Plenty of progress in Donegal
Matthew Halpin visited the Grieve farm in Donegal last week for an update on the farm's progress.

Father and son partnership Gerard and John Grieve are the Donegal participants of the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge.

The land base comprises of 45ha, a portion of which is leased in. The land would be described as predominantly heavy.

Gerard and John are running a suckler and sheep system.

Since the commencement of the BETTER farm programme, suckler cow numbers have increased from just above the 30-cow mark to 40 suckler cows.

In turn, ewe numbers have decreased slightly to just over the 100 mark.

Adviser John Greaney with John and Gerard Grieve.

The farm system has also undergone a slight change, with all male progeny now being brought to under-16-month bull beef – a shift away from what used to be a weanling system.

Last year, 10 2017-born bulls were finished under 16 months as a trial. Satisfied with the performance of these bulls, all male progeny from 2018 are now in the shed for finishing in this system.

A bull in the under-16-month system.

Down the road, the Grieves are even looking at the option of constructing a finishing shed and purchasing in bulls to go along with their own stock to supplement output and gross margin.

All 2018-born males are being finished.

A small batch of dairy bull calves were purchased in this year and reared.

They are currently housed and will be turned out to grass as early as possible, with the plan being to slaughter these at 20 months.

The dairy bull calves.

Not fully sold on the system, John and Gerard are not planning on buying dairy calves this spring and will instead opt to hold on to their heifer weanling for the winter as opposed to selling them as weanlings.

2018

Last year was an excellent year for the farm.

Given the heavy nature of the land, it was a bumper year in terms of grass growth.

Looking at Pasturebase figures, in excess of 3t DM/ha extra grass was grown over the course of the year.

This is further reflected in the fact that the date for making second-cut silage was six weeks earlier than the previous year and even allowed for an unprecedented third cut to be made.

Performance was also very high.

Scanning saw 41 females out of 42 in-calf, while average daily gain for the bull calves was 1.2kg throughout the summer and autumn.

Those 41 females scanned in-calf have just begun calving, which will continue until mid-March.

Calves sired by the new CF52 stock bull.
Calving has commenced.

For more on the Grieve farm, see this Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal in print or online

BETTER farm: calving slows as finishing ramps up in Westmeath
Matthew Halpin checked-in with Westmeath BETTER farm participant Martin Downes on his farm in Multyfarnham on Thursday.

Martin Downes farms 84ha of good-quality land just outside Multyfarnham in Co Westmeath. Roughly half of the farm is in grass while the other half is sown in tillage.

The livestock enterprise is mixed suckler-to-beef and sheep operation. The suckler herd comprises of 110 spring-calving cows.

The best of the male progeny are slaughtered out of the shed under 16 months of age, with the remaining bulls getting a second season at grass for slaughter at 20 to 22 months.

Once replacement heifers are drafted off, surplus heifers are slaughtered at 20 to 22 months of age, off grass where possible.

Calving

As things stand, there are currently less than 20 cows left to calve. Ideally, calving should be complete by now, but Martin explained that due to the drought occurring right in the middle of the breeding season last year, there was a lot of pressure on stock bulls and cows.

"After we scanned the cows last autumn we knew there was going to be a break in the middle of calving, and it coincided with the extreme heat,” said Martin.

Calving has so far gone very well, with few mortalities.

“We had a student in from Balllyhaise for the spring which really gave a push on with the work. I’d be very stringent when it comes to frequent cleaning, disinfecting and bedding of calving sheds and pens."

Typical cows on Martin Downes' farm.

With calving drawing to a close, breeding is just around the corner. Calves are being dehorned and vaccinated for clostridial disease at appropriate ages, while their mothers are receiving BVD and IBR vaccines. Leptospirosis vaccines can’t be sourced at present.

Breeding is due to start on, or slightly before 1 May. A Charolais, Angus and Salers bull are on the farm at present. The Salers bull will run with the maiden heifers.

Martin was very happy with the performance of his Angus bull on a group of mainly late-calvers last year: "What is really noticeable now as cows are calving is the way he pulled the calving date of these cows forward because he is short gestation.”

The herd’s Simmental bull was culled last year so a decision is yet to be made on a replacement.

Finishing

Bulls destined for slaughter under 16 months are being built up to ad-lib finishing at present. Their diet currently consists of 8kg concentrates, 10kg fodder beet and silage and straw. As the fodder beet is almost gone, concentrate levels will be built up to 12kg over the coming weeks.

For the finishing period, the diet needs to be very high-energy and low protein. Energy drives weight gain and helps to lay down fat. During the store period over the winter, protein is important for growth.

“The store diet included half a kilo of soya to help grow the frames of the bulls”, Martin said.

The bulls are currently averaging 505kg at just over 12 months of age. Target liveweight at slaughter is around 700kg so, with a kill out of 58%, a carcase weight of 400kg is the objective. Average carcase weight in 2018 was just below this at 390kg.

Looking at the averages, another 195kg needs to be put on in around 110 days. This equates to a target daily gain of 1.77kg. The animals are currently doing 1.5kg/day, which should increase as concentrate levels rise.

