You don’t come across too many 180-cow suckler herds any more. Many of the larger suckler farms have made the jump to dairy farming and you probably couldn’t blame them given the income difference there is between the two sectors.

However, everybody can’t go dairy farming and some just don’t want to.

Jim Heery is one of those, a man passionate about what he does and, more importantly, he sees a viable future in what he is doing.

Jim was born and reared on a small farm just outside Bailieborough in Co Cavan.

'Top quality calves'

He owns 20 acres and rents a further 380 to run his 180-cow suckler herd. “It was always suckling for me,” says Jim. “I wouldn’t have any interest in doing anything else. You have to love what you do in my book and I get a big kick out of breeding and trying to produce top quality calves.”

It’s a family run operation with his wife Sinead and three children Aoife, Sarah and TJ all involved in the day-to-day work.

The farm, typical of many in the region, is fragmented across 14 different blocks in a couple of different directions and this adds a little complexity to the management of different groups during the grazing season.

Jim also runs a busy agricultural machinery and tractor business servicing all of Ireland with used and imported tractors.

“There is always someone going in some direction, let it be for tractor parts or delivering a tractor, so we generally fit in some of the herding around that,” he says.

Farm system

Jim’s system is pretty simple with an all in, all out system adopted over the years. Cows calve from December to May. “We generally try and calve any heifers that we have in December and January to give them a good chance to get back in calf,” said Jim.

This can be difficult in that he is purchasing all his replacement heifers at in-calf heifer sales. It’s a high-risk policy not having a lot of control over the breeding in the heifers that are coming in, but it’s a policy that is paying off.

Jim Heery has a family run operation with his wife Sinead and three children Aoife, Sarah and TJ all involved in the day-to-day work.

“We pick up a few heifers at a few sales every year. We are looking for that Limouisn x Belgian Blue heifer with a good wide pelvis that will have a good ability to calve. I find that Blue x Limousin will generally have milk once you don’t go too far down the muscle route,” says Jim.

“In-calf heifers are expensive but we are buying in those heifers pretty close to the point of calving so when I count up the cost of rearing that heifer it balances out. We are also getting on very well with cull cows at the moment so that also balances out the cost of the heifer.

This approach also simplifies Jim’s system. Not having to worry about different bulls for breeding replacements also makes for a simpler system. “If we were breeding our own replacements, we would probably take a bit of a hit on our bull calves so for me this is the best system,” he says.

Jim likes his in-calf heifers to be in calf to easy calving Limousin bulls for the first time. “Once we get to know what we have in terms of calving ability we can mix and match what we want then.”

Annual sale

It’s a breeding policy that’s working. Last year was the third year that Jim opted for a large sale of his weanling heifers in Carrigallen Mart in Co Leitrim. He averaged €2,530/head with a 100% clearance.

The top price of the sale came in at €5,500 with a lot of different customers at the sale.

This March 2023 born Belgian Blue heifer is 4 stars on the replacement index and is included in Saturday’s sale.

“We would like to think we have the numbers to have something for everybody,” says Jim. “We have heifers that could potentially go on to be show heifers, we have that high end heifer that some of the in-calf operators are looking for, but the vast majority of our heifers are just good straight heifers that will go on and do a job for a commercial suckler operator.”

This year’s heifers range in weight from 350-600kg and are all Belgian Blue x Limousin. Over the years, Jim has built a reputation for producing this type of heifer and he has plenty of repeat buyers. Why one big sale? It’s about the numbers, he says. “If you advertise that you have few heifers for a weanling sale in a mart you don’t generate the same amount of interest that you will if you are selling 80+. People like to see a selection to pick what they want and they can do that on our sale day.”

There is also power in numbers when selling the bull calves. It’s a similar story with this year’s bull weanlings being sold in two batches on the farm. Both batches were sold to an exporter buying weanlings for markets in Europe. Last year’s weanlings, which were sold this spring, averaged €4.30/kg at 410kg.


Jim’s system is based around producing high end weanlings, so is calving an issue?

“We do have sections but not an excessive amount for the type of stick we are dealing with. Once you get to know your cows you get an idea of what bulls you can put with different cows,” he says.

“We are starting to look at myostatin a little and trying to use that to avoid difficult calvings”

On the calving process, he says time is very important and once any sort of progress is being made, he tries to leave a cow at it.

“The worst thing you can do is panic in any calving situation. We have pretty good calving pens where a cow can be restrained easily and if a cow goes down, we can still work a jack from behind and we can open out a door to work the jack on either side.

“We try and stay very switched on for the busy period during the calving season and once you are monitoring things you can avoid any hassle,” he says.

Jim doesn’t take chances and won’t jack out a calf if he thinks there is a risk that it won’t come out alive. Cows are brought back to the home farm for supervision purposes, and once calved are moved back to sheds on out-farms.


Its all-stock bulls on the Heery farm with six bulls (four Belgian Blue and two Limousin) being used on the herd. The fragmented nature of the farm means that AI isn’t a runner.

That isn’t taking away anything from Jim’s breeding programme with the stock bulls producing the goods for the last few years.

“We generally put a stock bull out with 20-30 cows and keep a good tight eye for the first three to four weeks to make sure everything is ok,” he says. “We try and scan early as well to catch any problems. Like everybody dealing with stock bulls you get issues with lameness and bulls going off, but we generally have a stock bull in reserve that can go out when we need them.”

Jim is in the Suckler Carbon Efficiency Programme (SCEP) and is meeting the targets. He is also part of the DNA calf registration programme which has been a game-changer for identifying sires, especially where two stock bulls might have been out with a group of cows.


Jim places a big emphasis on herd health and prioritises prevention over treatment route.

Calves are vaccinated against pneumonia and receive a booster shot pre-weaning.

Cows are vaccinated for BVD and Lepto and they also receive a scour vaccine three to six weeks before they calve. Cows are all dosed for fluke, worms and lice during the housing period.

Calves are vaccinated against pneumonia and receive a booster shot pre-weaning. They are also vaccinated against clostridial disease, and receive a dose for coccidiosis. The later half of calves also receive Halocur as a preventative against cryptosporidosis. The future

Jim says he expects to stay at around 180 cows for the next few years. “ We have been increasing numbers for the last few years, but I think we have probably reached our limit in terms of what we can do in relation to the labour of managing the herd. I think suckling has a good future once we focus on quality.

“There seems to be great demand for those top quality calves for export and if you are getting over €4/kg for weanlings, no finishing system is ever going to match that.

“There’s a lot of negativity around suckling, but if you stand around the ring at a special weanling sale up this end of the country and see what the top calves in any sale are making, there is a lot of positivity as well.”

Jim Heery’s annual sale of 80 weanling heifers will take place on Saturday 6 April in Carrigallen Mart, Co Leitrim at 1.30pm.