Beef focus: Driving efficiency and finishing 800 cattle in Co. Longford

Farming in Ardagh, Co. Longford, Pat and Paul Molihan – a father-and-son team – operate a suckler-to-beef enterprise on 58% owned land and 42% rented land.

All offspring are brought to slaughter. They also buy in and finish weanlings and forward stores. In addition to beef finishing, they run a flock of 200 ewes. There are plans in place to expand this number to 300 in the near future.

The Molihan family also operate a transport company in conjunction with the farming enterprises.

A herd of 90 predominately Limousin, Charolais, Hereford and Belgian Blue cows are the backbone of the operation and the enterprise is ran under the watchful eye of farm manager Paul. His team consists of his father and another employee also named Paul.

The home farm stretches across 340ac and is home to the finishing cattle, beef housing and the truck yard. An out farm is located approximately 21km away and the suckler cows and calves dwell here during the grazing period. This block consists of 150ac of owned land and 50ac of rented ground.

An additional out farm is located in Kilcock, Co. Kildare, some 88km away. This block is made up of 300ac and is also rented. Forward store bullocks are finished off grass here under a low-input system.

Paul – a graduate of UCD’s Animal Science degree programme – outlined that the main aim of the farm, from a beef finishing point of view, is to drive the efficiency of each individual animal.

He said: “What we are trying to do here is manipulate the diet to drive output. Last year we finished 750-800 head of cattle.

“We feed the bulls to their potential; we feed the heifers to their potential; and we feed the cows to their potential. And, we try to keep things as simple as we can as well,” he explained.

The system

The spring-calving suckler herd has begun calving and, so far this year, 11% of the cows have calved down. The three stock bulls – a Limousin, a Charolais and a Hereford – ran with the cows for six weeks during the last breeding season.

This allows Paul to calve all his cows in a tight calving interval during an extremely busy time on the farm. As cows calve, they are generally turned out to grass.

On this, he said: “Turnout will be delayed this year on account of the weather. Cows coming close to calving are penned individually and normally, once the calf is strong enough, they are brought to the out farm.

“The bulls are easy calving. However, I always have a few to pull. I had one section last year and that was it. I suppose out of the 90 cows that will calve down, I will have to jack 10. They have all calved on their own so far,” Paul explained.

The Longford-based farmer generally aims to finish his bulls aged 20-22 months, while his heifers are slaughtered at under 22 months.

However, a proportion of the bulls will be finished under 16 months of age. Store bulls are purchased for grass weighing 370kg. They will remain at grass until they weigh approximately 480kg. They will then enter an intensive, indoor finishing system for 100-120 days. They will be slaughtered to have a carcass weight of approximately 400kg.

Short-keep, store cows are then purchased to replace the bulls – at grass – when they enter the finishing process. Some of these will be finished off grass, while others will be finished out of the shed.

Silage and forage crops

Last year, Paul planted 18ac of kale to out-winter weanlings on until Christmas. Paul was happy how these animals performed and fed silage along with the forage crop.

180ac of silage is harvested – from the home farm – over two cuts every year. Last year, the first cut was made on May 10 and the second during the last week in July.

The first cut had dry matter digestibility (DMD) of 85% and a metabolisable energy (ME) value of 12.63 MJ/kgDM. The protein content was 14.5%. The second was 71% DMD and the ME value was 10.9 MJ/kgDM. The protein content of this silage was 16%.

On this, Paul said: “We were lucky this winter; we had great silage. I’m a massive fan of testing silage. It’s vitally important. You need to know the value of it.”

There is adequate slurry storage on farm and slurry was spread on the silage ground two weeks ago – during the dry weather – before the snow came.

‘The snow brought hardship’

Like the majority of farms across the country, Storm Emma and the adverse weather conditions experienced last week increased the workload.

“The week gone by will test any man. It was a very challenging time – especially when you have fragmented land,” he explained.

“A lot of snow was blowing in on top of the cattle and I had a few issues with pneumonia – especially with some of the store cattle I bought in for grass. Thankfully they got over it with a little bit of help.

“It was a case where there was no where really dry for the cattle to lie. The pens were wet and it wasn’t simple. We were able to turn on a copper coil in the main beef shed to keep the water from freezing, but we had to draw some water to other animals. However, we got through it and there was no harm done,” he said.

Feeding and factory grading

Paul has many groups of animals on the farm at any one time. Therefore, a number of different rations must be made up each day. These are a grower mix; finishing cow mix; finishing heifer mix; and a finishing bull ration.

The ingredients include: water; molasses; soya hulls and soya beans (protein mix); straw; wheat and barley (50:50); maize meal; minerals; brewers grain; and silage.

Paul outlined that the inclusion of minerals and a yeast product – to help the animal break down concentrates – was a crucial part of his ration. On the finishing ration, the bulls and heifers have an average daily gain (ADG) of 1.93kg and 1.58kg respectively.

On slaughter weights and grading, he said: “The bulls generally fall into the U category, perhaps with the odd E and R, and have a fat score of 3. The kill-out percentage varies between 58% and 60% and the carcass weights normally stand at 440kg.

“The heifers grade anywhere from R= to U+ and generally have a fat score of 4. They would weigh 360kg [deadweight],” he added.

Learning from discussion groups

Paul is involved in the Young Beef Farmer Sustainability Programme (YBFSP) in conjunction with Macra na Feirme and Dawn Meats.

The programme is designed to help young farmers to develop their farming skills and their business and commercial awareness. There are 15 other young farmers in the discussion group.

“It’s a good programme. It showed us that beef can be positive. Young people are being bombarded with ‘it’s a waste of time and they should be milking’ and what not.

“This programme has given us a broader spectrum of beef systems and informed us on how to push our efficiency. It doesn’t always have to be an uphill battle. You have to help yourself in this game,” Paul added.

“I’m involved in a Teagasc grassland discussion group also. I joined last year and that gave me a great insight into the grass-based systems.”

The future for beef production

The Co. Longford native outlined his plans for the future. On this, he said: “I’m a little bit stuck for sheds at the moment, but I’m not going to focus on them for the time being. I’m going to look at growing more forage crops – more kale.

“I have the land, so to push on I’m going to have to use my sheds strategically with the forage crops. It’s not going to be easy, but if I want to push on that’s what I’m going to have to do.

“In the future, I’m also going to try and grow my suckler herd and produce more of my own offspring. I’ll keep buying the same amount of cattle. The increase in production will come from my own cows,” he explained.

“Each farm is different and we try to make the best of what we’ve got. I enjoy producing beef. Beef is for some people and not for others. There’s a great freedom with producing beef.

In Ireland we are producing beef efficiently and it is of top quality. We need to keep doing this.

“Live exports are crucial to the industry. I know it’s hard sometimes to compete in the marts, but you have a fair chance to compete. It creates the competition we need in the factories. It keeps the pressure on them.

“There is going to be a bit of pressure on me for the next few years, but I do this because I want to do it. I wouldn’t if I had no interest. I’m a work in progress and Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I’m learning every year,” he concluded.