With the majority of the 2019-born cattle now slaughtered on the Irish Farmers Journal Thrive demonstration farm, a full analysis of the physical and financial performance can be assessed.

Tables 1 to 4 outline costs incurred for the 140 cattle comprising both early- and late-maturing bullocks and heifers from calf purchase right through to slaughter.

The early-maturing breeds are Angus and Hereford while the late-maturing ones include Limousin and Belgian Blue. The farm operates a 19- to 21-month system with the aim of slaughtering as many cattle as possible off grass at the end of the second grazing season.

Technical efficiency

To be able to achieve an adequate carcase weight at the end of the second grazing period, all aspects of the system from calf rearing to animal health and grassland management need to be carefully managed. If one of these aspects is not optimised, the system falls down.

Top-class grassland management is a must for all dairy calf-to-beef systems. The farm also needs to be growing a lot of grass. In 2020, for example, the demonstration farm grew over 13tDM/ha – almost double the estimated grass growth on the average drystock farm in Ireland.

Calf price and rearing

While the programme operates completely with AI-sired calves purchased off farm, there is a strong emphasis placed on calf price.

There is no point in paying over the odds for these types of animals just to make up the numbers. As can be seen from the budgets, the system operates on tight margins and calf price has a big effect on the overall profitability.

After purchase, it costs €131/calf to take them through the 10-week average rearing phase to being weaned off milk at grass.

Early v late maturing

Comparing breed maturity is interesting as it differs between heifers and bullocks. For the bullocks, the late-maturing breed types of Limousin and Belgian Blue come out with a slightly better gross margin compared to the early-maturing Angus and Hereford cattle.

This is due partly to the increased carcase weight of 22kg as well as a better conformation score meaning that they fare better on the beef price grid.

It is worth noting that a greater proportion of late-maturing steers were finished out of the shed just before Christmas while more of the early-maturing types had been killed either off grass in October or after a short housing period into November.

What also comes into play is that there was a beef price rise over this period from late October to the runup to Christmas. Therefore, the bullocks killed out of the shed had an 8c/kg higher base price on average.

For the heifers, the opposite result was found, with early-maturing heifers having a greater gross margin compared to the late-maturing breeds.

While the late-maturing heifers managed a 29kg heavier carcase on average, as well as a similar increase of 8c/kg on base price as the bullocks due to the later slaughter date (which increased to a 16c/kg differential once on the grid due to better conformation scores), this wasn’t enough to offset the two biggest cost differences between the two groups – calf price and meal input.

There was €107 difference in calf price between the breed maturities, while there was an additional €48 on meal input.

Concentrate input

The level of concentrate input in these systems ranged from around 350kg lifetime for the first heifers killed off grass to almost 1000kg for the final bullocks out of the shed. This has a huge effect on the overall profitability of the system. Again, it must be stressed that the amount of meal required in each system on the demonstration farm has been achieved with a good level of grassland management as well as top-quality grass silage going in over the winter. Where either of these aspects are not up to scratch, the meal input into the system can skyrocket quite quickly, completely changing the economics.

Carcase weight

We have included carcase weight in the sensitivity analysis because it highlights the importance of constantly hitting daily liveweight targets throughout the system. Even the shortest period of underperformance in a dairy calf-to-beef system will have a massive effect on the carcase weight achieved.

On the other hand, it also shows the potential for improvement. The 2020 heifers achieved a 13kg heavier carcase compared to the 2019-batch slaughtered at a similar age.

Land and labour:

Our analysis includes a cost on land and labour, which all farmers might not cost into the system. These figures can be tweaked and changed as you see necessary to suit your own farm setup.