Building resilience into a beef enterprise in Co. Fermanagh

Recent years have seen Fermanagh suckler beef producer John Egerton improve the efficiency and resilience of his beef enterprise.

He has also added to it in ways that improve its scope and sustainability.

The Roslea man addressed a recent webinar jointly hosted by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC), Northern Ireland Meat Export Association (NIMEA), National Beef Association (NBA) and Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU).

He said: “Many farmers today have difficulty encouraging one son into the family business; I am in the position of having to cater for the needs of three sons, all of whom want to follow a career in production agriculture.

“Given this scenario, the need to grow and develop a more resilient farming business has been obvious for a number of years.”

Suckler herd as part of beef enterprise

The main driver of the Egerton beef enterprise is a 90-strong suckler herd, which is equally split into spring and autumn-calving groups.

Optimising production from grass and making use of the best possible suckler genetics are priorities for the business.

John explained: “It rains a lot in Co. Fermanagh. So calving 90 cows in one block during the spring months is not an option.

“If ground starts to cut up during the summer, we can take the autumn-calving group indoors without interrupting the overall operation of the farm.

“The spring-calving group calve down during March and April; the autumn group calve down during August and September.”

Use of sexed semen in the beef enterprise

John uses a significant proportion of sexed semen on all the cows and breeding heifers.

“Only maternal sires are used on the stock. Each animal will receive up to two AI [artificial insemination] straws. Any not in-calf by that stage are sold on,” he explained.

“We breed all our herd replacements. Surplus breeding heifers are sold as herd replacements to other suckler farmers.

“The spring and autumn-calving groups are kept entirely separate. For the most part, the cows comprise a mix of Simmental, Salers and Limousine bloodlines. All our heifers are calved at 24 months.”

Grazing system

A paddock grazing system is at the heart of the Egertons’ commitment to grassland management. Last year a 40ac block provided sufficient grazing for over 90 head of cattle.

“There was also surplus grass available to allow me make 80 silage bales,” John added.

“Back in my father’s day, the same block of land was set stocked with 25 cattle.”

Other enterprises on the Egerton farm include a ‘Blade’ farming unit, 200 spring-lambing ewes and a dairy heifer rearing unit.

John explained: “The Blade unit is run in conjunction with ABP. The calves arrive with us at three weeks-of-age; they leave at 15 weeks. ABP retains ownership of the calves at all times. Essentially we are paid a management fee.

“Our plan is to invest in a second Blade unit. Once this is established, it should provide one of my sons with a full-time living.”

Sheep farming

According to John, the sheep represent an alternative enterprise on the farm, allowing the family to make best use of grass.

However, he sees sheep as a career development opportunity for another of his sons.

“The dairy heifers arrive with us at 11-months-of-age. They are put in-calf here and sent back to their home farm prior to calving. Again, we get a management fee to cover our costs and time input,” he explained.

“Building resilience within a business is all about making best use of everyone’s time.”