Thomas Rankin farms with his father Geoffrey close to the village of Bready in north Co. Tyrone.

Their farm extends to 290ac. It is home to a suckler herd of 80 cows and a 380-strong flock of breeding ewes.

Thomas and Geoffrey also buy-in about 50 Aberdeen-Angus cross yearlings and bring these animals through to finishing weights. Output from grass is the main driver of the business. However, the Rankins also have the capacity to grow a mix of winter wheat, spring barley and spring oats. One third of their cereal output is made available for sale; the remainder is used on-farm.

Future for suckler farming in Tyrone

Significantly, Thomas is 25 years of age and he wants a full-time career in suckler farming. “The option of converting to dairy was considered,” he told Agriland.
“But then we realised that it should be possible to implement all of the grassland-related efficiencies and other management improvements that have so characterised the milk sector over recent years, while still remaining in sucklers.”
The Rankin suckler herd is divided into two groups: A 50-strong block of spring calvers and their 30 compatriots, who make up the autumn-calving group on the farm. “All the calves are finished on the farm,” Thomas explained. “They are crossed with either a red or black Aberdeen-Angus bull. Breeding our own replacements has been a priority over recent years.
"We use only easy-calving bulls on the cows and heifers. The autumn-calving group is made up, almost exclusively, of Angus cross Hereford cows.
“The decision was taken to go down the road of a lighter type cow with this group. We are now turning our attention to the breed make-up of the spring calvers.

Saler heifers

With this in mind, the Rankins purchased 10 maiden Salers heifers a number of months ago. They are now running with an Angus bull with the specific aim of using their female progeny as high quality replacements for the spring-calving group. “If this approach works, it will be replicated with the autumn calvers. The potential also exists to breed-up the Salers females from a pedigree perspective," Thomas explained.
“The autumn calves are born during the months of August and September. They are weaned at grass the following summer. The weanlings are then housed and finished indoors. This approach ensures that the ewes have sufficient grass for flushing.
“The spring born calves will have a second season at grass. Once weaned, they are mixed with the bought-in Angus yearlings. These animals are then grouped according to weight before going out to grass.  A paddock grazing system is available for this purpose," he added. “All the animals are put on a 90-day finishing ration prior to slaughter.”

Quality beef enterprise in Co. Tyrone

The Rankins’ commitment to producing quality beef cattle on their farm in Co. Tyrone is very evident. They make four cuts of silage each year, while they also produce a high proportion of the concentrate feeds used on the farm.

Their extensive use of Aberdeen-Angus bulls ensures that they maximise the price available for their finished stock. All the cattle produced on the Rankin farm are finished before they reach 24 months of age.

Thomas is also quick to point out that they can finish all of their cattle with a minimal reliance on imported feeds. “Last year, the only raw material that we could not source from either our own farm or neighbouring businesses, was the corn gluten that was used in the beef finishing ration.
“I think this says a lot for the carbon footprint of the farm. We buy in fodder beet, as required, from neighbouring farms; the cattle love it."
Thomas is equally quick to admit that the scope to improve the efficiency of the family’s suckler beef operation is more than significant. “We benchmark the farm. So we know what we are doing well and where we need to improve," he continued.
“Weighing cattle regularly is an important requirement within any beef farming operation. With this objective in mind, we bought a fit-for-purpose weigh scale at the end of last year.
“It has been used over recent weeks to allow us divide last year’s weanlings and the bought-in Angus stores into three weight groups prior to turn out.”

Grass performance

The father and son team recognise that they must improve the performance obtained from grass across the farm. “We have reseeded a significant proportion of the grazing area over recent years,” Thomas explained.
“Paddocks were established as this work was carried out. Our current priority is to establish a paddock system across the entire grazing block.”
In many ways, Thomas sees this as a ‘getting back to basics’ approach. “Hedges had been taken out across the farm some years ago, in order to increase field size. But now we are reversing this process with the establishment of the paddocks," he concluded.