BETTER Farm: improving quality while expanding the herd
As cow numbers jumped from 83 to 115 in five years, the Joe and Harry Lalor's herd replacement index has also improved significantly.

Joe and Harry Lalor are farming full-time on their family farm just outside Ballacolla, Co Laois.

They are the county’s representatives in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge.

The farm's system consists of a 115-cow spring-calving suckler herd and a mid-season lambing flock of 225 ewes and 90 ewe lambs.

Eighty-two hectares of mainly free-draining grassland are apportioned to the cattle enterprise. A further 30ha are for the sheep.

All cattle on the farm are finished. What would have traditionally been a steer-beef farm has transitioned to a bull-beef farm.

Heifers are also slaughtered from 20 to 24 months.

Progress

In 2014, the herd consisted of only 83 cows. That’s a 30-cow increase in five years to 115.

Impressively, as cow numbers have gone up, so too has the herd's replacement index.

The new ICBF five-year trend report for the Lalor’s farm shows that the replacement index for mature cows has jumped from €83 in 2014 to €101 in 2018.

Furthermore, this brings the herd into the top 10% within the country.

Looking at replacement heifers, the trend is similar.

What was €91 in 2014 has since climbed to €107 in 2018, this time just €8 below the top 10%.

Other key performance indicators to improve have been calving interval (376 days down to 367 days) and the percentage of heifers calved between 22 and 26 months (0% up to 90%).

Calving commenced in early March, with 15 out of 115 calved as of Friday 8 March.

Calving

Calving commenced in early March, with 15 out of 115 calved as of Friday 8 March.

The bulk of calving takes place in March and April to alleviate pressure on housing.

“March is often a bad month weather-wise, so leaving it closer to April gives us a better chance of getting newborn calves out quickly”, Harry said.

To find out how calving is going so far this spring, as well as how conditions in 2018 affected the farm, see this week’s Irish Farmers Journal in print and online.

Busy spring leaves no time to dwell on 2018
While 2018 was a tough year on the Lalor family farm, a busy spring 2019 leaves no time for pondering. Matthew Halpin reports.

Harry Lalor farms full-time, alongside his father Joe on the family farm just outside Ballacolla in Co Laois. They are the county’s representatives in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge.

The land apportioned to the cattle enterprise is just over 82ha, with the rest allocated for sheep and tillage. Land type on the farm is predominantly free-draining. However, there are some heavier areas which the Lalors targeted for drainage and reclamation works in recent years.

On the livestock side of things, the system consists of a 115-cow, spring-calving suckler herd and a mid-season lambing flock of 225 ewes and 90 ewe-lambs.

All cattle on the farm are finished. What would have traditionally been a steer-beef farm has moved to a bull-beef farm since the programme began in 2017. Heifers are slaughtered from 20 to 24 months. In the spring of 2018, Harry also undertook the rearing of 55 dairy-cross calves. “Looking back, they were too expensive, which is going to leave it very difficult to make any sort of a margin on them,” Harry said. “My decision on whether or not to buy calves this year will be purely based on a reduction in price.”

2018

Given the free-draining nature of the farm, the summer of 2018 had a big impact on grass growth, and consequently on the overall financial performance for the year. Gross margin dropped to €797/ha, a €252/ha drop from 2017. As already highlighted, weather conditions played a big part in this, particularly through extra expenditure on feed. Total feed costs climbed €105/ha to €502/ha for the 12-month period. However, all is not negative. Despite the tough 2018 conditions, the farm posted a significant improvement in performance. Gross output jumped 20% to 1,075kg/ha, while the farm’s stocking rate is at an impressive 2.6LU/ha.

One significant contribution to making up feed deficits on the farm in 2018 was the success of forage crops. Thirteen acres of redstart and 14ac of rape provided feeding for more than 70 cattle for the entire winter. Strip wires were moved two yards twice daily, while a bale of silage was allocated once daily. Ground conditions and utilisation of the crop were exceptional.

Calving

Calving on the farm is going well. Up until last weekend, 15 out of 115 had calved. The Lalors prefer to calve the bulk of their cows in March and April, mainly due to facilities. “We would probably need a lot more facilities here on the farm if we were to calve earlier,” Harry said. “March is often a bad month weather-wise so leaving it closer to April gives us a better chance of getting newborn calves out quickly.” For the few calves that have already landed, Harry is pleased so far: “We changed to a higher-spec pre-calving mineral this year and I think it has made a huge difference. Calves are hitting the ground with much more vigour and very few have to be helped suck.”

