A winter-finishing cattle enterprise that doesn’t buy in meal or fertiliser could easily seem unrealistic to many farmers in Ireland, however John Purcell is man who has bucked the trend and is doing exactly this.
John is a beef farmer based in Thomastown, near Golden in Co. Tipperary. Recently, he hosted a farm walk on behalf of the Limerick and Tipperary Organic Farming Group, to show those interested how he runs this system.
Agriland was at the event, which was well attended by both conventional and organic dairy, beef and tillage farmers.
The home farm consists of about 500ac. In addition to this, there are five “satellite farms”, each approximately 100ac in size, bringing the total farmed area to approximately 1,000 ac.
The land is both owned and rented, “but mainly rented” John explained.
The farm buys in 12-18-month-old steers and heifers. These are sourced from both organic cattle marts and directly from farms.
“About 40% of the cattle we buy in come from marts and 60% come directly from farmers,” said John.
The farm finishes over 1,000 cattle every year with approximately 70% of these cattle finished from February to June.
Commenting on the winter finishing system, John said: “Winter finishing is paying well in organics, particularly if you run a closed-gate system.”
All the feed that is used on the farm is grown on-farm.
“We are growing all our own feed. We finish Herefords and Angus off-red clover silage,” said John.
“The continental cattle need the extra push so we feed them combi-crops”.
The combi crop is a mixture of peas, oats, clovers and grasses that again, are grown on-farm.
John explained that in 1998, the farm made the switch to organic.
He admitted that his reason for switching to organic farming was business-based, and that the environmental benefits were an afterthought. He said:
“I could pretend I was a tree hugger from day one but I wasn’t, I switched to organic farming totally from a commercial point of view.”
He explained that in the years after making the switch, he noticed the significant environmental benefit to the farm and has since added many wildlife corridors and features to the farm to further enhance its wildlife habitats.
Also speaking at the farm walk was John Fennessy, who is the Good Herdsmen procurement officer, and the farm’s organic advisor, Mary Lynch.
Teagasc’s Owen Cashman also spoke, giving an overview of the ongoing research in Solohead, Co. Tipperary, and DLF seeds’ Thomas Moloney explained the benefits of growing multi-species swards.
Also in attendance at the farm walk was the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s (DAFM’s) organics division representative Jack Nolan, who explained what’s available to farmers considering going organic.
The main focus of the farm walk was on growing red clover, white clover and combi crops, and the benefits of each of these.
On the evening of the farm walk, the contractor was on-site cutting the combi-crop and ensiling it in a pit.
John Fennessy explained that the combi-crop yielded 14t/ac. He told farmers attending the walk that it is important to ensure the contractor has “a special wholecrop head to crack grains”.
“The key is to cut at the right time, when starch is highest,” he added.
“We need a high-energy crop, that’s why getting timing right is key because high starch is high energy.”
The combi-crop included a range of more unusual clovers such as Persian and Egyptian clovers.
“They’re tall and their sole purpose is a cover crop for winter until we go back in for year two. It’s mainly a clover crop left behind,” said Fennessy.
Each field forms part of a six-year rotation where a combi-crop is grown for one of the years, arable silage for one other year, and in the remaining years the field is in a grass ley.
The combi-crop is fed to beef cattle using a diet feeder and is mixed with red clover silage.
Mary Lynch said that with this feed “the cattle get plenty of protein and carbohydrates”.
Commenting on the preferred clover type on the farm, John said: “We prefer white clover than red clover here. We used red clover for years but found it died back too fast and we could never graze it.
“With white clover, you don’t have the bulk for silage but you can graze it or cut silage so in our system, it’s more flexible.”
The farm is set to ramp-up cattle buying over the coming weeks.
“We will be starting to buy from now until Christmas and they’re always a little better value from now so you’re getting into stock at the right time,” said John.
He explained that the farm buys in a mix of cattle types but that the majority of the cattle that are bought-in would originate from the suckler herd.
Cattle that come fit on grass are sent for processing while the remaining cattle are housed for winter in a range of shed types, all with a dry bedded area.
Pictured below is one of the winter housing facilities on the farm. Note the scraper system at the front with the rubber mat lieback and covered straw lieback. John said that cattle spend most of their time lying outdoors on the rubber mats.
John told attendees at the farm walk: “Winter finishing does work well from a profit point of view. There’s going to be plenty of stock available from October.”
Last April, organic beef price peaked at €6.00/kg.
The cattle do well on the home-grown feed, gaining 1.2kg/day over winter and eating 35kg of feed/day. There is no price cut at 30 months and all cattle can be finished at any time under 36 months.
Cattle are not treated with anthelmintics and John said that thankfully, it’s not a problem on the farm.
John Fennessy added that the organic sector needs more farmers finishing cattle, in particular, winter finishing. “We need more winter finishers,” he said.