Chris McCarthy is typical of many beef farmers around the country, farming a suckler herd along with a full-time job. Like many part-time farmers, Chris has a top-quality herd.
Animal places tend to be more limited on part-time farms, so there is generally no room for non-performing stock and Chris’s system is a good example of this.
Time management is key and over the years when Chris was a participant in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef programme this was by far one of the most impressive attributes to his farm.
Simple things like lights, handling facilities and little tips to streamline his time spent on the farm means it’s a really slick operation.
The farm is made up of 28ha of relatively free-draining soil and has the added advantage of being in one block. The farm is home to a spring-calving herd comprising 46 Limousin cows mated primarily to terminal Charolais stock bulls.
The current stock bull is a Doonally New (CF52)-bred bull with Chris having a fondness for other Charolais stalwarts such as Pirate (PTE).
When he combines these terminal genetics with his three-quarter bred, red Limousin cow, the results speak for themselves with outstanding quality suckler stock being bred on the farm, consistently over the past number of years.
Chris said: “It has to be a red Limousin. I used to operate with the odd black Limousin cow but in terms of delivering what we want here, I have moved solely to red cows over the past few years.”
Historically, replacements were purchased as in-calf heifers from one or two sources but Chris found that these were getting more and more expensive and so he has since moved to bringing in maiden heifers over the past two years.
“I was sourcing them from the same farm every year for a number of years but I have had to move around in the last few years in order to get the type of stock I want. It is something that is getting harder and harder to find all the time.”
Calving starts the first week of February and is typically finished by mid-March. In 2021, there was an issue with a sub-fertile bull which has resulted in the calving spread increasing slightly over the past two years but it is something that Chris is working on pulling back quite quickly.
“There was a big turnover of cows that year. We increased the length of the breeding season slightly but still there were 18 cows not in calf and they were all culled. I am working off farm full-time so I need calving to be compact and have it over with. We have made big progress last year and I would hope to do the same again this breeding season and be back to a six- or seven-week calving season in the next couple of years.”
Cows and calves start to be turned out to grass in small numbers as soon as the weather conditions allow, which is typically around 15 to 20 February with around the 10 March being the mean date for turnout.
The grazing infrastructure on the farm is simple but effective.
There are a number of farm tracks and there are 10 or 12 temporary fence reels that Chris uses to make passages through paddocks if needed. Everything needs to be able to be done by one person.
Good genetics, combined with excellent grassland management, is key to high growth rates in calves over the first season at grass.
“I enjoyed measuring grass. It really did give you confidence that you were OK to take out a paddock or show you where there was a deficit coming in a couple of weeks’ time.
The system in place could be described as being simple, but very effective. Being busy off farm means that every hour on the farm needs to be productive. Chris estimates he spends around 15 hours per week on the farm.
I have cameras on the phone that I can watch the cows on. I like to leave them alone as much as possible
The biggest workload is obviously in winter and during the calving season but Chris is slow to handle cows at calving if they don’t need it.
“I have cameras on the phone that I can watch the cows on. I like to leave them alone as much as possible. Only when there is no progress being made will I handle a cow, and so far this year I only have assisted one cow calving.
One change implemented since finishing in the BETTER farm programme is the move from a weanling trading system to an under 16-month, bull beef operation.
At weaning, which takes place in late September, bull calves are typically 350kg to 360kg. They are fed meal two weeks pre- and for four weeks post-weaning and once housed in November they start on 2kg of ration which increases to 4kg by the new year. This then moves to 6kg by 1 February and ad-lib by 1 March.
There has been an increased focus on silage quality on the farm over the last number of years also, with Chris seeing it as a key way to reduce the total amount of meal fed to bulls.
Currently, they are consuming around 1.8t/head lifetime of concentrate. These bulls are achieving big weights at under 16 months with average carcase weights around 460kg.
These animals are going on the grid and are typically grading U+ for conformation and 2+ on average for carcase fat score.
Chris is obviously working closely with his processor to ensure the market is there for this type of stock each year.
The farm walk will highlight the key components of the system around soil fertility and grassland management, genetics, labour requirements and financial performance.
Also on the day, there will be a focus on animal health with University College Dublin vet Eoin Ryan discussing what farmers need to do on suckler-to-beef farms in terms of keeping animals healthy.
Teagasc’s Aidan Murray will also be on hand discussing the factors that make Chris’s system both profitable and sustainable.
Speaking at the event launch, Donal Riordan, from FBD, said: “We at FBD are delighted to support the IGA beef event in 2023 as it allows beef farmers to look at efficient and sustainable production systems that will help overcome the challenges which will inevitably face farmers over the next decade.”