in the region of Britain and Ireland, these breeds are sturdy during cold winters. They mature at a much faster weight than Continental breeds but their finishing weight is typically much smaller. Beef quality is considered generally quite high with good tenderness.
Finding the Right Breeders
Finally, it’s important to source your cattle from the right place. The breeder you receive your cattle from should have similar breeding aims to that of yourself. Their focus on genetic characteristics should harmonise with your own goals in beef production such as high beef output at a low cost, unproblematic calving, low maintenance for general health, high fertility, and suitability for your pasture and planned grazing environment.