Last week's discussion group in conversation with BETTER farm adviser Tommy Cox.

Discussion groups

Much of what is explained in this article was discussed at a discussion group day on Martin’s farm on Thursday. To learn more about the new BETTER farm discussion groups, see this week’s Irish Farmers Journal in print or online.

BETTER farms open doors to discussion groups
Matthew Halpin looks at the new discussion group feature of the BETTER farm beef challenge.

Discussion groups have become quite common in farming in recent years. Facilitated by specially trained agricultural advisers, they allow farmers to meet regularly to discuss technical issues, share information and solve problems. There is also a strong social aspect to discussion groups, something that is much needed in what can be a very solitary occupation.

The Knowledge Transfer (KT) Programme was launched in 2016. The objective of the scheme is to upskill farmers, to encourage efficiency and effectiveness of work and ensure farmers engage in a process of continuous improvement which will help to develop their enterprise. A payment of €750 is paid to each participant for every year completed within the programme.

Considering the role discussion groups can play in meeting the objectives of the programme, it is no surprise that they play a big role in the workings of, and subsequent qualifications for the scheme. In order to be fully compliant with the scheme regulations, for each year of the programme, participants are required to attend a minimum of:

  • Five KT group meetings or
  • Four KT group meetings and one DAFM-approved national event or
  • Three meetings and two DAFM-approved national events.
  • Host farms

    The current phase of the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef programme, and indeed the previous phases of the programme, hosted numerous national events, all of which were approved by the DAFM for qualification within the KT programme. Eight events were held last year – two in the spring, two in the summer and four in the autumn. Two events recently set the ball rolling once again for 2019, with Waterford farmer Maurice Hearne and Kildare farmer Ricky Milligan hosting national events on their respective holdings. A further four are planned before the year end. These are national events, however, and as already highlighted, only a maximum of two can be used in any one year for compliance within the KT scheme.

    The 24 farms within the BETTER farm beef challenge are now set to become a whole lot more accessible to farmers from now on, however. In addition to hosting national events, each farm will be opened up to between four and six discussion groups in the year. This now gives the opportunity for close to 150 discussion groups to attend BETTER farms for meetings.

    What makes the prospect even more exciting is the wide range of farms within the programme. Holdings ranging from 18ha to 123ha, are run by full-time and part-time operators and include a broad range of systems from suckler to beef, suckler to store or calf-to beef. Many are also mixed, with either sheep or tillage present.

    Each of the BETTER farm beef challenge participants has, over the last two years, been constantly striving to improve performance on their farm by up taking the best advice and technologies available. This new discussion group feature within the BETTER farm programme will now give visiting farmers the opportunity to see and discuss first-hand the practices on the programme farms that have been featured at national events and in the Irish Farmers Journal each week.

    Two-fold

    The BETTER farm participants must be commended for their willingness to host these discussion groups considering the time that they will have to give up. However, the learnings from discussion groups are often two-fold, with the potential for host farmers to benefit from fresh pairs eyes on the farm.

    Each discussion group will be facilitated by one of the Teagasc BETTER farm advisers – Martina Harrington, Tommy Cox and John Greaney – as well as each group’s own facilitator. Given the current difficulties being experienced within the suckler and beef sector, this new discussion group model should be seen as an attractive opportunity for farmers to take on board new learnings.

    Martin Downes – Westmeath

    Mixed suckler-to-beef, sheep and tillage operator Martin Downes hosted two discussion groups on his farm in Multyfarnham last week. Calving and bull finishing were the key points discussed.

    Calving

    As things stand, there are fewer than 20 cows left to calve. Ideally, calving would be closer to the end but Martin explained that “due to the drought occurring right in the middle of the breeding season last year, it put a lot of pressure on stock bulls and cows. After we scanned the cows last autumn we knew there was going to be a break in the middle of calving, and it coincided with the extreme heat.”

    Breeding is due to start on, or slightly before 1 May. A Charolais, Angus and Salers bull are on the farm at present. The Salers bull will run with the maiden heifers. Martin pointed out that “by chance, we let an Angus bull with a group of mainly late calvers last year. What is really noticeable now as cows are calving is the way he pulled the calving date of these cows forward because he is short gestation.”

    Finishing

    Bulls destined for slaughter under 16 months are being built up to ad-lib finishing now. At present, the diet consists of 8kg concentrates, 10kg fodder beet and silage and straw. As the fodder beet is almost gone, concentrate levels will be built up to 12kg over the coming weeks.

    It was explained that for the finishing period, the diet needs to be very high-energy and low protein. Energy drives weight gain and helps to lay down fat. During the store period over the winter, protein is important to grow the bulls. “The store diet included half a kilo of soya to help grow the frames of the bulls,” Martin said.

    The bulls are currently averaging 505kg at just over 12 months of age. Target live weight at slaughter is around 700kg so, with a kill out of 58%, a carcase weight of 400kg is the objective. Average carcase weight in 2018 was 390kg.

    Looking at the averages, another 195kg need to be put on in around 110 days. This equates to a target daily gain of 1.77kg. They are currently doing 1.5kg/day and this should increase as more concentrates are allocated.

