Grazing 50 bulls on 8ha (20 acres) is the sign of exceptional grassland management. It equates to a stocking rate of over 4LU/ha and a daily grass demand of 55-60kg DM/ha. For Tommy Holmes in Mayo, this is the target he has set himself since the beginning of the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge and a number of steps have been taken to make it happen.
Based just outside Ballina, Tommy is farming 18ha; a home block and two other out-blocks of land less than five miles away. One of these outblocks is the aforementioned 20ac. Most of the land is free-draining.
The home block accommodates the farm’s suckler herd and is where a lot of the winter forage is made. The suckler herd is comprised of 15 continental cows. Problems with calving pattern will be rectified through culling and purchasing in-calf replacements so the plan is to calve in a 10-week period beginning on 1 August.
The last time Tommy was featured on this page, it was highlighted that the suckler cows are not the main show in town here – the bull finishing system is. Slaughtering a mixture of under-16-month and 20-month bulls, the plan is to put over 100 bulls through the farm each year. Both winter finishing and grass-based systems are employed to spread the selling date of stock and to cut costs.
What is less common is the grass-based bull finishing system that Tommy has in place
Roughly speaking, half of Tommy’s purchases would be made in the autumn, and the other half in spring. The bulls purchased in the autumn would usually get a period at grass (depending on weather conditions and date of purchase) before being housed, put on a store diet until the turn of the year and then put on a finishing diet for 100 to 120 days. This is quite a common system for many finishers, the down side being it is typically very high cost.
What is less common is the grass-based bull finishing system that Tommy has in place. As soon as grass starts to grow in the spring, Tommy is straight out to the mart to buy stock to graze it. As a general rule, he is looking for 380-400kg bulls for the grass.
The plan with these bulls is to get cheap weight gain via grass for the spring and summer months. Then as growth begins to slow and grass quality decreases in late summer, bulls are drafted off the grass and into the shed for a 120-day finishing period.
Power of grass
The thoughts of grazing bulls at grass is enough to turn some people off, let alone the thoughts of grazing 50 on 20 acres. For Tommy, this should be very achievable this summer on his out-block, but it didn’t happen by accident.
The power of grass is something that he has really bought into since 2016 and it is something that has led to him becoming one of the top grass-growers in the programme. In 2017, Tommy grew a massive 13.1t DM/ha. In 2018, he grew just over 14t DM/ha which is even more impressive given the weather conditions.
Improvements to infrastructure have also featured heavily, particularly on the bull block. Doing all the fencing himself, the four-field, 20ac out-block is now split into 10 paddocks (see Figure 1). A high-powered, solar electric fence is important to keep bulls under control.
As a result, the stocking potential of the block has been increasing each year
All paddocks are served by water troughs, which are positioned as to allow sub-division of each paddock.
Reseeding has been the final piece of the jigsaw on the bulls’ block and the plan is to reseed a portion of the ground each year. Last year, 7 acres (paddock 1 and 2) were reseeded with a conventional plough, till and seed method.
As a result, the stocking potential of the block has been increasing each year. In 2017, fewer than 40 bulls ran on the block, last year 41 were grazed and this year 50 is the target – two groups of 25.
So far this year, the block has received 2,500gal/acre of slurry with a trailing shoe, a half bag/acre of urea and a bag and a half/acre of 18:6:12. It was not planned to take out surplus grass here because of its distance from the yard. However, after walking the 20ac last week, one to two acres may need to be cut to maintain grass quality.
For Tommy, the key to managing bulls at grass is to keep fresh grass in front of them. Splitting the 50 bulls into two groups leaves it much more manageable too. To encourage bulls to settle at first, turning them out on an empty stomach is the best tip.
What Tommy is trying to do is challenging. Daily management is vital to keep bulls content at grass. If bulls get unsettled and travel, grass quality won’t be up to scratch. The farm output is impressive at 1,238kg/ha for 2018. Variable costs are always going to be high with the level of concentrates being fed where a bull system is in place. However, there is scope for improvement and this farm should hit over €1,300/ha gross margin if beef price remains at €3.80/kg . Continually taking out paddocks and with a constant buffer of feed in the yard, Tommy can have confidence in carrying this high stocking rate. Switching completely to an under 16-month bull system would seem a wise move as factories prefer in-spec cattle.