Managing the rising costs on beef and sheep farms was the central theme of a series of farm walks hosted by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) this week.
Agriland travelled to one of these events, on the farm of Stephen Maguire near Maguiresbridge, Co. Fermanagh, on Wednesday, May 18, to find out how the beef farmer is managing his enterprise in times of input price pressures.
Stephen is farming 80ac of typical Fermanagh land and in 2021, the farm made a gross margin of £1,546/ha and had a stocking rate of 1.58/cow equivalent (Ce)/ha (livestock units are sometimes referred to as cow equivalents, as was the case here).
The farm was previously a 60-cow suckler herd with all progeny sold as stores and bull beef, but in 2019 the sucklers were dispersed and the farm transitioned to a Blade cattle-rearing system.
Speaking at the CAFRE event on his beef farm, Stephen said: “Basically, everything I’m doing now is on a contract basis. I do a small bit of contract dairy heifer-rearing as well.”
Stephen’s ethos is: “I try to keep everything simple on the farm and make the best use of what we have.”
The land was all drained in the 1980s and in recent years, Stephen has done a good bit of work on reseeding and maximising grass growth.
He believes the key to keeping costs under control is to grow and utilise as much grass as cheaply as possible. The farm is however, dissected by a crossroads, and so Stephen admitted: “This can make grazing infrastructure tricky.”
The farm is laid out in a paddock rotational-grazing system and larger fields are split into smaller areas with both permanent and temporary fences.
Most paddocks on the farm range in size from 0.8-1ha and the average stocking rate on the grazing platform is 2.3 livestock units (LU)/ha.
The paddocks are rectangular in shape and have multiple access points and water troughs.
Some of the grazing infrastructure on the farm:
Stephen’s aim when grazing-out paddocks is: ‘Grow in three weeks, graze in three days.’
The target pre-grazing cover on the farm is 2,700-3,100kg/dry matter (DM)/ha (9-10cm grass height) and the target post-grazing cover is 1,600kg/DM/ha (4-5cm grass height). The average farm cover on the day of the farm walk was 3042kg/DM/ha.
Despite a stocking rate of 2.3LU/ha on the grazing platform, last year, 150 bales were made from surplus grass on the paddocks.
The farm has four batches of cattle grazing 20.3ha in a paddock-grazing system. Generally, the average turnout date on the farm is April 9, and cattle are housed in October/November time.
The rise in costs on the farm were broken down using figures from April 2021 compared to April 2022.
General price increases:
Price in April 2021 Price in April 2022 Increase Finishing ration £247/t £305/t +£58/t Fertiliser (27-4-4) £315/t £929/t +£614/t Red diesel 56p/L 98p/L +42p/L
Implications of these rising costs:
2021 2022 Difference Meal: 500kg/animal £123.50 £152.50 +£29 First-cut fertiliser (150kg/ac): £47.50 £139.50 +£92.25 Red diesil cost to ensile 1ac/grass (20L/ac): £11.20/ac £19.60/ac +£8.40/ac
In light of the significant increases in farm production costs, various methods of managing and limiting these costs were discussed by CAFRE advisors at the event.
Areas for potential cost savings on the farm
Stephen, along with the CAFRE advisers, outlined some areas where the farm could make a cost saving.
Maximising weight gain of cattle at grass through offering cattle better-quality grass. Implementing a functional paddock-grazing system is key to this.
Maximising grass utilisation was suggested as another cost-saving mechanism. It was outlined that where a set stocking regime is in place on a farm, only approximately 50% of the grass is utilised. Where paddocks are in place, this utilisation figure increases to 75-80%.
Making better-quality silage was also noted as a way for farmers to save money on meal costs. Feeding cattle high-energy, high-protein silage will reduce the need for additional and expensive concentrate feed this winter.
Producing red-clover silage was also mentioned as a potential cost saving. Red-clover silage is high in protein and will reduce the need for expensive soya protein in store cattle rations and decrease fertiliser costs. Including white clover in grazing swards will also help improve animal performance.
Finally, acting on soil and silage-test analysis can also offer options for reducing costs, by identifying good silage which may need little/no concentrate supplementation and identifying fields that may only need maintenance phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) applications.