So far, the only complication has been a C-section. In this instance, it wasn’t because of a large calf but rather the cow’s pins didn’t drop for calving. But the Lalors are determined to weed out these problem cases. “That cow will get a red tag in her ear which is a mark for culling. In the past we would have kept a cow like her and all of a sudden you’re in the same situation this time next year when she is trying to calve.” It is a very sensible strategy by Harry and Joe. The calving season is tough enough without running into problem cases when they could have been avoided.

Beef

With a large grazing platform, the Lalors have opted for a 20-month bull beef system for the past number of years in order to maximise weight gain from grass and achieve heavier carcase weights. However, getting out-of-spec bulls slaughtered in recent months has been difficult. With that, Harry and Joe will try to increase the proportion of under-16-month bulls leaving the farm.

At present, the 2018-born bulls picked for under 16-month finishing are on 3kg of ration, 5kg of beet and silage. While these are March/April born bulls and have time on their side, meal feeding will need to be increased to ensure sufficient fat covers are built up before slaughter. Elsewhere, 2017-born heifers are also being finished. They are receiving 5.5kg of a 15% CP ration, 20kg of beet and silage. The first draft of these heifers was made in mid-December and all should be gone by the end of March. Table 1 outlines the farm’s slaughter performance in 2018.

Adviser comment: John Greaney, Teagasc

Harry and Joe have really embraced the ethos of the BETTER farm programme since day one. Steady improvements have been made across grassland management and animal performance. The biggest issue for Harry is labour. The stocking rate on the holding has gradually increased and stands at 2.64lu/ha. The drought last summer did hinder progress but it also emphasised the need to have a fodder reserve in place for extreme weather events. Selling fancier heifers off grass live may be worth revisiting on this holding to cut feed costs and reduce the workload. A lot of money has been invested in fencing, land reclamation and soil fertility so the Lalors should see a lift in profitability over the next two years. Given the size of the holding a dairy calf-to-beef system has a key role to play alongside his main suckler herd, but calf prices need to drop to make any investment worthwhile.

Watch: two years of work beginning to take shape
After a very tough spring in 2018, things are running much smoother for Brian Doran in Wicklow just 12 months later.

The Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge is now in its third year. Unfortunately, much of the hard work in year one was undone by the very difficult conditions during 2018.

Wicklow BETTER farmer Brian Doran will openly admit that the spring of 2018 was one of the toughest periods he has ever experienced. No doubt the same can be said about so many farmers throughout the country.

“We couldn’t get a bit of luck at all,” he said. “The weather was terrible. We seemed to get every problem imaginable during calving; feeding was tight – it was a horrible time.”

But it is the manner in which you react and learn to deal with those experiences that make the real difference. In Brian's case, he was determined not to go through the same hardship once again.

Capacity

Overcrowding proved to be a significant problem in sheds last year. There simply wasn’t enough space to calve 45 cows and hold over 50 store cattle. This led to several cases of health problems in calves with scour and pneumonia being the main culprits.

During the summer, a four-bay, 16’6’’ slatted shed was constructed, which has capacity for 64 store cattle.

The ease at which Brian was able to feed and handle cattle for the winter was great, but the main benefit has come through freeing up a large straw-bedded shed purely for use now by cows and newborn calves.

Some of the stores that had to be re-housed at the weekend into the new slatted shed.

Vaccination and feed

Furthermore, a rigorous vaccination programme has been introduced to offset what can only be described as "fire-fighting" in the event of a disease outbreak. Cows received lepto, IBR and scour vaccines, while all calves are treated against clostridial disease and pneumonia.

The dry-cow diet has also received a big overhaul with the addition of straw and soya meal making a huge difference in Brian’s eyes.

Cows get ad-lib access to straw, restricted access to silage, 0.5kg of soya bean meal and access to pre-calver licks prior to calving. “I think it’s made a big difference,” said Brian. “Cows don’t seem nearly as fat for calving and they definitely seem to have slightly fuller udders.”

Results

With many lessons learned, the results have been significant. To date, there are 30 cows calved with 32 live calves on the ground. This is after just 30 days. There are 17 left to calve and they are all due before the end of this month.

So far, health has been exceptional with no treatments having to be administered to calves so far. A cow putting out the calf-bed has been the only hiccup.

Cows and calves spend two to three days bonding before going into the larger dry-bedded shed to be grouped.

Up until last weekend, there were 15 cows and calves at grass, but six were housed on Sunday due to the weather.

Cows and calves have access to good shelter when turned out.

