It’s a process that won’t happen overnight and it’s unlikely he’ll recoup the time, energy and money he’s spent over the past number of years, but Joe Garrett’s passion for genetics and breeding has produced a unique animal that should have hybrid vigour not found in traditional beef breeds.
arming just outside Crossmolina in Co Mayo, along with his uncle Frank, the new ‘LimNola’ breed is not the first change the Garretts have made.
“My dad and Frank were farming here and we had kept about 40 dairy cows until 2007, but the farm is a bit fragmented so it meant walking cows on the road and I was working off-farm at the time,” Joe says.
“It wasn’t an overnight decision to get out of dairying. But the fragmented nature of the farm was causing a lot of headaches.
“Also, we could see how things were going in dairying — the trend was looking like numbers, numbers, numbers.
“There is a catchment area outside Crossmolina, and it has a reasonable vein of good land and there always was a number of farmers milking cows, but it’s mainly suckling and sheep here.
“We had bought land in the 1980s and had built up to just over 100 acres. But part of it was marginal and we planted it, leaving us around 80ac today.”
Before returning to farm full-time in recent years, Joe worked off-farm in Foxford and Ballina with the income allowing him to invest in the farm’s beef genetics.
“I was starting my own breeding of cattle and it’s not easy to do that with just a farming income,” he says.
“At the time we were using a continental bull, a Charolais, along with AI on the cows. There was a great market for the calves from a dairy cow and beef bull, and while the Charolais bull was OK for the first couple of years, we found ourselves being crucified at calving with large calves.
“It’s one thing losing calves but it’s another thing losing cows. So we decided that had to stop and we went back to using Hereford and Angus on the cows and had no calving problems.
“But they were not making the same kind of money as we had with the continentals and that’s when we decided to experiment a bit.”
“We had heard of some Italian cattle coming into Ireland in 1988 — Piedmontese and Romagnola. I was just a teenager at the time, but we went off to Tandragee Castle estate in Armagh to look at the cattle there on an open day.
“They had just brought Romagnola and Piedmontese cattle in and we liked the look of them. There was a display of cross-bred cattle there and we talked to other farmers, from as far away as Waterford and Wexford who were using the bulls and were happy with them, and we decided to take a chance.
“The following year we bought our first Romagnola bull from Tandragee. It cost us about £2,200, which was quite a bit of money back then. We also bought one or two heifers, but the BSE ban then made it difficult to import live cattle and we wanted to progress things.
“I decided that if I wanted to stay breeding them I would have to go to Italy, and in December 1995 I made my first trip to Italy to look at cattle and bought a bull
“Everything was done by fax and phone back then, and organising an international lorry was quite a bit of work.”
Over the next 10 years Joe was back and forth to Italy, nearly 30 times, importing cattle and embryos.
Four years ago he decided to invest time in the farm and came back farming full-time.
“My father is fully retired but Frank is very active,” he says. “The main change we made before I came back full-time was to change the direction of breeding in 2015.
“We built up a herd of 40 Romagnola cows by 2009/10, as we had been scaling back on the dairy herd for a few years, and while we had pedigree full-blood Italian Romagnola, it’s a very small gene pool and something had to give.
“Around this time I met two geneticists at ICBF and we saw the genetics were too close. We were really happy with the cows so we had to look at new blood lines — what breed could we bring in with a wide gene pool in its own right, which would complement each other?
“We decided on Limousin. I had looked at minority breeds but then you have the same problem of a small gene pool.
“The attraction of Limousin is not just that it’s a large numerically as a breed, but it’s an easy-calving breed too.
“The Romagnola is more Charolais-esq and the Limousin brought in more muscle and more feed efficiency and style. At least on paper, the two should complement each other!”
According to Joe, composite breeds are very common in the US, but developing a new composite breed takes time to get it right.
“At the moment, we have first-cross Romagnola-cross-Limousin, or an FI,” he says. “Then if we cross that with another Limousin bull, it’s 3/4 Limousin, 1/4 Romagnola. Then to cross that with an F1 bull, that gives you 5/8 Limousin and 3/8 Romagnola.”
Because the Romagnola breed is not related to other traditional Continental breeds, he hopes the cross-breeding with Limousin will produce maximum hybrid vigour.
“The only free lunch in cattle breeding is hybrid vigour.”
Today, Joe and Frank have a herd of 40 cows: 25 first cross and 15 pure-bred Romagnola.
“We are not rushing to develop the new breed. The Romagnola cows that are there are still young cows and we want to create the best F1 herd we can, so we have to be ruthless in culling,” Joe says.
“Only when the F1 herd is ideal will we progress things further.
