Purchasing 180 calves from local dairy farms in Co. Kilkenny

Farming just outside Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, father-and-son duo Thomas and Peter O’Hanrahan run a dairy calf-to-beef enterprise on 230ac of grassland; an additional 12ac are in forestry.

The O’Hanrahans are participants in the second phase of the Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme.

Originally, a suckler-to-beef operation took centre-stage on the farm, with Peter working off-farm as an electrician.

However, after Peter completed a two-year stint in Teagasc’s Kildalton College, a calf-to-beef enterprise was introduced on the farm in 2014 and the sucklers were phased out.

To get the ball rolling, seven calves were purchased; this quickly increased to 20, 60, 80 and, then, 160. A target of 180 has been set for this year. All going well, 200 calves will be purchased in spring 2020.

Thomas and Peter O’Hanrahan in their newly constructed calf shed

Friesians, Aberdeen Angus and Hereford calves are purchased direct off-farm from four local dairy farmers. The aim is to finish Friesians as steers – off grass during the third grazing season – under 30 months-of-age.

The Angus and Hereford steers and heifers are killed out of the shed aged 18-24 months.

A total of 90 calves have already been sourced for the farm, with Peter hoping to purchase 90 Friesian bulls and 30 of both Angus and Hereford. In addition to these, the Kilkenny native hopes to purchase 30 Limousin calves from the dairy herd.

Purchasing the right calf

Peter puts a lot of emphasis on buying the right calf. He is a firm believer in buying direct off farms and has built up good relationships with dairy farmers in his locality.

“I’m buying calves direct from four dairy farmers. They are local farms within 10-15 minutes, so it’s easier on me and it’s easier on the calves,” Peter said.

“Having a good relationship with those farmers is great. I know what I’m getting; I know these farmers personally and I know what type of a calf I’m buying and I know what health status they are coming from.

“Another benefit is that none of the farmers push me to take calves. We work together and I can batch them in 10 or 20. Getting too many trained onto the automatic feeder in one go is not ideal.”

These relationships maximise the value of the calves to Peter and Thomas and, when they arrive on-farm, they are housed in the correct environment, provided with the correct nutrition and a vaccination programme is implemented.

The calf house

A new calf shed has been built under the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS) on the farm, which Peter designed himself.

Yorkshire boarding was installed along both sides of the unit and an outlet is located at the apex; this provides the correct ventilation.

Micro-environments were created inside the pens and these movable features work well with the 7ft walls to prevent draughts. The floors of the pens are sloped to allow run-off to channels, which flow to a slatted tank located close to the shed.

Peter beds the calves with miscanthus and straw, which provides the calves with a clean, dry lie.

“After a few days, I give them one shot of Bovilis for IBR, the first shot of Bovipast and they’ll get their booster shot in four weeks’ time. I also give them an oral dose of Bovicox for coccidia.

“They don’t travel any more than 15 minutes in transport so I don’t see the need to give them electrolytes when they arrive on-farm,” Peter said.

The calves are fed via an automatic calf feeder. He explained: “The Forester Technik Feeder is in its third season and it’s a great machine. I bucket reared 80-90 calves before and I had friends that were milking 200 cows quicker; it just didn’t make sense.

“It will cut down on labour, but it won’t rear the calves for you. However, it’s great at identifying sick calves,” he added.

The dairy farms from which Peter sources his calves feed whole milk. Therefore, they are transitioned to milk replacer and start on 4L/day, which is gradually increased to 6L/day.

They are fed 6L/day for 35 days and, from there, they are weaned over the next 18-20 days once they are eating at least 1kg of flaked maize and calf pencils. All going well, calves will be let out to grass after weaning.

Concentrating on the grazing platform

Peter and Teagasc Green Acres advisor Sean Cummins have recently soil sampled the entire farm.

When these samples come back, both Sean and local Teagasc advisor Mark Slattery will work with Peter on improving soil fertility and grass utilisation.

A paddock system is implemented on the farm; however, some of the larger paddocks will be split with temporary and permanent fencing.

Water troughs will also be rearranged to suit this system and some smaller roadways will be installed to access paddocks.

Recently, Peter has reseeded all of his silage ground and now he intends to focus on reseeding a lot of the grazing ground over the next three years – targeting the worst-performing paddocks first.

The Kilkenny-based farmer will also use grass measuring as a tool to make better use of this resource.

Store and finishing cattle

Along with the new calf house, a new slatted unit was also constructed under TAMS.

The five-bay unit contains 26ft-wide pens and double slatted tanks are located either side of the feed passage; vent sheeting and space sheeting on the roof aid ventilation.

Store cattle are housed here during the winter months and are fed a silage-only diet. When tested, last year’s silage came back at 76% dry matter digestibility (DMD), thus lowering winter feed costs.

A weighing scales was also purchased recently to help make better management decisions. Friesian bullocks  – weighing 610kg on average – will be let out to pasture to be finished off grass in the near future.

Peter has been drafting Angus and Hereford steers and heifers as they come fit over recent months. These finishing cattle are fed silage and a high-energy beef nut.

“The Angus and Herefords are coming in that little bit quicker; this helps with cashflow. They’re coming fit at the time I’m buying my calves which helps,” he added.

The Green Acres Programme goal

Commenting on the Teagasc Green Acres Programme, he said: “In three years’ time I’d like to be killing 200 cattle and have a good grazing platform set up and paddock system in place. I want to push this farm on to its potential and get the stocking rate up.

“Throughout the programme, I will be dealing with and meeting other farmers and advisors. In this game, every bit of information helps; anything that will improve the system is worth having a go at.

“It’s a great help being in partnership with my father. With two men, it makes things a lot easier when we’re getting into big numbers,” he concluded.