Bernard Hunt knew from a young age that he was destined to inherit the family farm, but it wasn’t until he made a trip to France with his father in 1995 that this enterprise, became a pioneer of the establishment of a new breed of cattle in Ireland.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bernard’s father Brian spent a lot of time in Scotland and this is where he first encountered Salers cows.
The breed - which is native to France - was not common in Ireland at the time but he believed that the difficult environmental conditions, where the Salers breed developed, would make them well suited to his native Sligo.
In 1995, Bernard finally travelled to France with his father to the National Salers show. He returned home to his farm in Gurteen, Co.Sligo with a Salers bull and an in-calf heifer named Lafite. This began the establishment of the Sligo Salers herd.
Originally the Hunts crossed the Salers bull with some of their existing commercial cows to produce cross-bred Salers heifers.
Those females were then crossed with the Charolais breed, producing excellent quality cross-bred calves which were sold as weanlings for both the domestic and export market.
Bernard still sometimes crosses the Charolais bull with Salers dams to produce well-conformed offspring which are sold as weanlings.
However, over the years the pedigree side of his herd has expanded. “We were consistently introducing pedigree heifers into the herd. I have about 70 pedigree cows and about 15 extra heifers calving this year, he said.
Irish suckler herd
This is despite increasing pressure from Europe for Ireland to decrease its suckler herd numbers.
The European Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan has suggested that farmers be compensated in return for reducing suckler herd numbers and said that there is “going to have to be a change” if Ireland is to meet its climate targets.
However, Hunt does not believe the suckler herd in Ireland is big enough to cause a problem.
“The suckler herd has decreased on its own. The dairy herd is far bigger and has increased enormously”, he said.
According to data from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the number of suckler farmers in the south and southeast fell by over 20% between 2010 and 2018.
To make up for this decline, “A lot of the dairy second class beef animals are being killed in factories and it is never going to be as good of quality as the suckler beef.” Hunt said.
Despite tight margins and a decline in suckler herd numbers, Bernard says that the market for Salers cows is still “very good”.
“There has always been a very good market for the breed. Heifers would be more in demand than bulls because they are sought after because of their ability to calve and feed a calf," he added.
The Salers breed is renowned for easy calving due to their large-shaped pelvis. Out of all the beef breeds in use today, Salers have the best pelvis shape for calving and with calves usually weighing no more than 30-40kgs at birth; this makes the calving process much easier.
This was evident on the Hunt farm this year where Bernard said they had “68 live calves and we only assisted one out of that”.
During his 24 years as a breeder of Salers cattle, Hunt has enjoyed a lot of success with the Sligo Salers.
His winning titles include Overall National Large Salers Herd, All-Ireland Calf Champions both male and female, All Ireland Cow Champions and winning Overall Salers Champions at Tullamore Show for four years in a row.
Bernard is also an active member on the Salers Cattle Society of Ireland. He said that his involvement in the society was a natural progression because his father was one of the founding members of the society when it broke away from the UK branch.
In 2017, Bernard was honoured with the Salers Cattle Society of Ireland National Hall of Fame Award, the same title his father had received nine years previous.
The calibre of Hunt’s herd became evident when he became one of the first Salers breeders in Ireland to export a Salers bull back to the breed’s native France.
While a lot of Hunt’s cattle are now sold commercially, Bernard keeps about 15 bulls to sell on to other farmers for breeding.
He also exports his bulls to several farmers in Scotland each year which ensures a high pedigree of Salers, not only in Ireland, but beyond.
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