Beef focus: Finishing under 16-month bulls along with steers and heifers in Co. Kilkenny

Approximately 1,400 students pass through Kildalton Agricultural College in Co. Kilkenny every year. The farm is home to beef, dairy, sheep, tillage and equine enterprises.

On Friday, April 12, the gates were opened to the public for a breeding event which was based around the impressive suckler herd on the farm.

The 48-cow herd is spring calving with a proportion of the male offspring finished under-16 months, while the remainder are finished as steers at 24 months.

All heifers – with the exception of replacements – are finished at 18-20 months. In addition, a number of calves – originating from the on-farm dairy herd – are reared, finished and slaughtered at 24 months-of-age.

20 young bulls (under 16 months) will be slaughtered in summer 2019 and nine beef heifers will be finished off grass during September to November 2019. An additional 11 steers will be killed in 2019.

Originally, the herd size was approximately 60 cows; however, due to a reduction in the grazing platform, the target now is 50.

Both AI (50%) and a stock bull (50%) are used during the breeding season and a 20% replacement rate is targeted every year, with heifers calving down at 24 months.

The breeding performance of the herd is impressive, but it is not without its ups and downs over the years. The wet year in 2017 pushed out the calving interval, while mortality at calving was an issue due to an unlucky streak.

Again, this year the calving interval was pushed out due to the inclement weather last year. However, the 2019 calving season progressed well and cows and calves were turned out on February 7 – a week earlier than targeted.

Sire selection

A new Charolais stock bull was purchased for the farm in the last number of months; he has a €130 terminal value and the reliability is 51%, with a calving difficulty of 5.5%. The bull is +31kg for carcass weight.

2018 AI sire selection:

  • Limousin: EBY (heifers); ZAG; KJB;
  • Simmental: CQA; and SI2152;
  • Belgian Blue: ZSD.

2019 AI sire selection:

  • Limousin: EBY (heifers); ZAG; LM4217;
  • Simmental: CQA;
  • Belgian Blue: ZSD.

Breeding commenced on the farm on March 25 and will run until June 13, leaving a mean calving date of February 15.

Every year, approximately 20 of the high maternal (5-star) cows run with the replacement heifers and are AI’d. In terms of heat detection, tail paint and a teaser bull is used. Also, this group of animals is observed four times/day.

Left: Bulling heifer marked with chin ball. Right: Tail paint

Tail paint is touched up once per week weather depending. Furthermore, as cows and heifers are AI’d, they are removed from the herd and put in a different paddock. This avoids having to bring in the entire herd every time a cow/heifer is bulling.

The AM/PM rule is practiced; cows in heat in the morning are inseminated in the evening and visa versa. 30-35 days after insemination, cows and heifers are pregnancy scanned to ensure there are no problems.

Calving heifers at 24 months

Replacement heifers are chosen from the best cows in the herd and are sired by bulls with good maternal traits.

Ensuring that these animals calve down at 24 months-of-age, an ADG of 1.1-1.3kg/day up to weaning is maintained. This is achieved by the mother’s milk, good-quality grass and calf creep fed one month before weaning in August.

Over the winter period, good-quality silage is fed alongside 1-2kg of meal to maximise liveweight gain, ensuring the heifer is 60% of her mature body weight at mating; heifers in Kildalton average 430kg at bulling.

As mentioned above, all heifers are bred to an easy calving sire (EBY). All heifers are 80% of their mature weight at calving in late January or early February.

There are many advantages to calving heifers at two years. These are: more output; reduced stocking rate; reduced groups; and reduced costs.

Research from Teagasc Grange indicates that each additional month that calving is delayed, it amounts to €50/heifer/month for a 50-cow herd and a heifer calving at three years old costs an extra €600.

Also on the day, the ICBF’s (Irish Cattle Breeding Federation’s) Chris Daly outlined the progress made in the national suckler herd since the BDGP was introduced.

He also discussed how to apply the €uro-Star indexes and whether farmers should breed or buy-in replacements.

2018 animal performance

The top quality (80%) of the bull calves is chosen for the under-16 month system, while the remaining bulls are slaughtered as steers at 24 months.

The bulls had an average carcass weight of 402kg and a kill out percentage of 59%, leaving an average of €1,776 behind them.

The steers averaged 408kg with a kill out of 58% and an average value of €1,720, while the heifers averaged €1,216 and had an average carcass weight of 301kg and 56% kill out.

Pictured below: Two steers from the previous stock bull at just over two years. These weigh in excess of 700kg and were kept for student purposes.

However, the heifers were 21kg (carcass) lighter than their heifer comrades in 2017; these averaged 323kg. However, it was the 2018 heifer group that suffered the most due to the weather conditions during the summer.

The cull cows averaged 343kg and a 52.8% kill out; the average value was €1,135.

The financial performance of the farm

Given the weather conditions experienced in 2018, the enterprise fared out well financially. Firstly, the farm is stocked at 1.78LU/ha.

The gross output (kg/ha) stood at 884kg/ha in 2018, while the gross output in terms of €/ha was €2,378/ha.

Total variable costs amounted to €1,251/ha. This figure can be broken down as follows: €681/ha on forage and meal; €259/ha on fertiliser; €65/ha on contractor costs; and €94/ha on AI and veterinary.

The meal and forage bill increased due to the weather conditions, while the contractor costs are on the low side due to the availability of students and machinery in-house.

Teagasc’s Pearse Kelly – head of drystock knowledge transfer – outlined that on a typical suckler beef farm, 50% of the gross output is going to go on variable costs.

*Important: This data excludes subsidies such as basic payments, GLÁS or any other scheme payments.

While the fixed costs on this farm are not representative of a commercial farm, the national average arrives at between €500-600/ha.

Therefore, for example, if we subtract €600 from the gross margin (€1,127/ha), this leaves a net margin of over €500/ha in 2018.