Farmers Weekly Beef Farmer of the Year 2014: Billy O’Kane

Billy O’Kane
Crebilly Farm, Ballymena, Co Antrim

Controlling costs and maximising output are the winning combination for Billy O’Kane, whose determination to succeed saw him step away from tradition to transform his beef suckler enterprise.

An overhaul of his herd genetics has seen Billy switch from continentals to cows with strong maternal production traits that are easy-care. He now runs a highly profitable suckler herd of 145 Stabiliser cattle with his wife Liz.

“Billy’s clear objective is on maximising output within the constraints of a low-cost system. Focus on maximising calving percentage along with reducing calving interval and excellent calf growth rates are the key drivers for his profitable suckler herd.”
Simon Marsh, senior lecturer, Harper Adams University, and independent judge

“I’m hung up on cow type, that’s what changed my life financially. Cow performance is the financial driving force of a suckler herd,” says Billy.

One of Billy’s biggest strengths is his attention to detail when it comes to performance.

He believes the smallest changes can make the biggest differences to the bottom line. This theory has led to significant improvements in the profitability of his herd.

Heifers are calved at two years old, which has added almost £50 a cow a year to net profit when compared with calving three-year-old cows.

The reduction in cow weaning weight to 620kg has enabled Billy to keep 14% more cows on the same acreage, with no knock-on effect on calf size. The herd now boasts a 98% conception rate over a 12-week service period, which has seen calving interval tighten from 391 days to 361.

By carefully selecting easy-calving bulls that carry maternal production values within the top 5% of the breed, Billy has reduced the number of assisted births at calving to just 2%.

Combined, this has led to his weaning weight improving to 96% for every 100 cows bulled.

Farm facts

  • Running a herd of 145 Stabilisers across 202ha part rented, 
part owned
  • Sells heifer replacements and breeding bulls
  • Any breeding stock that do not meet specification are sold deadweight to ABP

Winning ways

  • Demonstrates clear passion for the industry
  • Low-input, high-output system driven by profit
  • High-level stockmanship and a willingness to share knowledge
  • Thinking outside the box to add value to the business and drive efficiencies

These changes have accumulated in an impressive 32% increase in kilos of calf meat weaned a hectare and an overall net profit of £312/ha.

So dedicated is he to the production of profitable beef animals, Billy offers an advisory service with the sale of his breeding stock – an integral part of the business.

By sharing his knowledge, Billy hopes his customers will achieve the same success he’s seen. His progressive thinking has put him at the forefront of the beef industry and he is well respected by other farmers.

Billy is a strong believer in working together within the supply chain to create efficiencies.

He recently set up a group of local farmers selling bull beef to an abattoir, which has helped the members reap a premium of 5p/kg He has also established a feed-buying group and successfully reduced bought-in feed price by £10-15/t.

“We must keep costs of production as low as possible to remain competitive, and I wish to continue improving efficiencies.”

For this reason, his future ambitions are to improve his grassland management and capitalise on the work already being done by the Stabiliser Cattle Company on Net Feed Efficiency.


Mervyn Thomas Mervyn Thomas
Hollingwood Farm, Herefordshire

Attention to detail has seen Mervyn’s three-way-cross bull calves achieve phenomenal carcass performance of 409kg at just 399 days old. He is an excellent stockman who prides himself on running a healthy, BVD-free herd.

Simon Bainbridge Simon Bainbridge
Bainbridge Farm, Northumberland

Simon’s strong links with industry demonstrate his progressive nature. Not afraid of a challenge, his focus on genetic selection and dedication to feed production have been key to the success of his organic upland farm.

Sponsor’s message

Mcdonalds“We are delighted that Billy O’Kane has been awarded Beef Farmer of the Year. We’ve been really impressed by his business acumen and his innovative approach to improving efficiency and profitability on farm.”
Warren Anderson
, vice-president, supply chain