Beef focus: Self sufficiency boosts profit on beef enterprise in Co. Kilkenny

Farming in Bishop’s Demesne, Co. Kilkenny, Reginald ‘Reggie’ Brennan operates a suckler-to-beef enterprise under an autumn-calving system. All progeny are brought to slaughter with the exception of replacement heifers. The heifers and bullocks are slaughtered aged 24-26 months.

In addition, Reggie and his brother Geoffrey run a tillage enterprise in conjunction with the beef operation. The farm is self sufficient; barley, oats, fodder beet and straw are all used for feed on the farm.

Prior to 2013, Reggie milked a herd of 40-45 dairy cows along with the beef and tillage enterprises. However, faced with the pressure of ‘get bigger or get out’, he decided to cease milk production and increase the size of the suckler herd.

A herd of 90-100 predominately Aubrac, Charolais, Hereford and Simmental cows are the backbone of the operation. Geoffrey, who also finishes cattle on his own farm, helps out at busy times of the year.

The home farm stretches across 100ac and is home to the finishing cattle and beef housing. An out farm is located a short distance away and the suckler cows and calves dwell here during the grazing period.

“The milking was fine and I never had any complaints about it. It got to the stage where the milking was tieing me up a lot when we would be busy at corn; the suckler-to-beef operation suits our system better,” he said.

Replacement heifers running with an Angus bull

Bull selection

The farm is home to three stock bulls – an Aberdeen Angus and two Aubracs. The Angus bull was purchased this year to replace a Hereford bull, which had been on the farm for the previous seven years.

On this, he said: “The Aubrac bulls are very easily calved and placid. I’ve bought an Angus bull for this breeding season to try him out and see what way he goes. I will use him on my replacement heifers.

“I’m also looking into buying Aubrac calves out of British Friesian dams. They come lovely out of Friesians, but they’re especially nice out of British Friesians. By doing this, I would have quality suckler cattle and the quality would be there for the meat market also,” he explained.

“The Aubrac cattle have a very good thrive and kill out very well in comparison to other stock,” he added.

An autumn-calving system is implemented, which suits the Brennan’s tillage enterprise, as calving is finished by the end of January. He said: “We are busy over the Christmas period, but it suits the system we have here.”

Managing grass

The inclement weather experienced at the back end of 2017, and the disastrous spring experienced this year, has played havoc on farms all over the country.

Reggie’s farm is no different as he was forced to house some of his cattle earlier than normal last year. However, he has a grassland management plan in place and has made adjustments to his silage and grazing plans for this year.

A paddock system is implemented and a bag-and-a-half / ac of Cut Sward (24-2.5-20) was spread on the grazing block around the home farm on April 1. The silage ground received 3,000 gallons/ac on March 28. In addition, 100kg/ac of Cut Sward was spread on this ground on April 10.

“Normally, I would graze all the silage ground first in the rotation and then close it off for silage; I didn’t get to do that this year.

“Because the silage is late, I’m going to work with about 90 units of nitrogen; so I will go with another 100kg/ac of Cut Sward in a week or 10 days time (from April 11). I find splitting the fertiliser application is better.

“Normally, we would be cutting on the last week of May; however, this year we are probably looking at the first week of June. It will all depend on the growth. That’s why I’m going with a little less nitrogen this year. Before, I’d go with 90-100 units, but this year I’m going with 85-90 units,” he explained.

Reggie normally aims for one cut of silage and makes 100-150 surplus bales. However, this year may be an exception.

Fodder supplies were exhausted approximately two weeks ago; but luckily enough Geoffrey had some spare pit silage. The Kilkenny-based farmer is also buying in some hay to stretch supplies.

“I hope to have some cattle out next week. I have a nice bit of grass around the yard here, but I normally bring the sucklers to an out-farm and there is not much grass over there at the moment,” he explained.

Calving and breeding

Calving has finished on Reggie’s farm, with most of the cows calving within a six-week period.

He said: “We had a very good calving season and no major problems. I’d often find that the season would fly until near the end of it; that’s when a few problems might raise their heads. But, I can’t complain with this season.

“Aubracs are very easy calvers. The calves are very vigorous and they would be up sucking in 10-15 minutes. They are no different than any other breed when they have freshly calved; you have to be very careful with them all,” he added.

Reggie feeds 1kg of meal to his freshly-calved cows in order to prepare them for the breeding season; minerals are also supplied at this time.

He added: “It keeps them in good condition for breeding. They come bulling very quick after; it is well worth the money. Some lads might say it’s a waste of time, but I think it’s very effective.”

The bulls run with the cows and anything that is not in calf after scanning is fattened and slaughtered.

Ration composition, feeding and factory grading

Reggie’s farm is quality assured and it has many groups of animals on it at any one time. Therefore, a number of different rations must be made up each day. These are a ‘build-up’ mix; dry cow mix; yearling mix; and a finishing mix.

“We keep all our own meal on the farm; we make a mix of three quarters barley and one quarter oats. If we can help it, we don’t buy any meal. However, at the moment we are buying meal as we ran out due to the extended winter,” he explained

“The barley and oats are treated with Maxammon; this increases the feed pH which prevents acidosis,” he added.

In addition, straw is fed to the suckler cows prior to calving; it is also included in the diet post calving. Weanlings are fed 2kg of meal at weaning to reduce stress; this occurs when animals are approximately eight months of age.

The ingredients include: water; silage; fodder beet; straw; minerals; and meal (barley and oats).

He aims to slaughter his bullocks and heifers at 24-26 months. On slaughter weights and grading, he said: “The bullocks and heifers generally fall into the U and R-category and have a fat score of 3= to 4+.”

The heifers weigh 350kg (deadweight) on average, while bullocks generally average 425kg (deadweight).

Reggie added: “The Aubracs are great cattle to convert meal and they don’t go over-fat too easy. That’s one advantage of them; they can carry the weight a lot better.”

A lot done more to do

It is very clear that Reggie runs an extremely tight ship and he puts a lot of his success down to routine management. He said: “We try and run a tight system; I know what has to be done every week and that way nothing falls through the cracks.

If you keep things in a routine, I find it’s very easy to keep control on things.

On the demise of the suckler industry in Ireland, he added: “It would be a pity if the suckler herd was to disappear; they’re great cattle.

“I do think the factories are not treating the suckler men right. They are not paying a quality price; there’s definitely more in it.

“The suckler schemes were good, but there is too much red tape with them. Anything to do with the department seems to involve red tape and a lot of paperwork.

“The factories should be paying us more for our product. They are always slow with prices; market prices may go up, but the factory prices don’t,” he explained.

On the tillage side of the business, he said: “We have winter barley and winter oats sowed. We’re lucky. We plough, one-pass and sow; we don’t do any min-till.

“We are a good bit behind; normally we would have all our spring ploughing done by Christmas. This year we have nothing at all done yet (as of April 11).

“We are ready to go and hope to get going as soon as possible. However, there is no point going at it until it is dry; if you plough down wet ground, it will be slower to dry,” he concluded.