Top of the agenda in Co. Westmeath: Purchasing calves and focusing on grass

Farming in Mount Temple, Moate, Co. Westmeath, Irvine Allen has been running a dairy calf-to-beef operation for the past eight years and is one of the many new participants in the second phase of the Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme.

Originally, the farm was home to a suckler-to-beef operation which had been built up to a herd of 50 cows and their followers.

However, due to diminishing returns, Irvine began to rear and finish calves – sourced from dairy farms – in conjunction with a scaled-back suckler enterprise.

Today, the calf-to-beef enterprise takes centre stage on the farm and the suckler cows were phased out four years ago.

“The calves work better on the farm and we can carry higher numbers; we finish more cattle each year,” Irvine explained.

In 2018, a year which Irvine admitted was “trying”, 90 calves were reared on the farm. This year, with the help of Teagasc’s dedicated programme advisor David Argue, Irvine is hoping to increase this number to 120 calves.

Irvine runs the farm along with his father Pat and two young sons, Matthew and Evan.

The grazing platform encompasses approximately 140ac – consisting of both owned and rented land.

Irvine purchases Aberdeen Angus and Hereford calves direct from dairy farms; some Friesian calves are also bought to be reared on the farm – especially in the autumn.

The aim is that these calves – both steers and heifers (approximately 50:50) – will be finished at 20-24 months-of-age.

Irvine’s goal is to send a steady supply of cattle to the factory – where possible – in order to boost cashflow; he also intends to target times when factory prices are generally higher.

Calves

There are currently 35 calves being reared on the farm. These calves were vaccinated for pneumonia and IBR on arrival and fed milk replacer.

Initially, milk replacer was fed at a rate of 4L/day for the first 5-7 days and 6L/day thereafter – through an automatic feeder. This system was installed on the farm three years ago.

The calves were weighed last week – something which Irvine implements regularly – with all except five starting the weaning process. Another 30-35 calves (aged three weeks and over) are set to be sourced for the farm in mid-February.

After the changeable temperatures in 2017/2018, heat lamps were installed last autumn in the calf house. These have made a “great difference” when it comes to managing the calves in the 3-4 weeks after they arrive on the farm, Irvine said.

Commenting on the feeding system, he said: “The feed curve is something we want to look at. I have calves that are on an 84-day feed curve; however, a lot of them are already at 90kg after just 60-70 days.

“So, we want to cut 10 days off that. We want to get them to 85kg, despite age. 84 days is a little long and it’s taking extra milk replacer. If we can reduce 6-8kg of milk replacer fed, it’s a saving on cost,” he added.

Crunch is available at all times in front of the calves, with a clean supply of fresh water. The intention is to have all calves eating 1.5kg/day at weaning.

Feeding and grass

On the home block, a paddock system is implemented with a good water system in place. These paddocks will be split up further with temporary wires in an effort to manage grass better.

Soil samples have just been taken on the farm. When the results are back, the first port of call is to address any pH issues, followed by correcting phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) levels over the coming years.

In addition, Irvine has sown Redstart for the last two years. A total of 10ac of this crop was sown on August 12, 2018 and weanlings have been out-wintered in this paddock over the past number of months. These weanlings are also fed silage, 1kg of a high-maize ration and 3kg of beet.

“I target Redstart for under-performing paddocks. I can sow in the back-end and that paddock is earmarked for reseeding the following year.

“Sowing Redstart is a more efficient way of reseeding on the farm. I have plenty of soil to work with in the springtime when sowing grass seed; this is a big help with the stony soil in this area,” Irvine added.

Irvine made use of the good weather when the slurry ban was lifted and targeted paddocks with low grass covers; he hopes to have some lighter stock out to grass by March 1 – weather depending.

The Westmeath man is focused on making top-quality silage this year. He is aiming to have the fields that are earmarked for silage closed by mid-March and ready to harvest early-to-mid May.

Stores and finishing stock

The store steers and heifers are still housed on the farm and are also being fed silage, 1kg of a high-maize ration and 3kg of beet. The weight of these animals ranges from 430-500kg, with an average weight of 467kg.

These 2018 spring-born cattle will be finished off grass around June, aged approximately 25-27 months.

“I keep some of the spring-born cattle back so I have some cattle fit for slaughter in May or June when there often can be a lift in beef prices,” he explained.

The finishing stock are coming close to slaughter and animals are drafted as they become fit. The average age of these animals will be 22-23 months. However, recently-slaughtered heifers were killed aged 20-21 months.

The finishing diet includes: ration; silage; minerals; beet; and straw.

“I started using beet last year. With the beet and less meal, I find I can get the cattle into better carcass weight without them getting over fat.”

Finishing diet:
  • 5kg of high-maize ration;
  • Minerals;
  • 8kg beet;
  • 0.5kg straw;
  • Silage.

Green Acres

Commenting on the Teagasc Green Acres Programme, he said: “I suppose the reason I went for the programme was to improve on my grass management skills; I’d like to learn more about it and improve it.

“This will allow me to make better decisions and – naturally – I want to increase my margin. I also want to put a plan in place and get a good system up and running.”

In terms of infrastructure, the farm is well set up. However, Irvine hopes to build a dedicated calf-rearing shed, which would free up other facilities.

He also commented on the new Dairy Beef Index (DBI).

“If dairy farmers were willing to use better beef index bulls, I would be definitely interested in working with them to increase carcass weight.”

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