Beef focus: Doing the simple things right in Co. Laois

Farming just outside Mountrath, Co. Laois, Ken Graham is a suckler-to-beef farmer finishing male progeny as bulls under 16-months and heifers at 21 months-of-age.

Ken’s farm was the destination for the farm walk as part of The Irish Grassland Association (IGA) National Beef Conference which took place recently in Co. Laois.

The farm covers 44ha of land split into three parcels consisting of a 24ha block, a 16ha block and an additional 4ha are devoted to a crop of spring barley this year.

Ken works full-time off-farm so having an easy-to-manage system in place is essential, and the Laois-based farmer also has employed labour for a handful of days during the week and at busy periods.

55 cows and their offspring take centre stage on the holding and graze as one group. Once weaned, the weanlings will be moved to the 40ha out block. All progeny will be finished here with the exception of heifers earmarked for replacements.

Ken’s farm is based on achieving the most weight gain from the cheapest feed source – grass. He strives to maximise the proportion of grazed grass in the diet, by operating an on-off grazing system in early spring.

“On-off grazing works well here. I wouldn’t graze every paddock on-off, but I set up temporary reels to get past one paddock into another. It does work well; they were in small groups and February this year was a good month.

“With the on-off system, any paddock within two paddocks of the yard would be used until they stay out full-time. It sounds like hard work but after four or five days, the cows are almost like dairy cows; the minute you get to the gate they will start to walk back.

“It is easier and they go out quick in the morning because they are only getting silage inside; they much prefer to be out. Plus, it’s a big saving; you don’t have straw bedding or slurry that has to be taken out and the calves are healthier,” he added.

‘2018 was a blip year’

The overall stocking rate is 2.31LU/ha, with a gross output of €1,842/ha producing beef at 834kg/ha and 361kg/LU.

Ken describes last year as a blip year, where there was a significant drop in grass growth which had a negative impact on the farm.

The net result from the drop in grass growth resulted in the gross margin falling from €981/ha in 2017 to €634/ha in 2018. Therefore, there was a loss of €347/ha or over €12,000 on the farm as a result of the severe drought.

“If you lose 10% of the grass that you grow, and you have to replace it with concentrate, it is very expensive. It was a bit of a learning curve and a year that we haven’t seen before,” Ken explained.

“When the growth did come, it didn’t need to be forced as much as I did. Plus, I started meal very early and I continued it through – this wasn’t a wise move on the heifers.

“I should have just used the meal to get over the drought and pull it then. They wouldn’t have cleaned out paddocks as well; they stood around the trough when they should have been off grazing,” he added.

Animal performance

As mentioned, all offspring are slaughtered on the farm; he must achieve high weaning weights and high average daily gain (ADG) from grass before the feeding period.

Before weaning, the bulls have an ADG of 1.21kg/day, while the heifers have an ADG of 1.07kg/day. This indicates that the cows have good milk traits and that these animals graze on a high-quality sward.

“The mature weight of the cows is 680kg on average, which is probably a bit heavier than normal. But they were out almost immediately after calving this year on-off grazing; the cows did well and the calves are showing it too.

“I’m hoping to improve weanling performance and carcass weight this year,” he added.

Carcass weights:
  • Bulls finished at 15.7 months: 386kg;
  • Heifers finished at 21 months: 324kg.

Approach to grassland

There are 34 paddocks on the farm with an average size of 1.2ha; these can be subdivided as needed and there is also a very good piped-water system in place.

Commenting on his system, he said: “Cattle spend around two days in the paddocks depending on what covers are present and the time of year.

“I just run a wire roughly across half and let them graze down that; then they get the second half and move on after. It’s very easy to move them.”

The 55-cow herd and the two Limousin stock bulls graze in one group.

“It makes management of grass and paddocks a lot easier; it’s way easier as a group because I’m not trying to juggle many groups. It’s also very easy to identify a sick animal because you are moving them so often.”

Soil sampling is carried out every four years on the farm and lime is applied as required. However, phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are on the low side, with 75% of the farm at index 1 and 2 for P, while 46% of the land base is index 1 and 2 for K.

Ken is working on building these indices. Ken’s operation is an under-16 month bull beef and 21-month heifer system – in a normal year – 90% of what is eaten by the livestock is either grass or grass silage.

Last year, that dropped to 80%. In 2018, Ken grew and utilised 8t DM/ha and the national average 5.5t DM/ha and in 2017 he grew and utilised 10t DM/ha.

Fertiliser in 2018:
  • Nitrogen (N): 167kg/ha (134 units/ac);
  • P: 20kg/ha (16 units/ac);
  • K: 65kg/ha (52 units/ac).

Figures show that Ken dropped 1t DM/ha utilised in 2018 – roughly 40t DM/ha. Furthermore, the cost of additional concentrate amounted to €12,567.

“On the out farm, I cut a pit of silage on May 24. The early cut is for the weanlings to push them on and then, three weeks later, I cut paddocks predominately – any paddock that goes too strong is put into a pit.

“Paddocks would be taken at different stages and this is for cows. I don’t want fantastic silage, I just want enough to tick cows over during the winter and I will take a second cut later on in the year.

“It’s all done the one day and cover the pit that night,” he added.

Ken uses contractors for most jobs on the farm including: silage harvesting; slurry spreading; and hedge-cutting. This cuts down on labour.

Breeding

Every year, Ken purchases an Aberdeen Angus bull to run with his replacement heifers (20%); this bull is sold on after the breeding season.

All heifers calve down aged 24 months and Ken has been doing so for the last seven or eight years.

“I pick the heifers that I think are good enough or have a replacement figure higher than the average of my own herd; I use the bull on them for seven weeks.

“The heifers are not the largest animals in the group, but they are paying for themselves. They are gone on with an Angus calf at foot and that calf – the following year – will be gone in the summer with no meal and if it’s a bull it will be gone in May or June.”

Ken has recently moved to Limousin stock bulls from the Simmental breed and has chosen these bulls on both terminal and maternal traits.

“The longest day of the year the bulls come out, so in part-time farming that’s the nearest Saturday to it,” he added.

The cow herd is then split into cows with heifer calves and cows with bull calves and they will be scanned in August/September.

“There’s no mercy on a cow that does not go in calf; even if she is the best cow in the place – if she’s not in calf she’s gone.

“The herd is a work in progress and about 60% of the herd was bred on this farm. I know I could speed genetic gain up with AI instead of stock bulls.

“But AI doesn’t suit me part time. It’s easier for me to try and buy a good stock bull. I’m happy with the amount of milk in the herd. It would have been an issue but that’s why I bought the Simmental bull hoping to bring back heifers with more milk.”

Labour saving and the future

As Ken is working off-farm full-time, he employs many tactics which help keep the workload to a minimum.

These include:
  • Short-calving season: 75% in six weeks;
  • The use of contractors;
  • Two cattle groups;
  • Good housing and handling facilities;
  • Grazing infrastructure;
  • Feeding system on the out farm;
  • Less bales and more pit silage;
  • Early turnout;
  • On-off grazing in spring.

Commenting on the future of the farm, he said: “The big elephant in the room is the price of beef.

“I honestly don’t know where it’s going to go. Have I thought about dairy – yes. Will I go for it? I don’t think I have a big enough platform and – with all of the political uncertainty – I don’t know,” he concluded.

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