James O’Sullivan farms with the help of his family at two locations in Leap and Union Hall in West Cork. James joined the Teagasc DairyBeef 500 campaign. The Teagasc team, along with his farm adviser Anna Sexton, examined some of the main areas for improvement on his beef farming enterprise.
James consistently achieves a relatively low age of slaughter on the farm focusing predominantly on early maturing steers and heifers.
James works off farm as an AI technician, which entails a very busy few months from April to July. This means an earlier born calf suits him as he will have the majority reared by the time AI season gets busy.
The off farm job also means James will have the ability to purchase directly off some local farms who are using bulls which should deliver a high commercial beef value (CBV).
James’ slaughter profile shows a young age of slaughter at 20.3 months for 2021 and this reduced to 19.9 months for 2022. The average carcase weight at slaughter was 243kg in 2021, reducing to 237kg in 2022.
The average carcase weight of around 240kg means that many of the early maturing heifers are killed at 210-220kg carcase weight. These weights may be a cause for concern with many processors requiring minimum carcase weights upwards of 250kg carcase.
Low carcase weights on the farm weren’t so much a consequence of management decisions but rather lighter carcases were from beef cattle with a low CBV. This was because there were some poor quality beef bulls being used along with calves originating from crossbred herds or Friesian herds with cows of a low beef merit.
Commercial Beef Value
James has moved to purchase calves of a higher CBV for the last two years, dealing with farmers using bulls with a carcase merit of at least 10kg on the DairyBeef Index. Improving the beef merit of the calves purchased will maintain his low age of finishing at c.20 months while increasing the average carcase weight to c.275kg between steers and heifers on an O grade carcase. This will allow James to collect all the breed, QPS and sustainability bonus on all cattle killed from his farm. This could be worth up to 70c/kg at certain times of the year.
Herd health is another area James has worked on to improve performance on farm. In previous years the calves purchased had some issues with pneumonia on farm. James implemented a vaccination programme on all calves, Calves are vaccinated for RSV and Pi3 intranasal at arrival and this is followed up with an IBR vaccine, boosted six months later. This programme has avoided any setbacks in the calves for the past two years, contributing to a higher weight at finishing while reducing vet bills and labour in spring.
James’s soil type and location allow him a long grazing season with the farm having the ability to begin grazing in late January/early February most years. Weanlings are typically grazed late into autumn or early winter and housed once the finished cattle are slaughtered out of the shed in Union Hall.
James has moved to using only protected urea on his farm as his source of chemical nitrogen. He spreads less nitrogen than with standard urea to achieve the same level of response, as protected urea is a more efficient source of nitrogen.
Zero Nitrogen Swards
The farm is all Index 3 and 4 for phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) along with being at optimum levels for soil pH. This allows the chemical nitrogen applied to work efficiently.
In 2022 James reseeded eight acres with a multi-species sward (MSS) mix for the first time and followed that up with four acres of red clover silage this year.
Due to adverse weather conditions at sowing during the summer of 2023 the field has been grazed for the year since reseeding.
It is hoped that if weather dries up next year the field will be used for producing high-protein, top-quality silage. Other participants in the DairyBeef 500 campaign have tried red clover silage sward reseeds and have achieved around 25-30 bales per acre over the year in a multi-cut system with silage testing showing up to 77% DMD and 15-16% protein content.
The multi-species swards have performed well with over 8t DM of forage utilised in 2023 with zero chemical nitrogen applied.
James does find that the multi-species swards are much more susceptible to poaching due to a more open sward, especially early in the year.
The low grass content in the mix contributes to bare patches early in the spring prior to the herbs filling out from April onwards.
This is the main concern along with lack of options on weed control and the possibility of a decline in the content of the chicory and plantain in the sward mix from poaching damage.