During the week Agriland paid a visit to an expanding calf-to-beef farm that is really gaining momentum, and this is little wonder when you meet someone with the enthusiasm and positive attitude towards beef farming as the man at the helm, Charlie Smyth.
Farming 175ac near Killenkere, Co. Cavan, Charlie Smyth took the reigns of his family farm in 2019 when his parents Charles and Noleen stepped back from the beef enterprise.
They now run a free-range poultry unit on an outfarm consisting of 4,420 laying hens.
Charlie built up his calf-to-beef enterprise beginning with 40 dairy-beef calves in 2019, 60 calves in 2020 and 100 calves this year.
All bull calves are purchased from a single dairy farm nearby.
Charlie buys all calves from a single source as he believes it “reduces stress on the animals and disease burden from purchasing off numerous different farms”.
He also noted that when buying a large number of calves from a farmer, there is better scope to buy value.
The plan is to purchase 100 calves every year with 300 head of cattle on the farm at peak.
When taking over the farm, Charlie decided to seek feedlot status with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) to reduce the impact a potential outbreak of TB could have on the farm.
Feedlot status allows the farm to continue to buy cattle even if an animal in the herd shows up with TB and it won’t affect neighbours “which is a huge thing”, Charlie added.
“If we were to go down with TB we could be locked up for 100 days or more and this would affect our purchasing pattern because you have to buy at the right time,” he explained.
In order to gain feedlot status, the entire farm had to be double fenced so there could be no nose-to-nose contact with animals on neighbouring farms.
All animals on the farm must be brought direct to slaughter and cannot be sold at marts or to other farmers.
The farm was previously a 70-cow dairy farm until 2005, before it converted to finishing 60 continental cattle annually.
In 2019, after researching various different beef systems, Charlie decided that a calf-to-beef operation was the business model best suited to him.
He is now farming 175ac, 50ac of which is leased. Charlie also has his own machinery for baling silage and does some contracting work for neighboring farmers in the summer.
The calves are bought in late February and early March. They are purchased at four weeks-of-age and are all vaccinated on the farm they are bought from.
Once a health check is complete, calves are put in groups of 10 in a 5-bay double shed.
Calves are bedded with barley straw and are fed milk replacer until approximately 12-16 weeks-of-age, depending on the group.
Half the calves are Angus and Hereford, while the other half are made up of Friesians.
“It’s good to have a mixture of stock and see what works best,” Charlie said.
This spring, the farm installed a new setup for feeding calves milk.
For the first two years, Charlie had been feeding calves with buckets and mixing milk replacer with a drill.
He explained: “When we were confident we were going to keep at this [calf-to-beef system], we invested in a milk kart and a 200L water heater unit.”
Charlie noted his new system for feeding calves is working very well and said he could feed 100 calves with the milk kart and clean up, in the same time as he could feed 40 calves with his old system.
Calves are fed 2.5L of milk twice a day from a 10-unit blue teat feeder. The milk kart has a gauge to measure how much milk each pen of calves is getting.
This year’s calves are all out on grass and are currently grazing in a paddock rotation system.
All 100 calves come into the shed every day for meal feeding where they get 1kg/day.
Charlie prefers to feed calves meal in the shed as he believes it allows him to carry out more efficient health checks and if an animal needs treatment, it can be isolated easily from the shed.
All cattle on grass are dosed every six weeks. Calves are fed meal at a rate of 1kg/day until they go out to grass for their second summer.
At a year old, all male cattle on the farm are castrated. As the farm is fragmented, yearling cattle go to outlying blocks of land for the summer.
No meal is fed to cattle on their second summer and plenty of good grass is kept in front of the yearlings at all times.
Charlie noted that this year’s bunch of calves are a lot further on than last years’ bunch were, and attributed that to better grass management, rotations and better feeding.
The yearlings are approximately 17 months-old and are averaging 450kg. He noted that the yearlings currently on the farm consist primarily of Friesian bullocks. All stock on the farm are housed on October 1.
2019-born cattle were slaughtered in May of this year at approximately 108 weeks-old.
Cattle are housed on October 1, after their second summer at grass and begin getting meal as soon as they are housed.
Bullocks are fed 1.3kg of a development ration from October of their second winter until February. From February to finish, the cattle are put on a finisher ration.
Charlie noted it took 900kg/head of meal to finish this year’s bullocks and added that they had consumed approximately 1.2t/meal each in their lifetime.
Commenting on the 40 bullocks killed earlier this year, Charlie said that the grades varied. He explained that the Angus bullocks were all ‘R’ grades while the Friesian bullocks were ‘O’ and ‘P’ grades, depending on type.
Charlie acknowledged that this was the first year he had finished this type of cattle and added that he may have been “lacking experience in some areas”.
The average carcass weight of this year’s finished cattle was 325kg.
Charlie noted his preferential breeds are Angus and British Friesians. “It’s nice to have a breed variation in a batch of cattle,” he said.
All slats on the farm have comfort mats and Charlie believes that cattle finish better on them.
Charlie plans to improve the performance of the cattle on his farm. He has been granted planning permission to build another 4-bay slatted shed which he hopes to build in the coming months.
Further focus on paddock fencing and grazing infrastructure is also something Charlie hopes to improve on.
He also is working on ways to improve the farm’s carbon footprint and has implemented measures to reduce it by 48% since 2012.
Charlie studied Food and Agri-Business Management at University College Dublin (UCD) and also has an undergraduate degree in Sustainability in Agriculture from Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT).
He previously worked in managerial operations at Monaghan Mushrooms and Quality Control at Total Produce in Swords, Co. Dublin.
An active member of Ramor Macra na Feirme, Charlie is also involved in the Social Farming Ireland initiative and is a stakeholder on the Irish AgroRES Committee, as well as being locally involved on the east Cavan Sustainable Energy Committee (SEC).
Charlie is now full-time farming at home but also runs an agricultural contracting business making bales for neighboring farmers.