By Jason Webb
After I cross the bridge from Fota Island to Great Island in the direction of Cobh and Cork harbour, I pass the Belvelly Castle under development.
The irony is not lost on me, as I admire the restorations of the 13th centenary battlement, built by the Anglo-Norman Hodnett family.
Because this is not the only Normandy influence I am on my way to see.
I continue on the northern tidal shore of the Great Island, until I reach the Cunningham farm.
As I pull up their tree-lined lane towards the farmhouse, I notice someone is working in the yard.
I walk across to introduce myself, with a spectacular blue sea view on my left hand side that wouldn’t be out of place on any French shore line.
As I put out my hand, I almost feel like ‘Bonjour’ would be a more suitable greeting.
For a split second, it almost felt like that bridge crossing had landed me in Normandy or some other part of the Gallic nation.
What I was to discover is that multiple trips to France have created a farm in Co Cork that is farmed with Gallic flair.
Noel Cunningham farms with his son, Michael. They milk 70 cows on average, on a land base of 84 acres, along with 20 acres rented for maize.
Noel greets me, in front of a shed full of unique dairy animals. Their speckled coats vary from black and white to red and white colouring.
What I am witnessing is a very rare purebred breed of Normande cattle in Ireland.
A trip to France in 1990, as a member of the Cobh twinning association, was the start of the introduction of the Normande breed to this Great Island farm.
It was on this trip that Noel met French veterinarian, George Piney, who introduced him to the qualities of this native French breed.
On Noel’s return, he sourced AI straws from two bulls of the breed that Munster AI was marketing at the time.
After a few years, he was impressed with what he saw, but Munster AI stopped stocking the breed.
This meant that if he was to continue, he needed to import straws himself direct from the French supplier at the time, Sersia France.
Noel recollects, “I remember thinking that their temperament and fertility was good. I was happy with them.”
Around this time, he also imported some live young heifers from France, but most of the herd originate from crosses on the Holstein Friesian herd in the early nineties.
Today, Noel has to go direct to the new name over French genetics, Evolution, to import straws so that he can continue use of AI within the breed.
Noel explains to me the reason behind their loss in popularity in Ireland.
“There was a Castlelyons trial with Dutch Holstein, Irish Holstein, Montbeliarde and Normande, by Teagasc.”
“The report at the end was that they had bad feet, but we have never had problems, so it is not true.”
“When the heifers came over to Ireland, they were used to loose bedding, so they were not used to cubicles to start with.”
“Due to their quiet temperament then, they got bullied by bigger animals, so they just didn’t do well in trials. They are an average sized animal, at around 143cm.”
This report lead to the collapse of demand for the breed, and the Irish branch of the breed society fell through.
Along with Noel, there is only one other full Normande herd in Ireland, in Co Mayo.
The Cobh herd is now around 94% Normande purebred, on average. As there is no herdbook set up currently in Ireland, pedigree registration goes through ICBF.
The French herdbook for the breed is the oldest in the country, dating back to 1883.
So why is Noel so loyal to a breed most Irish farmers ignore? Well, his astonishing 2017 calving interval (CI) figure of only 354 days may start to answer that question.
This puts the herd among the very top herds in Ireland when it comes to fertility performance.
This figure is not a once-off; the herd has consistently calved under the 365 CI figure.
To put more context to the 2017 figure, 71% of the herd gained days lower than a 365-day CI.
The ICBF Herdplus Dairy Calving Statistics report outlines five Key Performance Indicators, and this herd places inside the top 5% in the majority of them.
One of the key explanatory factors, according to Noel, in terms of herd management, is the cut-off of AI strictly on June 20 each year.
After this, any cow not in calf becomes a valuable cull cow. A stock bull is never used on the herd.
Noel comments “At that stage. it’s just ‘goodbye’, and time to fatten up.”
Even with this practice, the herd’s replacement rate is right on the dairy industry’s 2020 target.
Key Performance Indicators suggest this is a very profitable herd.
But the herd’s EBI figure places it near the bottom 10% in Ireland.
Even more astonishing is a tenth lactation cow that has fitted into Noel’s strict fertility regime and contributed to the herd average yield of 5339kg at 3.83% fat and 3.7% protein. But she has an EBI that places her in the bottom 1% of all cows in Ireland.
I requested a comment from ICBF with regard to what seems to be a model herd for profitable dairy farming in Ireland, but at time of going to press ICBF had not responded.
I am handed all the factory dockets for the 13 cull cows that left the herd last year, which prove what Noel sees as another strength of the breed.
They show an average cull cow price received at €1,091, which Noel sees as an important factor for the bottom line of a dairy operation.
The bull calves are sold off the farm every year, usually to the same local buyer, who keeps them as bulls until 15 to 16 months of age, and reports consistently getting ‘R’ grades at finish.
Noel comments on the breed’s dual purpose capabilities: “They are very similar to Angus or Hereford in marbling quality.”
He shows me French research findings for bull and steer production from dairy breeds, where the Normande produced higher meat yield and reached a 1.5kg daily weight gain average.
The sale of surplus heifers also adds to the bottom line of the Cunningham farm, enabled by a low replacement rate, thanks to the durability and fertility of the older cows.
On the early spring day that I visit the farm, cows are still indoors on a diet of grass silage and maize with 3kg of concentrate.
Summer use of concentrate is only for grass management when this seaside farm sometimes encounters very dry conditions.
Something of note in the cubicle housing is the use of straw as a cubicle dressing.
Noel comments, “That is a French influence, all French farms use straw. It’s clean and comfortable.”
Noel’s bull selection technique is to look for reasonable milk, balance, and high protein.
He also uses the French ISU index, which he admires because they change the base every year in April, so it is always up to date.
He takes me onto the Evolution bull selection website, which is entirely in French.
Noel points out the top selection options, that translate as ‘Your Breeding Orientation’. Here there are three title options, Quali, Confort or Opti. Noel explains with a bit of amusement. “Quali is what we would pick. These are bulls aimed at a balanced cow with high protein.”
“Opti is for high production. These are bulls with high milk yields.”
“Confort then is very French. They are to breed easy-manage cows for the French farmer with a young family, who wants to spend a lot of time with their family.”