Beef focus: Maximising profits by driving efficiency in Co. Meath

Located in Grange, Co. Meath, the Teagasc demonstration farm is a suckler-to-beef operation run under the watchful eye of researcher John Heslin. His team includes one technician and one full-time farm hand.

The primary objective of the Derrypatrick Herd is to evaluate alternative suckler calf-to-beef production systems. The farm itself stretches across 160ac.

The herd consists of Limousin-Friesian crosses and 75% beef-breed, Simmental and Limousin-sired animals. Prior to 2017, these cows were bred to either early-maturing (EM) Angus or late-maturing (LM) Limousin and Charolais bulls.

In 2017, progeny were finished as 16-month bulls, 20-month heifers and 24-month steers. However, this year, all male progeny will be slaughtered as steers to coincide with a grazing study.

Calving in full swing

Calving is well underway on the Meath-based farm and 80% of the herd has calved to date. The first calf of 2018 arrived on February 10.

John – a graduate of UCD’s Animal and Crop Production degree programme – outlined how calving was progressing so far this year, adding: “We are having a very successful season this year; we had a few calvings that needed a little bit of assistance, but that’s the norm; they all won’t calve on their own.

“We’ve had two sets of twins so far; we have 78 calves out of 76 cows and a 0% mortality rate. All calves are vaccinated against respiratory disease at 10 days old,” he explained.

“As it stands, we have a calving interval of 356 days, but we have 20% of the herd still to calve. We will end up with an interval close to the 363 day mark I’d imagine.”

The average calf birth weight currently stands at 46kg, while the average calving score is two. The cows are in a good condition for calving, with an average body condition score (BCS) of 2.75; the average cow weighs 657kg at calving.

Once cows come close to calving, they are moved into individual calving pens, where strict safety and hygiene practices are implemented.

On this, John said: “It’s time to be getting our calves out to pasture. We’ve been monitoring the health situation of the calves and I can see a touch of scour creeping in with a few calves, but it’s nothing major.

“These calves will be weaned in mid-to-late October. When we wean the calves, the cows are allowed to continue grazing. This allows them to gain some condition at grass before housing. Hopefully, we will get to graze into November this year,” John explained.

Grassland management

All of the herd is still housed and John is aiming for a turnout to grass as soon as possible.

In relation to the current grazing situation on the farm, he said: “We have a heavy farm here in Grange. Ground conditions up until last week (week ending March 25) were ideal. However, the weather forecast for last Monday night and Tuesday turned me off letting the cows out.”

To date, half a bag of urea per acre has been spread on 25ha of the grazing block. The remaining paddocks were impassable due to the inclement weather. John aims to spread the rest of the urea at the first available opportunity.

He added: “Soil temperatures are up, so I’d say we will have a bit of growth this week (week ending April 1). I will also spread urea and slurry on the remaining paddocks at the first opportunity I get.

“I’ve no slurry gone out this year yet. My main target now is to get out onto my silage ground. I then need to graze all the farm as quick as I can,” he explained.

Soil test results indicate that a percentage of the farm is low in phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). When ground temperatures increase, a compound fertiliser (18:6:12) will be applied.

At the moment, the average farm cover stands at 800kg/ha (dry matter). John said: “The first job I do on Monday is a farm walk. The first walk of 2018 was carried out on January 26.

“During the grazing season, I aim to turn cattle into paddocks with covers of 9cm or 10cm and graze down to a residual of 4cm.

“The cattle rotational graze out perennial ryegrass and clover swards; fresh grass is allocated every three days,” he added.

34ha will be closed for silage this year. In 2017, first-cut silage was harvested at the end of May in excellent conditions and yielded 6.5t/ha at 72% dry matter digestibility (DMD) and 30% dry matter.

In addition, 20ha was harvested for second-cut silage on July 17; this yielded 5t/ha, 69% DMD and 20% DM.

Over the 220-day grazing season for cows and 250-day for the progeny, the Derrypatrick farm grew 13t/ha. Over the course of 2017, 177kg/ha of nitrogen (N), 19kg/ha of P and 146kg/ha of K were spread.

Breeding

A 12-week breeding programme was implemented from May 1 to July 24 in 2017. The cows graze in four groups.

A teaser bull accompanies each group. All breeding was carried out using AI and the AM:PM rule is applied. The cows are bred to Charolais, Limousin and Simmental sires, while heifers were bred to Angus bulls.

Within the replacement index, sires are selected on the following traits: milk yield; calving fertility; cow contribution to the replacement index; calving difficulty; and overall reliability. A balanced terminal index is also maintained.

Within the terminal index, sires are selected on: carcass weight; overall terminal index; calving difficulty; and overall reliability. All heifers are bred to sires using high-maternal and high-terminal bulls with the same criteria as mentioned above.

2017 animal performance

The bulls targeted to be finished at 16 months were fed a barley-based concentrate ration (2kg/head/day) from weaning. They were also fed first-cut silage (72% DMD). The ration was gradually increased and all bulls received ad-lib concentrates by January 1.

Finishing heifers and steers were also fed a barley-based concentrate diet, which was increased to 4kg/head/day over a two-week period. The aim was to finish all heifers from grass at 20 months and steers before the second winter.

In total, 16 heifers and 12 steers were slaughtered following supplementation at grass. However, John outlined that poor weather conditions led to animals (17 heifers and 8 steers) being housed on November 1 for a final finishing period.

“Some animals were drafted for slaughter on November 16, whereas the remaining animals were slaughtered on December 7. The bullocks were finished three-to-four months ahead of target,” he explained.

The Irish beef industry going forward

Touching on the beef industry in Ireland, John said: “It definitely is a challenging industry here in Ireland. The margins in beef are very tight – even for the most-efficient operators.

“We’ve seen a reduction in suckler cow numbers and calf registrations. However, looking at the future, I think there will always be a role for the suckler cow in Ireland due to the fragmented farms that we have – particularly in the west of the country.

“Dairying is not for everybody. There is scope to improve the performance within the suckler herd and, therefore, better margins can be achieved,” he explained.

“But, before we can improve the financial performance, we have to improve the efficiencies and that’s what we are striving for here in Grange.

“The foundations of the Irish beef industry is the suckler herd and the prime beef that is produced from it,” he concluded.

Teagasc Grange will open its gates on June 26 for the Beef Open Day 2018. Visitors will see first hand the results of Teagasc’s comprehensive research and innovation programme. They will also be given the chance to meet Teagasc research and advisory staff.

The theme of this year’s open day is ‘€nhancing Knowledge’. It will aim to help beef farmers build on their abilities within their farming business. Furthermore, the key beef technologies will be covered, including: suckler beef; dairy calf to beef; grassland; and breeding/genetics.

Teagasc Research

Teagasc Grange is currently running two projects within the Derrypatrick herd. White clover (Chieftain and AberHerald) was incorporated into half the farm (every second paddock) during 2017.

Researchers aim to evaluate the effect of incorporating white clover into perennial ryegrass swards on: herbage production; utilisation; clover persistency; and animal performance on a suckler-to-beef system.

Secondly, the 2017 breeding season was the first year of the high-replacement index versus the high-terminal index sire comparison study.

A team of sires, across breeds, are selected on high-maternal traits and high-terminal traits for the duration of this comparison. The calves from these sires will be managed to slaughter in a 20-month heifer or 24-month steer production system.

The aim of this study is to determine the effect of selecting high-replacement sires in comparison to high-terminal sires on animal performance and carcass output.