    Adviser comment

    Tommy Cox

    With participating farms now entering their third year of the programme, farm plans are beginning to take shape and good progress is been made. The discussion group concept was introduced this year to get more traffic through the BETTER farms and give local groups the chance to see what changes have been made on farms and how they are impacting performance. Last week in Multyfarnham, two local groups from the area along with local B&T advisor Carmel Lennon, got an in-depth view of the farm’s system and the reasons for Martin’s swing toward finishing bull’s under 16 months. Other areas looked at on the day were grassland management on the farm, calving 2019 and a look towards the forthcoming breeding season.

    BETTER farm spring walks: the messages to take home
    Matthew Halpin reflects on the key points of the recent BETTER farm beef challenge spring walks.

    The Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm Beef Challenge spring walks have passed, signalling just how quickly the year is moving on. On Thursday 4 April, Maurice Hearne welcomed around 100 people to his mixed suckler, beef, sheep and tillage farm in Dunmore East, Co Waterford. The following Thursday, 11 April, Ricky Milligan hosted a similar crowd on his suckler calf-to-beef and tillage holding near Naas, in Co Kildare. In this article we present some of the key learnings.

    First-cut silage

    Given the time of the year, a strong emphasis was placed on growing silage crops at both walks. The main points of advice were around closing up and fertiliser application. Table 1 details the effect of cutting date on silage quality and yield, and on the subsequent animal intake and liveweight gain.

    Farmers seeking high-quality silage should be targeting a cutting date before 1 June. However, because yield is compromised in a strive for quality, farmers should also consider the type of stock they are carrying over the winter.

    Weanlings and beef animals will need high-quality silage, but dry cows can make do with lower quality, thus allowing a higher yield to be obtained at cutting.

    After picking a target cutting date, target close-up needs to be determined.

    Fifty days is the length of time a silage crop will take to grow in normal growing conditions. Once closed, getting crop nutrition right is paramount. Figure 2 shows the nutrient requirements for first-cut silage, based on the soil index.

    Remember to take note of the N volume applied. A silage crop will utilise around two units/acre of N daily. If 100 units/acre is applied, the crop can’t be cut for 50 days.

    Grassland weeds

    Grassland weeds are evident in a lot of swards subjected to severe drought stress last summer. In Kildare, Shay Phelan, crops specialist with Teagasc, explained: “Weeds are opportunists, the seeds are in the soil all the time. They’re just looking for sunlight and the correct conditions to grow.”

    With grass under severe pressure last summer and with swards grazed bare, weeds got the opportunity to germinate.

    Once established in the sward, weeds can have a significant financial impact on a farm. “Firstly, think of the price of nitrogen, think of the price of P and K. The weeds are using up those nutrients, they are competing with the grass and they are costing you money,” Shay explained. “Weeds are also reducing the performance ability of animals grazing the sward. Output targets are far less achievable.”

    According to Shay, an integrated weed management approach is best: “Gone are the days where the answer is a can of spray. Grazing management, topping, alternating grazing and silage should come first. A herbicide should be the last option.”

    Grazing ground tightly this spring may be enough to choke out the weeds once again. However, where spraying is required, the best time to spray is when the weed is young (definitely before it produces seed heads) and when growth is good (to maximise herbicide uptake). Despite usually being more expensive, longer-acting herbicides were recommended.

    Soil fertility

    Farmers at both farm walks were guided through five steps to building soil fertility:

    Step 1 – soil test

    A soil test should be carried out at least every five years but, in cases where swards are being pushed hard, every three years is ideal. Testing will provide a phosphorous (P), potassium (K) and pH analysis of the soil.

    Step 2 – soil pH

    Optimum soil pH is between 6.3 and 6.5. Where pH is maintained close to the optimum range, an increase in grass DM production of at least 1t/ha/year can be achieved.

    This has subsequently been calculated as a €105/ha benefit or a return of €4 for every €1 invested in lime. Lime can be spread at any time of the year but single applications should not exceed 7.5t/ha.

    Step 3 – P and K

    Farmers should aim for grassland P and K indexes of three and four. Soils at index three or four for P and K, compared to index one, can grow an extra 1.5t DM/ha annually. Building P and K levels is a long-term task which will require P and K to be applied at maintenance, plus build-up levels.

    Step 4 – slurry

    The majority of the nutritional value in slurry is in K (69%) and P (19%). For this reason, P and K should be used primarily for low-index soils. Every 1,000 gallons of slurry provide five units/acre P and 30 units/acre K. The timing of spreading has no effect on the availability of P and K. Nitrogen in slurry will range from three to six units/acre per 1,000 gallons depending on weather conditions. In monetary terms, 1,000 gallons of cattle slurry is worth between €20-€25.

    Step 5 – balance

    Soil fertility is only as strong as its weakest link, so the nutrient that is in shortest supply limits grass yield. Compound fertilisers should be used as a balancer to target nutrients which need building.

    Sulphur is one thing to consider. Although there is no test for it, 30% of Irish soils need it. Grazing ground should get about 20kg/ha (16 units/acre) of sulphur annually.