‘I’ve done it all and I can’t make a penny’ – top performing suckler farmer

Ger Dineen is an award-winning suckler farmer based in Kilnamartyra, Co. Cork, where he operates a 53-unit suckler herd on 31ha of grassland – with an additional 12ha of poorer ground planted.

He is widely known for the extraordinary results he has achieved through his suckler-to-beef system – a 20-year journey that has culminated in Ger’s on-farm efficiencies being recognised in the top one percent in the country.

Over the course of the last decade in particular, Ger says his commitment to grassland management and breeding transformed his holding from a loss-making enterprise into a profitable one.

At the height of his bull-beef success, the former participant in the Teagasc Better Farm Beef Programme, says the farm’s gross margin increased significantly from between €576/ha in 2012 to €1,471/ha in 2014 to a steady €1,800/ha in 2015.

He won the Teagasc Grass10 Grassland Farmer of the Year title in 2017 after growing more than 14t of DM (dry matter)/ha.

He has developed a slick system where he finishes all his bulls under-16 months and sells surplus heifers for breeding – all with exceptional maternal traits.

To give a flavour of the level he’s at, Ger’s 53 suckler cows have a Replacement Index figure of €142, with +24kg for carcass weight and +9.3kg for daughter milk, leading to excellent progeny performance.

Over the years many leading figures within the agricultural sector have walked Ger’s farm including: Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed; Gerry Boyle director of Teagasc; and many leading representatives of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and Bord Bia.

They all walk away with the same message: Ger’s farm is “the poster system” for a sustainable, viable, economical suckler enterprise.

But right now, not too many would choose to walk in his shoes.

Having recently completed his 2018 eProfit Monitor, Ger tells AgriLand that all his hard work appears to have been “a waste of time” – a sentiment that will resonate with thousands of Irish beef farmers that have spent weeks airing their grievances and fury over stagnant beef prices and industry-spec requirements.

This is his story.

“I’m suckling for 30 years now; but in the last 10 years I’ve probably made most of my gains.

“I do a lot of things here that most people don’t do, my cows are like toppers, that’s how I treat them, that’s what I’ve learned over the years.

“I feed no ration. If you have good graze and good mothers, you can get a huge amount of gain without giving any ration, just on milk, genetics and good graze.

“Everything on my farm is based on good grass, it’s the cheapest thing and it took me a long, long time to realise that.

With two thirds of Ger’s farm situated on dry ground and a third heavy earth, he says he makes an additional €900/week by having his cattle out in February and November simply by block grazing with a strip wire and moving his cattle every 12 hours.

“I do all the things that people should do, I have my pH right, I use all the new varieties, I reseed about 10-12% of my farm every year.

“The more grass you have the cheaper it is to produce. I strip graze so I’m out in February, I have roadways everywhere, roadways are the big thing – there should be grants for roadways, not sheds, because you want the cattle out in fields, not inside.

“The cost of silage compared to the cost of turning an animal out is massive – it’s €0.30/day to graze grass but if I had my weanlings inside for a long time the costs would be well over €2.00/day.

However, he acknowledges that location-wise he’s got an edge over those at sucklers in most other provinces.

“We can grow grass nearly the whole winter here. I come off in December and I can have huge amounts of grass again. I measure grass too, so that helps to keep the cost of production low,” he said.

Ger also says the farm has made an additional €10,000 on average every year due to his focus on compact calving.

“Everything calves in February and March. Everything is calved in eight weeks and everything is bulled in eight weeks – that’s giving me €10,000 extra every year when my herd is compared to the national average of calves per cow.

“I separate the cows and calves 30 days after calving. I have about a 20% replacement rate, so if you have plenty of heifers coming in you can cull,” he said.

He says he had no choice but to embrace AI a number of years ago as he was struggling to find top-performing bulls.

“There are very few fellas using all AI in their herd, but I am. Then again, I’m also based down south which is a huge advantage.

“I breed all maternal, if you look at my stats the one thing that pops out is the kgs growth and the kgs of milk.

“My average index value is €142, carcass kg is +24, the daughter’s milk is +9.3, so all my bulls have to be over 10kgs of milk – I won’t accept any bull less than that.

“The daughter’s calving interval figure is -0.62, they calf less than 365 days in the year. So you bring that on down,” he said.

Today, Ger is using almost all Angus and Fleckvieh bulls – previously he relied on Simmental and Limousin – he’s also a big fan of the Saler breed.

He travels all over Europe looking for bulls and, in exceptional circumstances, will pay up to €26/straw. But on average he spends about €12/straw. He used a team of 10 different bulls on his cows last year.

