by | May 17, 2023

Feature on James McKane, Spring Farm, Ballymena, and where the performance efficiency of the Simmental breed is the backbone of the farm’s commercial suckler herd. Spring Farm will host a NI Simmental Breeders Club Open Day, in conjunction with the British Simmental Cattle Society, on Saturday 20th May 2023.

James McKane

Fact file

• 100 acres grassland
• 55 cow commercial Simmental herd
• 6 pedigree Simmental cows
• 15 months, 350kg age and weight at first breeding
• 24 month age at first calving
• 100% herd calving within three months
• 100% calves reared
• 380kg dwt in 14 months, weight and age of finished bulls, majority grading U bracket, remainder R3

Suckler producers searching for an efficient and profitable cow need look no further than the Simmental, says James McKane who has a lifetime’s experience working with the breed. “Simmentals are future fit; we’ve adopted a relatively low input high output system and they tick all the boxes. They’re fertile, have ample milk, great growth rates from forage-based diets, and equally important, they’re docile.” Add together the herd’s performance efficiency and it has the hallmarks of contributing to reduced emissions.

“We’ve a 55-cow herd of predominantly Simmental genetics run with two Simmental stock bulls, and usually end up averaging 100% calves reared. We’re achieving our target for the entire herd to calve from mid-February within a 12-week block. Cows and calves are turned out as soon as the weather permits, and they look after themselves eating nothing but grass, supplemented with magnesium licks, throughout the season which we like to extend to at least seven months,” explains James who farms at Laymore, near Ballymena in partnership with his wife, Laura and with help from brother, Bill.

Six-week old Simmental calves

“The cows and heifers milk like trains right through to the bitter end without any meal and they keep themselves in body condition score 3 to 4 right round the year. Furthermore, we’ve never fed creep to the calves; it’s another expense, results in poaching and what’s more, we don’t need to, their mothers have plenty of milk.” Following weaning, the herd is housed and thrives on pure silage diets, without any supplementary feed, until turn out.

James explains replacement heifers are sufficiently well grown to serve at 350kgs and calve at two years. “They’re bred to the Angus and we synchronise. Since we strive to be more and more efficient, there’s no way we would think about keeping them on for another year grazing valuable grass.”

The commercial Simmental herd thrives on a forage diet throughout the housing period

While a few of the later born male calves are steered and sold as stores, most are kept entire and are currently finishing within an average 14 months at 380kg and sold deadweight on to a rising late spring market. The majority are grading within the U bracket, the remainder R3. “On housing, these bulls are introduced to a diet of first cut grass silage and meal, and after a settling down period, by the turn of the year we finding they’re averaging 1.7kg DLWG.

“In fact, we’ve just started to weigh the bulls on a monthly basis – it was something the NI Simmental Club has encouraged us to do, and its proved to be an eye opener finding out how they’re really performing. I would never have picked out some of those bulls that are doing up to 2.0kg DLWG.”

James’s Simmental journey began in 1971 when he saw the breed for the first time pictured in Farming Life accompanying an article marking one of the initial Simmental importations to the province made by W David Perry, Killane. “David was a friend of the family, so I asked my Dad if we could visit and ended up bringing home a Simmental heifer; she was my 13th birthday present. She cost £40 which was a lot of money at the time, however she turned out to be an investment for life.”

Since then, James says it’s been a slow road to success. “I’m a first-generation farmer and made sacrifices to save up pocket money sufficient to buy one pedigree heifer from Killane in 1978, before growing the herd to stocking capacity on our 100-acre grassland unit. We’ve now got six pedigree cows registered under the Springfarm prefix and are presently hoping to introduce ET to help expand the herd. It’s a development that’s been inspired by daughter, Megan’s love of the breed and interest in showing at local agricultural shows.

“I’ve also got a contracting business so I’m away from the farm a lot, particularly during spring and summer. Again, that’s where Simmentals score, they’re so quiet and easy to handle, and we’ve always been confident our cattle are safe for our two daughters, Megan and Ruth to work amongst.”

He adds: “For this unit to have a future, then we’ve to keep costs down, be as efficient as possible and only keep low input high performance cattle. Our Simmentals are ticking all the boxes.”

Hiltonstown Indiana exhibited by James McKane & Balmoral Show Simmental Champion

• If you are interested in attending the Simmental Open Day at Spring Farm on Friday 20th May, then you can ‘register your interest’ by clicking: https://britishsimmental.co.uk/open-days-farm-walks/ This would be a huge help in allowing us to anticipate the number of attendees and to organise accordingly.

• Please also keep an eye on the NI Simmental Breeders Club, and British Simmental Cattle Society’s Facebook pages; and also www.britishsimmental.co.uk