Ben Sweeney farms 138ha in Enfield, Co. Meath. The farm consists of a herd of 25 suckler cows and there are 200 Friesian bull calves reared and finished on the farm each year.
Sweeney’s farm is one of 10 farms involved in the Teagasc Green Acres programme, which aims to demonstrate the best practice in bringing purchased dairy calves to beef.
The majority of the calves on the farm are finished as bulls at 18-to-20 months of age, but the late spring-born calves are finished as steers at 26-to-30 months.
Speaking at a recent farm walk on the Sweeney’s farm, co-ordinator of the programme Gordon Peppard said there are a number of risks associated with dairy bull finishing systems.
Farmers must have a market for these animals before you enter this system of production.
“It is critically important that anyone intending to produce bulls at this age should talk to their factory agent in order to ensure that they have an outlet for this type of animal”, he said.
Ben Sweeney also discussed how a drop in beef price and an unwillingness by factories to slaughter bulls over 16 months of age has affected his business.
“At €4/kg Friesian bulls are a very profitable enterprise, but there is a lot of uncertainty in this system as the price can fluctuate from year to year.
“The last batch of Friesian bulls I sold made €3.70/kg. The price is back 55c/kg on the same time last year.
That’s a value difference of €120 per head.
However, despite the risks associated with the bull system, Sweeney said that this enterprise suits his farm, especially for the autumn-born calves, which are capable of eating a lot of grass at turn out.
At housing, the bulls are finished over a period of 100 days on a diet that is made up of ad-lib concentrates and silage.
He also finishes a number of Friesian steers and these animals tend to be the later spring-born calves.
One of the key advantages of this system is that these animals require very low levels of inputs, he said, but the numbers passing through are smaller due to a lower stocking rate.
Along with the Friesian males, he also finishes all of the cattle from his suckler herd and over the past number of years he has purchased store Hereford heifers to finish at 24 months of age.
Sweeney said that he will have to think long and hard about finishing these stores in the future, as it is very difficult to generate a return from these animals.
Peppard said that the calves on the farm are reared using a number of different methods, with around 120 calves reared on a Volac automatic feeder and the remaining 30 reared on teat feeders.
In order to make maximum use of the automatic feeder, a number of batches are reared throughout the year, with one batch reared before Christmas and generally two batches reared in the spring.
There were also 50 calves contract reared off-farm in the spring of 2015, with these calves returning to the farm and turned out to grass at 10-12 weeks of age.
Sweeney said that out-sourcing the rearing of the bull calves was important for his business as he would not have enough shed space to rear these calves on his own farm.
He also said that another important aspect of the contract rearing arrangement is that the calf returns to the farm at a similar cost to the calves he rears himself.
The Meath-based farmer also said that he aims to purchase the calves on to the farm at around €120 each, as the cost of the calf has a big impact on the final profitability of the system.
The first calves bought this spring cost €160-165 each, but in the next couple of months I hope to get similar calves for €110-120 each.
Getting gains from grass
Over the next couple of years, Sweeney said that he hopes to increase the amount of weight the animals gain at grass, as this is the cheapest source of feed available on the farm.
He plans to grow and utilise more grass on farm by installing a paddock system, addressing soil fertility issues and reseeding under-performing paddocks.
Presently, the farm grows maize silage as a winter feed, but due to the expense associated with growing this crop he plans to stop growing it and replace it with good quality grass silage.