As soon as the weather allows, these six, along with another 11 cows and calves, will be let back out once again.

For more, watch the video above and see this week's Irish Farmers Journal in print or online where we look at how early turn-out has benefited the farm.

Watch: not put off by re-housing
Despite having to re-house, Brian Doran in Wicklow is delighted with early grazing progress, writes Matthew Halpin.

It’s weather like what we have experienced over the last seven days, that puts a lot of beef farmers off turning cattle out early. ‘I’m only putting them out if they can stay out’ is the common mind-set. If everyone were to follow this theory, there wouldn’t be a beef animal outside until the first week in April each year.

Fair enough, some springs simply don’t offer the opportunity to get to grass early. However, I don’t think there can be many excuses for not getting some grazing in since the beginning of February this year. After all, for those that worked so hard to follow an autumn grazing planner and build up decent grass covers in the back-end, isn’t it all in vain unless you are willing to try and get it grazed early?

Early turn-out

Despite having to re-house at the weekend, one farmer that certainly doesn’t regret an early turn-out is Brian Doran, Co Wicklow’s representative in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge. Brian is operating a steer- and heifer-beef system on 44ha just outside the village of Carnew. Since the beginning of the programme, he has slightly increased his suckler cow numbers to 47 calving this spring.

An example of the clean-outs achieved.

However, having placed such a strong emphasis on grassland management in the first two years of the programme, Brian is eager to maximise the benefits of this. With 45 of his own 2018-born steers and heifers for grazing in 2019, he also has an additional 39 one-year-old cattle on the farm at present. A combination of calves that were reared in 2018 and weanlings that were purchased at the end of the year.

Forty-seven cows and calves, plus 84 one- to two- year olds will give Brain a stocking rate of 2.5LU/ha across the entire farm, or 3.4LU/ha when silage ground is excluded.

Almost three weeks ago, Brian started to let out the first of his cows and new-born calves. Soon after that, all 84 stores were let out. Up until last weekend, Brian had a total 15 cows and calves and 84 stores at grass. It was text-book spring grazing with clean-outs of 4-5cm, little-to-no ground damage, 25 units of urea spread on the whole farm and absolutely no supplementary feed going out, except hi-mag licks to cows. Between 25-30% (six paddocks) of the grazing platform were grazed.

Re-housing

Doing the daily stock-check on Sunday morning left Brian pondering over the need to bring stock back in, or not. It wasn’t so much the rain that had fallen, but more so the rain and cold that was on the way.

“I brought in the 84 stores and six of the cows and calves in less than an hour on Sunday morning”, Brain said. “There hadn’t been any damage done at that point, but with the rain and the cold on the way, I thought it was best to take them off in case they did do harm.” Nine cows and calves remained out.

Brian openly admits he doesn’t regret turning them out, and nor should he. There are three main reasons for early turn-out on any farm; lower feeding costs, improved grass quality in the second and third rotations, and increased quantities of grass grown on the farm annually. For Brian, all three of these were achieved.

“The 84 weanlings were eating 1.5t of silage each day. With those, along with 15 cows out of the yard, I’ve probably saved between 25-30t straight away,” he said.

Furthermore, having walked the farm on Monday with Brian, BETTER farm adviser Tommy Cox and local B&T adviser Eoin Woulfe, the most impressive part was certainly the clean-outs in each paddock. Well below 5cm was being achieved.

These have since received slurry and, as a result, look certain to push out a very high-quality sward in the next rotation. For Brian, the most intriguing aspect of the early turnout has been the extent of the re-growths in the grazed paddocks.

A lot of farmers across the country have been doubting the higher-than-normal growth rates displayed on PastureBase over the last month. In many cases, it is much lower than what is being reported but this is only on ground that hasn’t been grazed.

Growth is very minimal as the plant is dormant after the winter. Grazing grass has the effect of stimulating growth in the plant and therefore, it is in the grazed paddocks that excellent growth rates are being achieved. Think of how your lawn reacts when you cut it for the first time - once you start, it will keep growing.

An eye on the weather

While most grazing is at a standstill for now due to the weather, it is important to be ready to get to grass when conditions do allow.

“As soon as the weather lets me, I’ll be putting everything back out again,” Brian highlighted.

“I’ll be able to get them out in less than an hour and the good thing is they know what they are at so they will settle quickly.”

He added: “To be fair to the programme and to my advisers they have always pushed me to work on grassland management and getting cattle out early. I’d definitely say I’ve shortened my winter by two or three months because of it.”