28 February 2018

The annual Senior Conference, organized and run by the Youth Development Programme under the expert guidance of Gayle Bersey and backed with the continued support of the Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society was staged in Ireland over the weekend. The three-day event hosted participants from the United Kingdom as well as host country, Ireland, with a packed itinerary of diverse and informative workshops, farm visits, speakers and events throughout the course of the weekend.

Newly appointed CEO of the Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society, Barrie Turner and recently elected President of the Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society, Angela McGregor were both in attendance for the event and congratulated the Youth Development Programme on an excellent weekend and complimented all of the youngsters involved.

The tour began at Ballard Organic Farm, Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath with a detailed look at the mechanics of a successful organic enterprise. Host farmer, Pat Lalor operates a 300 acre farm, split between tillage and beef. Pat grows winter oats, which are used for his own brand of high-end porridge oats, sold under the Kilbeggan Organic Foods label. Pat realizes a harvest of 2.5 tonnes of oats per acre and as well as his successful line of porridge oats, he is currently diversifying his product portfolio to include other oat-based products such as oat cookies. Pat also operates a beef finishing unit with commercial youngstock being fattened for organic beef. Weanlings are sourced off farm and fattened on an organic diet of grass, red clover silage and wheat cereals and subsequently sold under the organic beef label. The commercial Aberdeen-Angus cattle perform exceptionally well under this low-input system and is the breed of choice for this type of farming system.

The second farm visit saw the group stop at the Teagasc-run ‘Grass on the Bypass’ project just off the N52 on route to Tullamore. This project focuses on optimizing best grassland management practice in order to maximise the use of grass for commercial beef production. Teagasc is the biggest agricultural research body in Ireland and is currently conducting trials on this farm in order to facilitate the ongoing research into grassland management. The effective utilization of grass is one of the main drivers of efficiency and profitability in a commercial beef system and this visit provided much food for thought for everyone present.

Finally, the last farm visit took us to beef farmer, Mark Maxwell, Ballynagore, Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath who is a participant in the BETTER farm programme. This suckler-to-beef farm system is calving between both autumn and spring with all youngstock finished to beef. A stand-out participant of the BETTER farm scheme, Mark is currently achieving a 357 day calving interval for his beef cow herd with all progeny being slaughtered between 20-26 months with an overall aim of achieving a profit margin of €1000/ha. This visit was particularly important to all involved in the Senior Conference as the efficient production of quality beef is the cornerstone of the continued success of the Aberdeen-Angus beef brand.

Aside from the educational and practical visits to farms, the senior conference itself took place at the Central Hotel, Tullamore with exceptional line-up of distinguished speakers from a variety of agricultural disciplines.

Ciarån Costello of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, the body responsible for collecting and evaluating data from beef and dairy cattle in Ireland gave a very detailed overview of the national beef herd and the newly launched Beef Genomics Data Programme (BDGP) scheme. Ciarån gave the group tips on breeding ‘the ideal suckler cow’ through the effective use of both maternal (fertility, milk, docility traits) and terminal (carcass quality and conformation traits). The BDGP scheme of ‘stars’ used in Ireland is slightly different to the typical BreedPlan figures used in the UK and provided much discussion amongst the students present.  

Rob Farrell of the popular supermarket chain, Aldi, gave a synopsis of the retail trade in Ireland and spoke of the continued rising demand for premium, quality beef. In the first six weeks of 2018 alone, demand for beef has increased more than other form of fresh meat (e.g. fish, poultry, lamb, pork etc). Rob commented that premium beef is often viewed as breed specific, (mainly Aberdeen-Angus in the Republic of Ireland) and that this was a huge benefit for the breed in a commercial sense. 27% of total beef sales in Aldi come from specialist branded Aberdeen-Angus beef and this is testament to the world famous premium beef brand that has been successfully marketed and built up over the last few years.

Louise Denvir of the Irish Farmers’ Journal, the leading agricultural publication in Ireland, gave a very interesting and topical report on the rise and impact of social media on agriculture. Louise spoke about the various social media platforms and how to best use each one whilst also showing how social media can be used to help bring awareness and resolution to pressing and serious agricultural issues. Louise cited the online social media campaign, Save Our Sucklers (SOS) which was launched by the Irish Farmers’ Journal earlier this year and aims to secure a support payment of €200 per cow for suckler farmers. The campaign was almost entirely run through social media and has recently been discussed in Dåil Éireann (the Irish Parliament) with favourable cross-party political support emerging for the scheme.

Joe Dooley, a newly qualified vet from the local Tullamore area gave a very detailed speech on the complex animal health issue of antimicrobial resistance. Joe spoke about the rising resistance animals are showing to antibiotics and the concern about the potential damage excessive use of antibiotics are having on the national herd. Joe promoted prevention and best animal practices as the most effective ways to minimize use of antibiotics and outlined many practical ways in which to promote good heard health in the modern day beef herd.

The conference was rounded off with the keynote speech from Paul Nolan of Dawn Meats. Dawn Meats is one of the biggest factory groups operating in Ireland and deals with many markets and has a diverse range of customers who all seek different specifications of beef. Paul spoke extensively about beef production from a commercial meat factory viewpoint, including emphasis on carcass specifications, meat quality and factors affecting the demand for premium Irish Aberdeen-Angus beef particularly. Many of the participants come from a commercial beef background and this seminar proved to be one of the most popular talks provided by the conference. 

In addition to all of the elements of the weekend already mentioned, all of the attendees also had an opportunity to chat, relax and renew friendships with most catching a glance (or two!) at the Six Nations Ruby matches, which provided much good-natured merriment between our Anglo-Irish grouping. The social emphasis of the YDP programme is an integral part of the programme and is central to its continued success and popularity amongst the youth membership.

The Society would like to thank all of the speakers, host farmers and contributors for a really worthwhile, enjoyable and informative weekend. The Society would also like to pay tribute to our long-time sponsor, Dawn Meats, who are central to putting together the YDP programme each year. Particular thanks are also due to Sarah Haire of Dawn Meats who was instrumental in organising the event, alongside programme co-ordinator Gayle Bersey. We are sure that each of the participants learnt a great deal from the weekend and that it will prove to be of great benefit to their future farming careers.

If you would like to get involved with the Youth Development Programme, please contact Gayle (gaylebersey@outlook.com) for the dates of any upcoming events in your area. Here is a selection of photography from what was a great weekend:

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