“The aim is to produce a composite breed, so we are always going to keep bringing in new genetics and not have a closed-book herd.
“Allowing fresh Romagnola and Limousin blood in which will let us keep going.”
Joe and Frank’s herd are spring-calving, with the ideal heifer calving at two years and then going back in calf.
“If they don’t go back in calf they are culled,” says Joe. “Further, we are ruthless about their temperament. If you’re handling cattle you need calm animals. You get to a stage where you say life is too short for wild animals.
“A crazy cow will agitate the others, and young calves pick up on it and it tends to follow on.
“If temperament is an issue, the cow goes, as does a fantastic heifer calf off her too. A few years ago when we took the troublemakers out, the herd calmed down very quickly.”
The composite breed, he hopes, will produce a heifer that, at weanling stage, has a nice head, good length and good muscle, a reasonable height, good depth of flank and good mobility.
“They look different but buyers around here are used to them,” Joe says. “It’s early stages, but bull and heifer calves go to the mart and we are very happy with the heifers — there is a good interest in them, with a lot of buyers are buying them as commercial females.
“They understand what we are at and think it will make an interesting female addition to their herd.
“But it will be down the line before this comes together fully and we can look at selling bulls for breeding.
“We should be about 3/4 to 1/4 soon, and fundamentally we want to produce some commercial animals and functional cows.
“I hope they turn out to be a Limousin red in colour, but will have more power and depth and bone from the Romagnola.
“We could have a herd of very functional cows, and the icing on the cake is that this is a new breed to offer into the market.”
Joe is full of praise for the work both the Limousin and Piedmontese breeders have done over the years.
“If I can get more people involved in this to breed them, it has the potential to grow, but there is a lot of work involved in growing a new breed,” he says.
“The stabiliser is another composite breed that I have followed in recent years and I think a Limousin/Romagnola bull on a stabiliser cow could see hybrid vigour go through the roof.
“That’s the value of a composite breed — you have the best of both worlds.
“On the F1 cross you have 100pc hybrid vigour, but in a composite, you hope to retain about 50pc hybrid vigour, but at the same time you are a composite so they have the uniformity of a pure breed.
“I don’t think composite breeds
are just a fashion — they have become the norm in the US and Australia, and financially the science makes sense.
“At the end of the day pedigree cattle are expensive but they are in-bred.
“I want to turn this into something that is different and not because it is fashionable.
“I won’t recoup what I have spent on lorries but if I can do this and create a change in a mindset in the industry then it has worked.”
Younger farmers, Joe says, are more open to change and more inclined to think “this could be a runner as opposed to running away from it”.
Enda Geoghegan: ‘I quickly established that Joe and Frank were on top of their game’
When I started with Teagasc in 2001, one of the first farms I visited was the Garrett farm.
From the moment I stepped out of the car I knew that this was not a typical dairy farm as there was a large Romagnola bull looking out at me.
At the time REPS was in full flow, and walking the farm I quickly established that the Garretts were on top of their game.
The dairy enterprise was on the home farm and the suckler enterprise was run on the outfarm.
In 2001 as a young advisor, seeing a herd of Romagnola was unique.
Frank and Joe were very forward-thinking and quick to adapt to new technologies and always had safety on top of their agenda.
They took the decision to stop milking in 2007. This was a big decision but it shows that they were not afraid to change.
Frank has been a member of a beef discussion group for the last eight years we meet on a regular basis. The great thing about this group is they are active and always contribute and learn new things off each other.
During Covid we adapted and we went on with the meetings over the phone on conference calls, and participation was very good. Since May we have been back to meeting on farms, which is great.
Frank and Joe are not afraid to use information to improve the farm and to advance the development of the breed.
The Profit Monitor is used to keep an eye of costs and outputs on the farm, and since the introduction of the Limousin the gross margin has improved.
Joe uses the ICBF database and makes changes to his breeding policies accordingly.
I’d like to highlight the calving shed, which was built in 2008 using the FWM grant scheme.
Moving cows from one shed to another can be labour-intensive; this shed was designed to take the hard work out of calving and also to make it a safe operation.
There are six calving pens and a very good calving gate in place. This shed can be cleaned out with the tractor as all pens are removable, makes it a time-efficient operation.
As the Garretts’ advisor I like going out to visit the farm as they are always on top of the work and have a very good work-life balance. This is achieved by having good facilities and good work practices.
Frank and Joe are always adapting and finding better ways to do jobs around the farm. This innovation and lack of fear is what has led this to the development of the LimNola. I have no doubt this will be a success.
Enda Geoghegan is a Teagasc advisor based in Ballina