Martin and Marie Keating run a 20ha farm in Doon, just 5km outside Westport, Co Mayo. The farm operates a dairy calf-to-beef system, which sees Angus and Hereford heifers finished at around 19 months of age.

The Keatings have been rearing calves for the last seven years. However, numbers really ramped up over the last three years. Prior to this, continental heifers were bought in for grazing each year and finished from grass in autumn.

Switch to dairy calf-to-beef system

On the move to a dairy calf-to-beef system, Martin said: “It is a system that seemed to fit with what we are trying to do on the farm. We have lighter animals out on the land that do less damage, meaning we have a longer grazing season. The main aim is to get as much production as possible from grazed grass each year. We are somewhat limited in winter accommodation and this system allows us to get around that problem.”

Calf rearing

This year, 34 heifer calves were reared on the farm, with the last group of 16 weaned on 16 May. The older batch were weaned at the beginning of May.

Through the Thrive programme, AI-sired calves are sourced for the rearing farms. Martin’s calves are predominately Angus this year with a number of calves sired by AA4089 and AA2163. Looking at the dairy-beef index (DBI), AA4089 has an overall DBI of €93 and a beef sub-index of €31, while AA2163 has an overall DBI of €60 and a beef sub-index ?gure of €38.

Now that calves are weaned off milk, Martin is keen to keep them gaining weight. The calves are offered the best grass on the farm which means they are constantly grazing low sward heights of high-quality leafy grass at all times.

Meal feeding

Calves are eating about 1kg of meal a day. In previous years, Martin fed 1kg concentrate throughout the first season at grass. The reason behind this is that the farm is somewhat limited for winter accommodation and cattle must be slaughtered off grass at the end of the second grazing season. Martin felt that the 1kg meal meant calves were coming in that bit heavier for the first winter.

Tweaking the system

After some discussion with other programme farmers, the decision was made to pull out meal feeding for June and July, if the weather remains favourable. It was debated that the grass quality offered to these calves in mid-summer is of similar feed value to a kilo of concentrate. Every kilo of concentrate fed replaces a kilo of grass in the diet. However, there could be a difference of over €0.20/kg in the cost of a kilo of grass and a kilo of meal.

The plan is still to go back in with meal from mid-August onwards through to housing for winter. If 70 to 75 days of feeding are saved in summer, that is a saving of around €20/head of meal in the first grazing season.

For finishing cattle, Martin usually offers 3kg/head for six weeks pre-slaughter. If needed, the option is there to offer that saved 75kg of meal from the first grazing season in addition to the normal finishing period meal allowance. This could be offered at a rate of 3kg/hd for an additional 25 days.

Will offering the same total amount of concentrate, but at different periods, offer more value for money? Only time will tell.

Autumn calves

There are currently eight autumn 2018-born animals still on the farm. Martin has purchased a number of reared autumn calves over the past few years and finds it complements the system nicely.

“Primarily, it aids cashflow. It gives us another couple of sale dates in the year where we would otherwise be selling all our stock in the back-end of the year.

“These animals will be finished in the next six weeks or so and it is usually a good time of the year to be selling finished cattle,” Martin says.

Building year on year

It is clear that decisions on the farm are not taken lightly or without serious consideration. There has been a huge investment in both grazing infrastructure and grassland improvement over the past five years.

“I’m not someone to half-do anything. If we start a job here, we make sure it is done to the best of our ability.”

Martin has installed roadways around the farm to ease movement of cattle and maximise the usage of ground in the shoulders of the year.

“It needs to be set up so that one person can move cattle to any paddock on the farm by themselves and the roadways allow for this,” Martin says.

“The other major benefit is the fact that we can get slurry out to ground in early spring without damaging fields.”

BEAM Targeting a 5% organic nitrogen reduction

The farm is in the BEAM scheme,so numbers have to be managed this year to hit the 5% organic nitrogen reduction targets. These targets will be hit with a slightly earlier slaughter age for autumn calves and a slight reduction in numbers on farm this year.

However, Martin hopes to purchase an additional 10 to 12 reared spring calves later in the year if there is value to be had..

Grass measuring

The number of paddocks on the farm has also increased greatly which offers flexibility and more control over grass quality throughout the grazing season.

Walking the farm every week to measure grass growth has empowered Martin and given him the confidence to drop out paddocks out of the rotation when they get too strong for grazing.

Last weekend, the first two surplus paddocks were cut for baled silage. “If we have to do a round of topping later in the season I don’t mind, but I don’t like to top any paddock more than once in a season.”

Along with grazing infrastructure, there has been a major investment in both soil fertility and reseeding. The whole farm is mapped and soil-sampled and Martin is working on correcting soil indexes where needed.

A lot of the farm has been reseeded in the last few years. However, there is no plan at the moment to do any reseeding this year. Instead, the plan is to continue to work on soil fertility and build soil reserves.

“We did notice some of the indexes falling after ploughing so we are working on bringing these back up again. This is a downside to a full plough reseed but it does give you a blank canvas to work with to get fields levelled out.”

We will be back with Martin later in the season for an update on this year’s calves, as well as slaughter data from the autumn-born animals.