In 1997, John and Heike O'Sullivan of Bonane, Kenmare, Co. Kerry started looking at alternatives to the Holstein-Friesian type animals they ran on their 80 acre farm at the foot of the Cork and Kerry mountains. The farm is rugged and wet; there are only about 9 acres with good soil, the rest is stony and peaty. The land can only carry up to 20 milking cows plus replacement heifers.
At that time, Teagasc was pushing dairy farmers to select modern Holstein-Friesian A.I. sires with high RBIs. John and I knew this was not the right route for us due to the marginal nature of our land. The Holstein cows we bred needed plenty of meal supplementation and were simply unhappy, standing with hunched backs in wind-swept paddocks. The type of land we own doesn't grow the kind of grass these cows needed, nor does it produce the quantity of grass required to maintain such cows. The paddocks at the far end of the farm necessitate a long walk from grass to milking parlour. I remember John constantly paring the hooves of lame cows. Come calving time, cows needed careful attention and assisted calf births were the rule rather than an exception. Coming from a non-farming background, it seemed an awful waste of resources to me, having to sell "unwanted" Holstein bull calves for peanuts, happy that someone would take them off our hands.
In 1997, we started considering breeds other than Holstein-Friesian. We crossed Normande sires on a couple of black and white cows; in '97 and '98, we bought two pure-bred registered Dairy Shorthorns and in spring '98, we bought a pure-bred registered, in-calf MRI heifer. The Shorthorns were given a chance to prove themselves on our land until spring 2000 when they were shown the road. One had no yield, the other no protein. The Normande crosses, too, didn't stay. Despite having a rather dairy-type frame, they had no milk.
The MRI springing heifer duly produced a heifer calf and milked well in her first year, amazing us with 3.46% protein - not something we had been used to from our black and white cows. This cow continued going from strength to strength, the protein averaging 3.87% in her 4th lactation, yielding around 1,000 gallons annually on poor grass and next to no meal. Throughout her life, she showed in calf after the first insemination, duly producing a calf per year. Until the end of her life after her 8th lactation, she never had any foot problems, and she topped everything by having a lovely temperament. It would be fair to say, this cow converted us to become MRI breeders.
Coolkirky Belle 2
We started using MRI straws on some of our Holstein-Friesian cows but concentrated mainly on pure breeding by purchasing maiden and in-calf heifers and breeding them to A.I. In spring 2009, there will be 18 pure- and cross-bred MRI cows and heifers calving down in our herd. Because we prefer our heifers to calve at three years of age, we run three generations of followers. As we don't have the capacity to rear the bulls for slaughter, they are usually sold at less than six weeks of age as commercial calves, with the exceptional bull calf being sold for breeding. The big difference between selling MRI and Holstein bull calves is, that the MRI or MRI X calves achieve prices very close to or as high as continental calves. Now, rather than being grateful to sell a surplus bull calf, we have buyers coming into the yard, looking for them and paying good money for a good animal.
Noreen & son
We find the advantages of milking MRI cows are manifold. They are very easy to feed and don't hide near the ditch on a rainy, windy day - quiet happily feeding away in the middle of the paddock with their backsides to the wind. There are virtually no health or foot problems; calves are easily born without assistance and are up and sucking within minutes; the cows clean quickly thanks to their slightly sloped rump. Milk yield has not suffered and herd protein has improved greatly. At the end of their long productive lives, cows don't become a waste product but are easily fattened, with cull cows returning very attractive cheques from the factory. The odd cow that is culled from the herd early in life for one reason or another finds a ready market as a suckler cow because the breed qualifies for all suckler related schemes.
As small producers, our time may soon be up but as long as we're in dairying, we will be milking MRIs. In our situation, on our land, this is the cow for us, living up to the promise "Milk & Muscle".
Stock is occasionally for sale. For enquiries, please phone John on 087 749 7660 or Heike on 087 287 1123.