Grazed grass is the cheapest source of energy for cattle and every blade that an animal eats represents a saving on feed costs and will have a positive impact on its liveweight gain.

Dairy calf-to-beef systems implementing high levels of grassland management – and maximising the length of the grazing season – have been shown to improve animal performance.

While the length of the grazing season is dependent on both farm location and weather conditions, there is scope for a grazing season ranging from 250 to 300 days across the country.

This is exactly what Shane Cranny – a participant in the Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme – is striving to achieve.

His farm stretches across 32ha of grassland, with a stocking rate of 2.15LU/ha and, in 2018, the net margin stood at €423/ha.

Farm background

A recent graduate of the Teagasc Green Cert Programme, the Carlow-based farmer operates a dairy calf-to-beef operation alongside a herd of 13 suckler cows and their followers.

Originally, Shane – who also works two days per week in a local livestock mart – operated a dairy calf-to-store enterprise, purchasing 50 spring-born Friesian bull calves annually, selling these as steers in his local mart.

In 2018, he made the switch to autumn-born calves and a mixture of 50 Friesian, Hereford and Fleckvieh bulls were purchased direct from dairy farmers; these are targeted for steer beef at 22-24 months-of-age.

All calves were vaccinated against pneumonia and weaned once eating 2kg of concentrate.

In an effort to boost cash-flow, a number of Friesian bulls – along with the male calves from the suckler herd – will be finished as young bulls during the summer period.

What inhibited Shane from finishing stock in previous years was the lack of winter accommodation.

However, a five-bay slatted house with a 20ft slurry tank and 10 pens (capacity for 80 weanlings) will be constructed this year on the back of a successful pending planning permission application.

Early grazing

Dairy calf-to-beef systems must be focused on utilising early spring grass to achieve higher animal performance and reduce concentrate use.

These systems are in a good position to start grazing early in the spring, as yearlings are relatively light minimising sward damage.

On Shane’s farm, three mobs of cattle graze rotationally on the platform – the autumn-born calves (50), Friesian yearlings (50) and the suckler cows and calves (26).

The majority of Shane’s farm is dry which provides the perfect opportunity to turn out cattle early in the year. Good grazing infrastructure, in the form of paddocks, roadways and a water system, complements this process; Shane also spreads half a bag of urea/ac in January.

By getting cattle out, the proportion of grass in the diet is maximised and sward quality is improved.

The autumn-born calves were turned out to pasture – by day – in mid-February and these calves were out full-time by mid-March.

The group of yearling cattle went out in early February, but were turned back in when grazing conditions deteriorated in early March; all cattle were grazing full-time by March 17.

Grass measuring

Shane started to grass measure in February and has completed 13 farm walks. Equipped with a plate meter, the Carlow man walks the farm – on a weekly basis – taking 40 drops per paddock and recording the opening and closing heights.

This data is then uploaded to the PastureBase Ireland app, which automatically calculates the kg DM/ha in each of the paddocks on the grazing platform.

From grass budgeting, Shane can identify when growth will exceed demand – requiring paddocks to be skipped and removed as high-quality silage.

“The main benefit so far is getting out and walking the farm every week; it’s a great way of getting out and seeing what is going on,” he said.

“Grass growth has been slow this year, so I’m only seeing the benefits in the last three weeks where paddocks are starting to get strong.”

Commenting on the PastureBase Ireland app, he said: “The big thing with the PastureBase app is you can put in what fertiliser was spread on different paddocks and it keeps track of it.

“Following the grass wedge is very handy just to give you an idea of how growth and demand is going,” he added.

Current situation

The latest farm cover was measured on May 7. As mentioned above, three mobs of cattle graze rotationally on the platform – the autumn-born calves (50), Friesian yearlings (50) and the suckler cows and calves (26).

This leaves demand on the farm at 45kg DM/ha/day and the average farm cover (AFC) stands at 573kg DM/ha.

While growth has varied in recent weeks, growth has now surpassed demand and stands at 58kg DM/ha, with days ahead at 13.

Current grazing situation:
  • Grazing area (ha): 25.7;
  • Average farm cover (kg DM/ha): 573;
  • Growth (kg DM/ha/day): 58;
  • Demand (kg DM/ha/day): 45;
  • Days ahead: 13.

In addition, silage ground (6.3ha) received two bags/ac of 0-7-30 and three bags/ac of 26-0-0+5S and was closed up by mid-April – a touch later than target.

He normally aims to cut silage in late May. However, due to the later closing date, this year first-cut silage will be harvested in early June.

Paddocks, once exceeding their target grazing yield (1,200-1,400 kg DM/ha), will be taken out as early as possible and not allowed to bulk up – as this would reduce their re-growth capacity, creating the risk of a grass deficit later.

However, paddock 1 (C and D) with covers of over 2,000kg DM/ha will not be harvested as bales. The decision has been made to graze these using a strip wire – allocating fresh grass everyday, as re-growths on the recently grazed paddocks are not strong enough.

Soil samples have indicated that the majority of the farm is index 1 and 2 for phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), with one paddock coming in at index 1 for P.

In terms of fertiliser, two bags/ac of 10-10-20 are applied post-grazing on paddocks requiring P and one bag/ac of Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) is applied on those not requiring P, as set out under a nutrient management plan.

On the back of the soil sample results, approximately 25ac were in need of lime; this has received 2t/ac.

Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef: Why?

Commenting on why he joined the programme, Shane said: “After first seeing that the programme was going to be launched on AgriLand, I asked my local Teagasc advisor Hugh Mahon and he put my name forward for it and it went from there.

“I joined it for some guidance if nothing else; I want to push ahead on grassland management and stocking. I want to push on and finish cattle.”

Already making strides when it comes to his grazing platform, Shane aims to make further improvements in soil fertility and weed management.