How much money can be saved from an early turnout on beef farms?

Every blade of grass that an animal eats represents a saving on winter feed costs and will have a positive impact on its liveweight gain. Grazed grass is the cheapest feed and suckler farmers must maximise the length of the grazing system.

Furthermore, spreading urea early in spring (weather permitting) will not only increase grass growth, but will also improve the quality of the sward and help the pasture to recover after turnout.

Storm Emma and the recent heavy snow may have pushed the idea of turnout to the back of farmers’ minds. However, planned grazing is important and farmers – where possible – should allocate grass on the drier parts of the farm.

Farmers must ensure that the first rotation will last until the growth equals demand on the farm. However, this is no easy task. The biggest challenge is getting all grass grazed when ground and weather conditions remain problematic.

Speaking at the Northern Ireland Beef Expo at Dungannon Mart recently, Dr. Francis Lively – a beef scientist at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) – outlined that grass represents the cheapest feedstuff available to cattle and the correct use of grass in beef production systems can improve overall profit margins.

“Last year, the average growth of grass on beef farms in Northern Ireland was 4.1t. An increase of 1t/ha can increase the margin by £116/ha (€131/ha).

“In addition to increasing the amount of grass grown, if we also increase the quality then the margin can be increased to £218/ha (€247/ha),” he explained.

In terms of how this can be achieved, he said: “If we increase the amount of grass we grow, we can keep more cattle per hectare. Increasing grass growth by 25% allows us to increase our stocking rate by 20%.”

Early turn out to grass

There is considerable evidence to indicate the economic benefits of an early turnout. However, this requires strategic planning and management.

The alternative is a late turnout; leading to higher grass covers, which require high stocking rates to utilise grass efficiently. With the unpredictable weather we are experiencing at the moment, if ground conditions were to worsen, then grass utilisation and animal performance will suffer.

To facilitate an early turnout:
  • Keep group size small;
  • Subdivide paddocks into smaller blocks;
  • Move cattle daily to avoid poaching in wet weather.

Research from AFBI has found that turning out continental-sired forward steers (>425kg) in mid-March (destined for slaughter in August) – rather than early May – resulted in the early group producing 23kg more carcass weight per head.

If we take the average price paid (404c/kg) for R+3= steers in August 2017 , that’s an extra €92/head. Looking at prices achieved in Northern Ireland and the UK, R4 steers made 382p/kg in August 2017. That’s an extra £87.80/head.

“I would really encourage farmers to get cattle out as early as possible. At the moment, there are store cattle turned out in the counties of Fermanagh, Antrim and Down. You don’t need huge volumes of grass to get cattle turned out early,” Francis concluded.