When talking to any livestock farmer over the past three months, it has never taken long for the conversation to centre on the surge in input costs.
Fertiliser prices and purchased feed are currently at unprecedented levels and the short-term outlook shows little sign of any downturn in price.
For suckler farmers, what impact will higher input prices have on keeping a suckler cow during the year ahead?
This figure will differ from farm to farm as herd owners try to insulate their businesses against rising production costs.
But in an effort to put some kind of monetary value on higher input costs, take a hypothetical farm carrying 60 spring-calving continental cows on reasonably dry, productive land.
The herd is predominantly February- and March-calving with a few cows slipping into April. Calves are generally sold as weanlings in October, although the example assumes that 15 lighter calves are held for 90 days after weaning to increase sale weight.
Any cow that loses a calf is sold out of the system
For simplicity in calculating the cost of keeping the cow, the herd operates on an “all in, all out” system.
As such, in-calf heifers are purchased annually as replacements. Any cow that loses a calf is sold out of the system.
The example assumes the herd is well run with a high level of management in place with costings calculated out for the calendar year.
Within the example, there are two sets of costings for keeping the suckler cow on the farm. The first costings reflect typical input costs during 2021.
The second set of costings are an estimate at how the sums will stack up in 2022 if the same level of inputs are purchased.
While all inputs are increasing in value, the example mainly reflects higher fertiliser, concentrate and straw prices. Again, this is for ease of accounting.
Fixed costs are also included in the example to cover expenses such as insurance, diesel, machinery repairs, etc. Fixed costs are set at €365/cow for 2021, but are inflated by 25% for 2022.
As a predominantly February and March calving herd geared towards selling weanlings, the average date of birth for calves is taken as 1 March to reflect a mid-way point.
Turnout date is typically around 10 April, meaning cows remain housed for approximately 40 days from the average calving date.
During this period, cows are fed 45kg/day of good-quality silage and 2kg/day of a 16% protein ration to drive milk and maintain body condition.
In spring 2021, silage is costed into the example at €20/t, as this fodder was made in 2020 when CAN could be purchased below €250/t. Silage costs include contracting charges.
In contrast, silage fed during spring 2022 is costed at €25/t. Forage costs are slightly higher to reflect the increase in nitrogen prices during the 2021 silage season.
Concentrate costs are set at €330/t in 2022, a rise of €50/t on 2021 levels.
One round bale of straw per cow is factored in to provide bedding for calving boxes and creep pens.
Straw in 2022 is €25/bale to reflect higher prices during last summer’s harvest. Vet costs are unchanged, but fixed costs are up 25%.
For the post-calving housing period, input costs will increase by €33 to €166/cow for the example herd in 2022.
The grazing season for the example farm typically runs from 10 April to 20 October when calves are offloaded through special weanling sales.
The farm has relatively productive soils above pH6 and index 2 for P and K, so grazing ground is able to carry one cow and calf unit per acre.
On average, four bags/acre of CAN are spread annually on grazing land and topped up with slurry. Around 10 acres of grassland are reseeded annually, helping to maintain the outlined stocking rate.
Fertiliser price for the farm averaged €300/t in 2021. The example assumes the same volume of fertiliser averages €600/t in 2022. This means grazing costs will double on a per-cow basis.
Concentrate is fed to calves for 60 days prior to weaning and sale. Moving from a ration costing €310 last year to one at €340/t in 2022, feeding 2kg/day to calves for 60 days sees meal costs rising €16 to €41/cow.
Worm control and minerals cost €25/cow with €50/cow factored in for miscellaneous costs and jobs like fencing maintenance.
Although replacements are purchased in early spring, they are included under this section along with the stock bull.
Ten in-calf heifers are purchased annually at €1,800/head, with a cull value of €1,400 on cows (700kg at €2/kg) leaving the herd.
This means the net cost difference between replacements and culls is €4,000, which over the whole herd is €66/cow.
Two stock bulls purchased at €4,000 and culled after five years at a value of €1,700 comes to an annual service cost of €15/cow.
Factoring in €500/year to feed and maintain each bull, total breeding costs come to €31/cow.
Assuming fixed costs rise 25% to €256 in 2022, the cost of keeping the cow over the grazing season using the outlined inputs rises €127 to €631.
The final sections cover the example herd being dried off and overwintered. Cows are dried off over 10 days, during which they are fed low-quality silage made from surplus grazing that had fully headed out.
The winter feeding period starts on 1 November and runs until 28 February, just before the average calving date.
Cows are fed an average of 30kg/day of reasonably good silage for the 120 day housing period. As fertiliser price is significantly higher in 2022, silage costs are increased to €35/t.
This reflects three bags per ace of NPK fertiliser (€700/t), higher contractor charges (€120/ac), slurry spreading (€30/ac), weed control (€15/ac) and diesel for fertiliser applications (€10/ac) with grass yields averaging 8t/acre.
Higher silage costs increases the winter feeding of dry cows by €36 in 2022 for the example herd.
The farm also holds 15 of the lightest calves for 90 days after weaning to increase sale weight.
The calves are fed 20kg/day of silage and 2kg/day of concentrate during this period.
Allowing for ration price at €340/t, the cost of keeping the 15 calves for an extra 90 days increases by €7/head.
The remaining costs include €25/cow for routine treatments like fluke, lice and pre-calving minerals, along with €25/cow miscellaneous for tasks such as scanning, etc. Fixed costs for the winter of 2022 are again inflated by 25% to €150/cow.
Total wintering costs for the example herd, assuming like-for-like inputs are used each year, increase by €72 to €364/cow in 2022.
Based on the outlined inputs used for the example herd, the cost of keeping the cow increases from €929 in 2021 to €1,161 for the year ahead, a rise of €232 year on year.
However, these figures are not binding. They are merely a template to let suckler farmers replicate a similar exercise for their own herd.
Feed prices may well fall during the summer and winter period
There will be farmers with dry land that can start grazing in early March and keep stock at grass until late November, but vice versa, some herd owners will have heavy land with a longer housing period or they run extensive systems requiring low inputs.
The input prices used in the example costings for 2022 are purely estimates.
Feed prices may well fall during the summer and winter period.
Likewise, fertiliser price could also ease later this year if a political resolution can be reached between the EU and Russia to increase gas supplies.
Alternatively, the example farmer could reduce stocking rate, or reduce fertiliser applications and meal feeding to offset higher input costs.
2022 is not the year to be carrying passengers within the suckler herd
What the example does highlight is that there is no slack in the chain when it comes to suckler production.
Given the rise in inputs, 2022 is not the year to be carrying passengers within the suckler herd. Every cow must earn her keep.