Strict and focused attitude towards selection pays off

Cool Brae Farm facts 

  • 70ha farm owned and run by Sam Chesney, who is the 2011 Farmers Weekly Beef Farmer of the Year and 2011 Ulster Grassland Farmer of the Year

  • Mr Chesney is a Dard Focus Farmer, director of the Strangford Down co-operative, vice-chairman of the Agrisearch Beef Committee, a member of the BVD steering group with the Ulster Farmers Union and a National Beef Association Northern Ireland board member

  • 120 Limousin suckler cows mated to British Blue and Aberdeen Angus

  • Enterprise also includes a small flock of Mule x Texel ewe lambs and store lambs are grazed on the farm during the winter

  • Rotational paddock grazing system with mains electric fencing to maximise the grazing season from March to October

  • High herd health status with a full vaccination programme

  • Calving index in 2011 was 353 days for cows and 338 days for second-calving heifers

  • Calves a cow a year in 2011 was 0.99 (three lost to Bleeding Calf Syndrome)

  • Spring block-calving system with all cows calved within 11 weeks from March to May; all heifers calved down at 24 months old

  • Combination of bull beef and forward steer stores produced, and any heifers not kept as replacements are sold as beef at 18-21 months old

Achieving a tight calving index is reliant upon never taking your eyes off the ball, as Sam Chesney has shown with his rigid spring block-calving system.

Through adopting a strong focus on high health and good nutrition, Mr Chesney has achieved impressive fertility figures with his tight 11-week calving period at Cool Brae Farm, Kircubbin, Co Down.

And for Mr Chesney, this approach has paid dividends for his 150-cow, mostly Limousin suckler herd – in 2011 all cows had a calving index of 353 days, while second-calving heifers had an index of 338 days.

“The average calving index in Northern Ireland is 400 days, and that’s costing farmers about £175 a cow. We cannot affect the price of the beef, but we can effect how efficient we are,” says Mr Chesney.

He operates a tight block-calving system from the middle of March until May, with all heifers calving down at 24 months old, and anything not in-calf after a tight nine-week mating period is culled.

“You must have a calf every 365 days, not just one every year. And for this the calving pattern needs to be tight – we are trying to calf everything in an 11-week period,” he says.

To maintain this impressive calving index, Mr Chesney says health and nutrition must be right. “I believe a lot of infertility in herds is down to underlying disease problems and bad nutrition,” he says.

Cows and heifers are split into batches of 40 and then put to three different bulls in three-week periods for every bull. This ensures the bull is fresh going to a different batch of cows, and spare bulls are always available to use in the event of an emergency.

Breeding bulls

When it comes to selecting bulls for his herd, Mr Chesney focuses on reliable Estimated Breed Values (EBVs) and selecting docile bulls to ensure ease of handling on the farm.

“We are buying bulls based on figures – that’s the way forward. And we breed all our own replacements,” explains Mr Chesney.

“We buy a bull every year from the club sales in Northern Ireland, and all the bulls we buy are plus for milk; the last bull I bought cost 4,200gns and had a beef value of +36. The first thing I look at is a bull’s head – I want a calm bull – and then it’s good legs I look for. He must be docile, and even with all of this work on selection, we still get the odd wild calf.”

He says all the bulls he buys must be fit for purpose, with EBVs with 70-80% reliability – figures he pays close attention to include beef value, milk and maternal calving ease.

“You have to buy from someone who has been recording, and we are relying on the pedigree breeding, because we want to produce eye-catching cattle as well,” he adds.

In all, a total of five bulls are kept at Cool Brae Farm – three Limousin, one Belgian Blue and one Aberdeen Angus. The cows, which are three-quarters Limousin, are bred to Limousin and Belgian Blue bulls, while the homebred replacement heifers are put to Limousin and Aberdeen Angus bulls.

“The Angus was bought to reduce the size of the cow by 50kg, so she will eat 5kg less a day – that’s a lot of silage and that’s where beef farmers can make money and savings,” says Mr Chesney.

Selecting replacement heifers

Docility and ease of handling are also priorities when selecting replacement heifers, says Mr Chesney, who works predominantly on his own at the 70ha farm.

“If I can’t get the heifers out of a yard then I don’t want them; they have to be easy to manage and handle, and then they are picked if they are from a good cow,” he explains.

And to ensure all heifers calf down at 24 months old, close attention is paid to nutrition. The aim is for heifers to reach 375kg at bulling aged between 14 and 15 months, so they then calf down at two years old weighing just below 600kg (see heifer data table below).

Mr Chesney adds: “People keep pushing heifers on and on, but we try and stall them, because we don’t want a big fat heifer; they were originally growing at 0.9kg/day but we pulled it back to 0.77kg/day to manage them better.

“The bigger heifers are last to be in-calf and have less milk, so we don’t keep them. And we only keep the ones that are hard-working. You don’t need to be achieving 0.9kg/day growth rates, because it’s a waste of feed. And if they don’t get in-calf, they are gone – there’s no point running them on and on.”

From housing at October until Christmas, heifers are fed 1kg a meal a day of a ration consisting of wheat, soya and soya hulls, along with 25kg silage and 1kg straw.

“They are weighed every month in the winter time, and they get no meal after Christmas and have more straw. We don’t want them to be too fat and I want them to grow form. From then on, they are on the fields until they are taken into straw houses to calf,” adds Mr Chesney.

Synchronisation trial

In a bid to further improve fertility at Coole Brae Farm, Mr Chesney is currently involved in a fertility trial with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Pfizer Animal Health and Genus to try to develop a mating synchronisation programme for Irish beef producers.

“We are synchronising a batch of 30 heifers with a CIDR and a prostaglandin jab,” explains Mr Chesney.

“The idea is to develop a form of synchronisation for a suckler herd. All the heifers are going to be mated to a high ease of calving using Angus and Stabiliser semen.”

sam chesney

Fertility top tips

  • Young cows must not be too thin – they must be condition score 2.5 and above because they don’t start cycling until after that

  • Ensure cows and heifers are grazed on fresh grass and good swards to maintain a rising plane of nutrition. In addition, provide some mineral lick to meet mineral requirements

  • Always test your bulls to make sure they are performing

  • When selecting replacement heifers, prioritise docility for ease of handling and then make sure they are from a good-performing cow

  • Cull anything not in-calf after the nine-week mating period

  • Pay attention to EBVs and docility when buying breeding bulls

 Heifer data (December 2011) 
Target weight at 24 months calving


Number of heifers weighed  36 
Average age 

596 days (19.5 months) 

Average weight 


Growth rate required up to present 0.77kg/day 
 Growth rate achieved up to present 


Growth rate required to +91 days 0.40kg/day

Our Feature Farms series visits four different livestock farms throughout the year, looking at how they manage nutrition, fertility and health. Read more online