Over 500 farmers attended the Newford Suckler Demonstration farm open day last Tuesday.

The herd was set up in 2015, with a view to demonstrate best practice when it comes to suckler farming in the west of Ireland.

The herd was criticised at the start of the project for not being replicable of farming systems in the west of Ireland, since most suckler farms in the west are farming on a much more difficult soil type than that of the land around Athenry.

The cow type being used, an Aberdeen Angus and Hereford-cross from a dairy cow is also alien to what many farmers use as their cow-type choice.

Teagasc and Dawn Meats stuck with the blueprint and eight years later, the farm is performing really well from a technical point of view.

The main Newford block is growing almost 14 t/ha of grass – no mean feat on any farm in the west of Ireland.

Financial performance

The 2022 financial performance is outlined in Table 1.

For all farms, 2022 was an exceptional year, with heavier-stocked farms like Newford particularly exposed to huge increases in feed and fertiliser costs.

This is evident in the disappointing ‘gross margin’ figure of €596/ha.

Delving deeper into fixed costs shows the even more worrying scenario of a €11,240 loss before any support payments are included. This is without including a land charge, which is common and uses the scenario where land is owned.

There is €12,000 included for hired labour, but no cost is included for the farm manager on Newford.

If the farm was owned, the farm owner still has to live, so a cost should be included. If a figure of €25,000 was included, which would be below the minimum wage for the hours required, this would bring the loss to over €36,000 before supports are included.

If we add a ‘single farm payment’ to the bottom line at €250/ha (€17,750) and the €19,040 in supports, it takes things back to zero.

Is it acceptable to think a 100-cow suckler on 175ac would deliver a €25,000 return for labour to the farm owner?

The sad reality is that joining ACRES, going organic and reducing cow numbers by 50% would deliver a better financial outcome for the Newford project.

The project is a perfect example of nothing being left inside the farm gate to improve. Technically, the management is top-class, but staying on the current path of production means a 50c/kg increase in average beef price or more supports are needed.

Finishing performance

Table 2 outlines the finishing performance of the 2021-born progeny from the farm slaughter in 2022.

A younger slaughter-age is top of the agenda for the industry, which the Newford project demonstrates can be done.

Heifers off grass at 296kg/carcase and steers going out at 355kg/carcase also means that cattle being produced are prime in-spec animals.

Grading is as you might expect from a dairy cross and hovering around base price at an R=R- consistently over the last number of years.

A number of suckler farmers commented to me at the open day, why go to the trouble of keeping a suckler cow to produce a carcase at 296kg? It’s a valid point.

With better genetics and the right management, Aberdeen Angus or Hereford cattle from the dairy herd will deliver almost similar weights and carcase grades, with the added breed bonuses of between 15 to 30c/kg.

The sad reality is that joining ACRES, going organic and reducing cow numbers by 50% would deliver a better financial outcome for the Newford project

The vast majority of suckler farms in the west of Ireland have continental genetics and it would be great to see if the same slaughter performance could be achieved from this type of system.

In 2021, the heifers were housed at Newford on 7 December and turned back out on 20 January.

In terms of relatability, this shows there is potential for farmers on drier lands to exploit grass more but is far removed from what happens on a lot of farms in the west of Ireland and as such the project has to be careful not to stray too far from what is reality on a lot of farms, especially in the west.

Breeding performance

The herd’s breeding performance has been exceptional. The combination of top-class management coupled with a very fertile cow has meant breeding targets are being consistently hit.

The herd has a replacement index of €139 compared to the national average of €88. In 2023, the calving interval stood at 364 days with .99 calves/cow a year. Most cows were calved in six weeks on the farm.

The 2021 born steers on Newford farm average 355kg carcass at 21 months and came into €1786/head (€5.03/kg). \ Claire Nash

The cows are ticking a lot of boxes with a 51% weaning efficiency rate and 9% empty rate in 2022. The average 200-day weight on Newford was 315kg in 2022, 40kg ahead of the national average. All this, while using 100% AI on the herd, is exceptional performance and credit must go to Stephen Frend.

The replacement policy continues to generate debate among farmers at the open day, indicating the female progeny from the first cross-cow would be more a suckler-type cow and should be looked at in terms of bringing them into the herd.

The project sources replacement Aberdeen Angus and Hereford heifers from dairy farms with no Jersey breeding.