Forage focus: Feeding home-grown crops on rented land in Co. Galway

Eamonn Burke is a farmer with a difference; he has no land of his own. The Co. Galway man farms on rented ground that is all within a 35 mile radius. He operates both beef and tillage enterprises and runs a successful contracting business with his father.

Spring barley, spring oats and fodder beet make up the main tillage crops on the farm; these crops are used to feed his beef animals. Eamonn also grows kale to out-winter his beef cattle on.

AgriLand spoke to Eamonn when the former Macra/FBD Young Beef Farmer of the Year (2015) held a farm walk last week. This was part of a series of walks to celebrate 20 years of the Macra/FBD Young Farmer of the Year competition.

Black and white beef

Corrandulla was the location for the walk; Eamonn leases 60ac of land here that is owned by the Franciscan Brothers in Mountbellew Agricultural College.

Up to a number of years ago Eamonn was finishing continental cattle. However, he has since made the move to finishing dairy bulls; he buys all of his stock from one dairy herd.

He said: “They’re all bought in at an average cost of €100/head. We use a bag of milk replacer on them all; a ration at weaning; and they don’t get any hay. It’s all straw. We use straw when they’re being finished as well.

“We would have preferred to stay with continentals, but you’re going in at small money with the dairy calves; there is less risk.

Some of the €1,000 weanlings were fantastic to look at and fantastic to perform; but at the other end when you were selling them, you had a fine carcass and they didn’t want it.

Out-wintering on kale

Eamonn will leave all of his yearling bulls out over the winter this season. He plans to sow kale (Maris Kestrel) at the end of this month.

“As long as the weather permits they will stay out. Some of these animals were out for all of the winter last year. We have limestone ground – where there’s very little soil – and we grow kale on that.”

Last winter Eamonn didn’t out-winter all of his yearlings and there is a massive difference in the animals now. The cattle which were in the shed are 100kg lighter than those that were out-wintered. Eamonn also noted that the out-wintered stock are much healthier.

The yearlings in the shed received a 2kg mix of barley, oats and soybean; the yearlings on the kale were receiving 1kg of the same mix.

“There’s a massive difference between these animals; I think when they’re on kale it’s like being on grass,” he explained.

“The kale lasted until March and the cattle were moved onto grass on March 6; they should be finished by Christmas,” he added.

Eamonn stated that his animals are a lot healthier when they are kept outside in their natural environment.

“It’s phenomenal. We’ve seen it over the last few years; the out-wintered stock are out-performing and they are far healthier than the others.

“I think last year was the wettest that we’re ever going to get and they took no notice of anything; no colds or chills and once they hit grass they were off.”

When describing the stock kept in for the winter, he said: “We vaccinated for IBR and everything; it still didn’t make any difference. They’re not nearly the same animals,” he explained.

‘Kale is ideal for reseeding ground’

Growing kale has increased animal performance and – in turn – the profits have also increased on Eamonn’s farm. He said: “I think kale is the way to go for anyone that has ground to reseed.

We have to make it work because it’s all on leased land; we have to find ways to produce animals cheaper.

Eamonn plans to keep all of his yearlings out on kale this winter. He said: “All the yearlings will be out. We know how much we need; we have that all burnt off and ready to go.

“The kale grows seriously well on the limestone ground. The heat is there the whole time. We disc the ground first and broadcast the seed with the fertiliser. It’s rolled after sowing; it’s cheap.”

Eamonn applies CAN (Calcium Ammonium Nitrate) and 10-10-20 – both at a rate of 50kg/ac – when sowing kale.

“We put silage bales out in the kale so the tractor never has to go into the field in the winter; it makes a huge difference,” Eamonn added.

Reseeding is a big investment on rented land. On this, he said: “We have to reseed some of the land that we rent. However, we have all our own equipment for doing it; that makes it easier.”

Strip grazing

Eamonn practices a strip-grazing system on his farm; he moves the strip of wire everyday to give his animals fresh grass.

“Everything is strip grazed. The most important investment a farmer could make is in a ‘strip wire’, fencing or a paddock system. We might paddock out this block of land because we’ve a longer lease on it.

“We have four different lots. We’re taking out silage and hay as we go along; once it gets too strong it’s cut.

The strip wire makes an awful difference. The performance is totally different with fresh grass everyday. If dairy farmers can produce milk like that, why can’t we produce beef?

Producing his own fodder

Eamonn grows fodder beet on his farm and he maintains that it has cut the cost of finishing his animals. He mixes the beet with his own barley, oats and straw; he also mixes it with maize that he purchases from the local merchant.

We’re feeding straights and you can see the performance difference.

“We use fodder beet for finishing our beef cattle. On their final 30 days of finishing, we have them on 40kg of beet/day. A mixture of barley, oats, maize and straw is also fed. Fodder beet is the only way forward for cutting cost.

“We’re growing 35ac of fodder beet. The average yield is about 30t/ac. Blaze is lovely and clean. We’ve sown Blaze for a farmer this year and he is going to strip graze it this winter,” he explained.

The Burke’s barley was planted in good conditions and is flying through the growth stages. It will get its first, and most likely final, fungicide in the coming days.

Farm-to-farm barley sales

Eamonn sells a lot of barley to other farmers in the area. The Burke’s own barley for feeding is dried and stored by the local merchant.

“We store it in the local merchant’s – Flynns. It costs €20/t to store it and dry it; you wouldn’t build a shed for it. We take it out as we need it and roll it ourselves. We also buy soya and maize from Flynns.

We sell a lot of the barley farm-to-farm; there’s a good enough trade for it.

“We got a premium of €180/t for barley last year. You have to have a small bit of a niche. There’s not many people growing crops around this area; I think there’s only two or three in the parish,” he explained.

Renting land

Renting land can be a tricky business. Eamonn outlined that soil fertility is extremely important and the Galway-based farmer takes a soil test before agreeing to take any ground from a farmer.

There’s one farm that we had and it needed 6t/ac of lime; we made a deal that the owner paid for half and we paid for half.

Access to land is not a huge problem in Eamonn’s locality. However, making money from the acres that farmers have is a problem.

A better price needs to be paid for what is being produced. Costs have been cut to a minimum on farms and Eamonn thinks this is affecting performance.

He also explained that a lot of the land that he rents is fragmented and this adds to the running costs.

Decisions for profit

Eamonn previously finished steers. However, he is getting on better with bulls. On this, he said: “The bulls perform way ahead of anything that’s castrated. If there’s an aggressive animal, they’re taken out and put into the shed.”

He mainly sells his animals to Kildare Chilling and he outlined that some of his animals that were out-wintered will be be slaughtered soon, if he receives a good offer for them.

“You have to make up your sums to finish cattle. It takes 1t of meal to finish them; that costs €300. How much are you going to get for spending that money?” he questioned.