Beef focus: Finishing 3,500 head of cattle on one of Ireland’s largest feedlots

Located in Dunboyne, Co. Meath, the Kepak farm is a store-to-beef operation ran under the watchful eye of the farm manager Sam Myles. His team includes two full-time farm hands and a part-time, office-based employee.

The farm is owned by the Kepak Group and is home to 1,500 cattle. The feedlot has the capacity to hold 1,800 head of cattle at any one time. Each year, 3,500 cattle are brought to finish on the farm and are slaughtered in Kepak’s processing plant in Clonee, Co. Meath.

The farm stretches across 320ha and the land is used to grow a range of crops, including: grass; maize; barley; wheat; and beans. These ingredients are used to formulated rations to finish the cattle.

Last Friday (February 2), Kepak opened its doors as part of a Alltech InTouch press tour.

In terms of Kepak’s total weekly kill, the percentage of animals slaughtered from the feedlot is quite small. In the period leading up to Christmas 2017, the Meath-based processing plant was killing up to 5,000 cattle every week.

Sam said: “We use the feedlot as a learning centre. We bring groups of farmers here and show them what we’re doing and where they can make more money from their farming enterprise.”

The system

The aim of the farm is to slaughter 70-80 continental cattle every week. Additional cattle are purchased to replace slaughtered animals.

The cattle on the feedlot consists of heifers (60%) and bulls (40%). Kepak aims to slaughter bulls at under 16 months-of-age. This, Sam said, is the best-paying market. However, some bulls are slaughtered at 22 months-of-age.

Kepak aims to finish heifers under 22 months. However, animals not reaching this target are slaughtered under 30 months.

The majority of the cattle in the feedlot are either Charolais or Limousin. However, there are also other breeds. These include Belgian Blue and Aubrac types. Previously, Hereford cattle – originating from the dairy herd – were brought to slaughter on the farm. However, this has since ceased.

Sourcing cattle

Following a series of viral health issues – which resulted in the loss of some bulls – a number of years ago, the farm now implements a strict code of practice when it comes to animal health and the purchasing of stock.

Most of the bulls are purchased direct from farms, which eliminates the need to travel to a livestock mark. This, Sam said, has been crucial to the health status of the feedlot.

“Currently, we are buying approximately 70% of our cattle direct from farmers. The remaining 30% are sourced from livestock marts. These animals are mainly heifers. Since we started this procedure, we have experienced a lot less sickness and a lot less mortality,” he explained.

“We aim to purchase animals from a stress-free environment. We try and keep out of the marts where possible.”

He continued: “That’s where we were having issues. They were coming in contact with viruses. When you do a farm-to-farm movement, you eliminate a lot of the risk factors.

We’re also building a better relationship with farmers. They can come to the farm and see their cattle prior to slaughter. It gives them an understanding of what we require and what the market requires.

The bulls are purchased at 10-14 months weighing approximately 400-500kg. Kepak’s buyers aim to source heifers aged 12-14 months, also weighing 400-500kg. Good conformation and an excellent health status are important parameters when it comes to purchasing animals.

On arrival, cattle are fitted with management tags. There are four different tag colours – orange, red, blue and green – which represent each of Kepak’s buyers.

“We track the animal’s performance, kill-out percentages and grades of all of the stock. We also compare their daily weight gains,” he explained.

Animal Health

All cattle are sourced from disease-free farms. When animals are brought to the farm, an arrival protocol is followed. This entails a “24-hour rest period”, where animals are fed a transition diet. Longer forage is also provided to increase rumen intakes. Sam outlined that this relaxes and de-stresses the animals.

The cattle are vaccinated against pneumonia and clostridial diseases and are also dosed for parasites. They are then weighed and clipped.

One employee checks all the cattle daily, which typically takes an hour. Any sick or lame animals are taken out, put in an isolation pen and treated.

“We don’t really have to call the vets that often. We have our own animal health plan in place. Generally speaking, if he called out once a month that would be the height of it,” Sam explained.