He admits it has been a long and winding road to reach his efficiency targets.

“My big problem with AI is how do you compact calve? I noticed every year your cow would slip a week, so you could be calving in February one year and the next year you are calving in March, then April.

“If you look at the stats I’d say people are calving six or seven months of the year – you’re constantly on the go with calving.

“I’m doing AI over 20 years now and it’s only really making progress for me in the last five or six years.

“The progress has been made because of the ICBF. In my view the best thing that ever happened was for the ICBF to be formed.

“The best cow in my herd, I have her for 10 or 12 calves, and I see what bull is going well on her. I will keep that, and if that bred well, then I would breed off that calf again. So that system gives me a foundation stock to drive on from and it’s working.

“I’m bringing the weight of my cows down, I have some very big cows; but they are gradually getting smaller.

“What I found out from all this weighing is my best cow last year, a heifer, had a calf that was 68% of the weight of the cow – they say if you get over 50% it’s brilliant.

The heifer was just 610kgs and her calf was 400kg – or slightly over.

“I have a variation between 35% of the body weight of the cow up to 68% – but she was exceptional and she was a heifer.

“If I got an average of 50% I’d be delighted,” said Ger who also genotypes his calves and weighs them twice annually.

And so, after putting in all the hard yards, Ger has proven that he can get his grass right and get his breeding right – but the big problem now is he can’t get the return.

See Ger’s cost of production for 2018 and 2017 below:

“It was all working for me up until this year.

“My profit monitor shows that in 2018 it cost me €4.13 to produce a kg of beef, in 2017 it cost €3.60 to produce a kg – granted it was a better year.”

After including labour costs – set at a minimum wage of €9.55/hr and recorded for 50 hours a week – these production costs increase to €5.37/kg in 2018 and €5.07/kg in 2017.

[Ger settled on 50 hours / week as he has an outside farm some miles away.]

The calculations do not include his single farm payment and other payments because, he says, if he decided to lease his farm out he would “get more income from leasing it out than what I’m getting from the Department of Agriculture”.

“At the end of the day, we have to get paid for the hours we work on the farm, otherwise no intelligent young person will continue farming,” said Ger.

In any case, he describes it as an unsustainable reality at current beef prices.

I am as efficient as anyone in the country – my calves are efficient, I’m hitting my carcass weights, I’m in the top 1% in the country for efficiency, but I can’t cover my costs.

“To breed the next crop of bulls the breeders in Ireland have to be looked after, if cattle price is on the floor no-one is going to do anything.

“Why would you breed these extra good cattle if you’re still going to get an ordinary price. The price right now is €3.50/kg that is just shocking.

“When I’m not making money, and I’m as efficient as anyone could be, I really wonder how the rest are surviving. Everything I’m doing here is a waste of time at the moment.

“Where is it going? The dairy farmers won’t be able to sell their calves, the co-ops and all the big mills are going to go bust because no one is going to buy ration.

“People are going to sell their cows, there is going to be a massive cull of suckler cows and that will put a close on the whole thing – so what do we do?” he asks.

He said beef and suckler farmers on the ground have no interest in talking about efficiencies or sustainability when they can’t even afford to buy seed.

“I think the Government and Minister Michael Creed have their heads in the sand. They expect us to give the cattle for nothing, at a loss of €150/head on last year when the cost of production is going up.

“I have listened to all the Teagasc advice, I’ve followed ICBF, I’ve had the minister on my farm, I’ve done it all and I can’t make a penny.

“The harsh reality is every animal on my farm is losing money, so the more animals you have the more money you lose. I’m doing all this work for nothing.

He says farmers are being treated “with total disrespect” by meat processors and retailers.

“Farmers have no trust at all in the factories at the moment, they don’t trust the weights, the grading, the trim, the fifth quarter and what they are getting out of it.

“They have factory-controlled feedlots where they buy huge amounts of animals and they can call on them whenever they want. And the by-product from the dairy herd is having a savage impact,” he says.

Reluctantly, Ger says all the meticulously recorded cost-of-production calculations that he documented over 2017 and 2018 now looks more like “a loss monitor” than “a profit monitor”.

Despite living in the heart of dairy country, he has no intention of going milking.

“I don’t want to go dairying because my farm is fragmented and unsuitable to go dairy farming, I have no other options but to continue or lease out my farm.

“I see loads of fellas milking and they are doubling cow numbers, but that’s doubling your work.

“My strategy for the future would be have less cattle, have more efficient cattle, and I think farmers should be paid on how efficient they are.

“Breeding good quality cattle should be rewarded,” he said.

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