Calf rearing is all but complete on the farms enrolled in the Teagasc Green Acres Programme. Now is an opportune time to identify and isolate any problems that may have occurred in terms of calf illnesses or mortality.
Too often complicated solutions are entrusted to solve problems; often ignoring the cause and leaving it unresolved going forward.
A lot changes in the world we live in and the past 14 months have been a perfect example of that; but when problems occur, if the required change is not implemented, the problem – more often than not – is likely to reoccur.
More calves are now being sourced directly off farm, with calf purchases across the 12 farms enrolled moving from an average of 94 calves from 10 herds in 2019 to 110 calves from six herds this year.
One farmer who has implemented a change of tactics when it comes to purchasing calves is Limerick-based farmer Ciaran Bartley.
In the spring of 2019, a total of 148 calves were sourced from 37 herds. This spring, 165 calves have been sourced from five different herds, while 150 calves were sourced from three herds in 2020.
The change in calf buying strategy at farm level is already delivering improvements.
Calf buying: Risk and reward
Although the simplest and labour extensive solution may be to leave purchasing decisions to a third party, the risk and reward of such a strategy must be examined.
Do you know the herd from which these calves have been purchased? Has the calf received adequate quantities of colostrum? Are you aware of the herd health protocol or vaccination strategy being implemented at the herd of origin? Has the calf been in contact with animals from other herds prior to arriving on your farm? How far has the calf travelled before ultimately arriving at your farm?
If the answer to any of these questions is unknown and repeated health problems are occurring, a rethink may be required in the way in which calves are sourced.
Reduced calf mortality
Where issues with calf health occur, there’s not only the cost associated with lost animals or additional veterinary outlays to account for, but the hidden costs of reduced animal performance must also be examined.
Leading into the spring of 2020, Ciaran made the decision to change the way in which calves where being purchased. A focus was placed on buying calves directly off dairy farms, after health issues occurred in the spring of 2019 and springs prior to this.
Although a simple solution, this move is starting to pay dividends in Co. Limerick. Calf mortality up to mid-May for 2021-born calves is resting at 1.2%, with 163 of the 165 calves purchased weaned and currently at grass.
Mortality for the calves purchased in the spring of 2020 was 0.7% up to 462 days, the time of writing, with just one animal lost as a weaning over the winter months and zero lost during the calf rearing stage.
To put this improvement into context, 148 calves were purchased on the farm in the spring of 2019. Of these animals, just 141 were sold or are still available to sell on farm, resulting in a mortality rate for 2019-born animals of 4.7%, with the majority of this occurring before animals reached one year of age.
Although the costs associated with calf losses and additional veterinary intervention are clear to see, the hidden cost of illness or disease in terms of reduced animal thrive must also be accounted for.
Even though Ciaran has been implementing a stringent vaccination protocol for pneumonia, IBR and clostridial diseases for numerous years, the farm suffered a disease breakdown in the spring of 2019 with H. somni pneumonia.
And, along with costs associated with calf losses, the animals which survived and were most severely impacted achieved reduced levels of liveweight gain.
Up to the point of housing in November 2019, the worst-affected animals had achieved a daily live weight gain since birth of just 0.67kg/day, whereas the animals which weren’t as severely affected gained 0.77kg/day since birth.
To put this into context, it meant that these weanlings were 28kg lighter at the time of housing than their counterpart animals, which escaped the worst of the disease outbreak.
By reducing the herds from which calves are purchased, Ciaran is negating the risk of bringing in unwanted pathogens or illnesses into the farm.
This approach is starting to pay dividends in terms of reduced mortality rates, improved animal health and the reduced requirement for veterinary interventions.
On account of the heavy nature of Ciaran’s farm and the somewhat limited ability to increase stock numbers, a firm focus has been placed on improving efficiency at farm level – most notably animal performance and silage quality.
As the late autumn and early spring period on the farm can be challenging, a top-quality source of feed is always required in the yard to ensure animals continue to perform if conditions deteriorate rapidly and housing is required.
Excluding subsidies, the farm generated a net margin of €349/ha in 2020, up €87/ha on 2019 and €256/ha on 2018.
The large majority of this increase in profitability is coming from improvements in efficiency at farm level, combined with increases in the overall gross output on the farm.
Prior to joining the Teagasc Green Acres Programme, the farm recorded a gross output of €1,482/ha or 955kg liveweight/ha in 2018.
On account of improvements to animal performance and less losses, this climbed to €1,751/ha or 1,033kg/ha in 2020.
On a livestock unit basis, the farm has moved from an output of 516kg/LU in 2018 to 562kg/LU in 2020 – an increase of 46kg/LU, all coming from healthier and better performing animals.
In addition, on account of the farm becoming more efficient and hitting the desired weight gain targets, spending on variable costs as a percentage of gross output has also moved downwards – from 55% in 2018 to 51% in 2020.
Year 2020 2021 (Projected) Gross output (LW kg/ha) 1,033 1,096 Sales (€/ha) 1,852 2,110 Purchases (€/ha) 175 193 Net inventory change (€/ha) +73 +214 Gross output (€/ha) 1,751 2,130 Variable costs (€/ha) 900 1,087 Variable costs (% of gross output) 51 51 Gross margin 851 1,043 Fixed costs 502 540 Net Margin 349 503
The year ahead
Over the coming year, Ciaran’s farm is expected to reach the €500/ha net margin target (excluding subsidies).
Although purchases (€/ha) have increased in the spring of 2020, the additional performance being achieved at farm level will more than compensate in the form of heavier carcasses at sale time.
A climb in gross output on the farm is also expected, rising by an estimated €379/ha. This figure encompasses a net inventory change of +€214/ha.
This is the estimated value of the extra livestock that are being built up on the farm and this calculation is used in all Teagasc eProfit Monitors and all tax accounts.
This figure is arising for two reasons. Firstly, as the calf rearing season in 2020 was successful there will be more 1-2 year old animals available to carry to beef at 24 months this back end.
In addition, an extra 15 calves were purchased in the spring of 2021, increasing the closing stock of 0-1 year animals on the farm this year.
Although a variable cost to gross output target of 50% has been set for many of the farms in the programme, reducing below the 51% achieved in 2020 may be challenging.
Not only is Ciaran farming on one of the most challenging farms in the programme in terms of soil type, an extensive liming programme is underway this year – with 120t spread to date this year.
Additionally, fixed costs are expected to rise marginally on the farm for the year ahead on account of the construction of an additional slurry store and other necessary repairs, maintenance and fencing