“We don’t experience much pneumonia and this can be attributed to keeping the stress levels at a minimum. If we do come a cross a sick animal, we will administer antibiotics ourselves and, once you get them at an early stage, they generally get better.”

Bulls are kept in the same groups that they were bought in. Therefore, if eight or nine bulls are purchased from a farmer, they would be housed with each other until slaughter.

“If you mix them with strange bulls, they have a tendency to fight with one another. They have their own social group sorted out among themselves,” he explained.

The pens are bedded weekly and – after a batch of animals has been slaughtered – the pens are cleaned, power hosed and disinfected with lime.

Feeding and slaughter

There are three different steps before animals reach the full finishing diet. Richard Dudgeon, an Alltech beef specialist, outlined the different stages and diets that are fed to the animals when they arrive on the farm.

The first diet consists of 25% of the finishing diet, topped up with 75% grass silage (72% dry matter digestibility and 12.5% protein). The animals are fed this for one week.

From the second week, they are fed 50% of the finishing diet along with 50% grass silage. They are then moved on to 75% of the finishing diet and 25% grass silage. By the end of week three, the cattle are fed a 100% finishing mix.

Richard said: “This generally works very well on the farm. There is some adjustments between the diets, but it’s a simple system. It’s very easy for the guys on the feeder to make the mix and feed it to the different groups of cattle.”

The build-up period for the bulls typically lasts three weeks. For heifers, the build-up period lasts for approximately 50 days. Generally speaking, heifers and bulls are fed for 120-130 days in total.

Sam explained how the Keenan feeder is essential to the entire feeding process on the farm.

“We have this feeder three years now and it has an InTouch box on it. With the new app, we can update the numbers in the pens easily; so we will know what to feed straightaway.”

He continued: “Before, feeding was taking too long. We have over 100 pens of cattle. It was just taking too long to adjust it everyday.

“When your feeding new stock and finishing cattle everyday, you’re all the time adjusting. With the app that has been developed, the whole process is sped up.

“The steering axle makes it quite maneuverable around the yard. The feeder mixes the feed very well and feeds it out very consistently.

“When you go to a pen and you are feeding out 150-180kg, the Keenan feeder is able to feed that out precisely. With the InTouch box, it can record all the feed that your feeding out to the animals.”

All the cattle receive fresh feed daily and it takes approximately three-to-four hours to feed eight loads.

They also make their own meal (farm premix) on farm, two or three times per week. Instead of adding in meal ingredients separately, a percentage of this meal is then added to the mix. This leads to less errors when making the ration.

In terms of the diets, the ingredients are essentially the same. The diets consist of: maize silage; grass silage (only used in the build-up ration); straw; wheat; barley; beans (used in the heifer diet at the start); maize meal; wheat distillers; rape seed; brewers grain; and molasses.

Alltech has also designed a specific mineral mix, which is suited to the animals on the farm. All organic minerals are used. A special yeast product is also added, which improves rumen function.

Richard added: “All of these ingredients drive animal performance to the levels that they are at today. To fulfil some of the protein requirement of the cattle, Alltech Optigen is included at a rate of 80g/head/day.

“This is a slow-releasing form of protein, which balances well with the energy in the diet. It also enhances fibre digestion. Feed is presented consistently everyday and the animals can’t pick between it,” he explained.

Sam added: “We know what performance we should be getting from all our animals. We know if we buy them at this weight, they should be that weight leaving the farm. We will give them two weeks grace. After that, they will be slaughtered regardless,” he explained.

The decline in suckler numbers

When asked about the decline of the suckler herd here in Ireland, Sam said: “What we tell farmers is that if you have a product that is ticking all the boxes, we are very anxious for those cattle.

“It is only when the cattle are too heavy or not of good enough quality that we have no interest in them – the factory has no interest in them.

“It is a major concern of ours. However, we will have to cross that bridge when we come to it. At the minute, we are getting what cattle we need.”

In relation to live exports, he said: “We will just have to deal with it. We are doing a trial on some dairy-origin Belgian Blue heifers at the minute and we will see how they do.

“In general, we have more cattle coming through this year than we had in any other year,” he concluded.