Father and son duo Gerard and John Grieve are farming in partnership on 35ha outside Castlefin, Co Donegal. Land-type on the farm is heavy in nature, however, 2018 proved to be an exceptional year, with dry conditions paving the way for bumper grass growth and an extended grazing season.
Last week, I visited the farm along with Teagasc BETTER farm adviser John Greaney and local B&T adviser Gary Fisher. The primary job on hand was to complete an e-Profit monitor – a task that should be completed annually on every drystock farm.
It would be fair to say that the Grieves are coming off a low base in terms of financial performance, with the gross margin for 2017 sitting in the red.
However, initial draft figures from our morning spent in Donegal would suggest that the gross margin for 2018 is set to show a dramatic increase, potentially in excess of €500/ha.
Unfortunately, as e-Profit monitors are nearing completion on other programme farms across the country, this gross margin increase would appear to be in the minority.
The challenging conditions of 2018 would certainly appear to be taking their toll on some farms, particularly those in the south and east of the country – to what extent is yet to be seen.
Once all e-Profit monitors have been completed, it will be interesting to see what went right and what went wrong for the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal programme farmers, all of which will be revealed in the Irish Farmers Journal.
Back to the Grieve farm and, with the book work completed, we took a walk around the yard, where new arrivals were beginning to hit the ground, bulls were thriving and dairy calves were providing some food for thought.
As of last week, there were seven new arrivals on the farm to briskly kick-start the spring calving season. In total, there are 40 cows to calve, the vast majority of which should be calved before the middle of March. John explained “traditionally we would have had quite a wide calving spread and that’s something we have been trying to tighten up. Because we are running over 100 ewes as well, we are now trying to get as many of the cows calved as possible, before the sheep start lambing in March.”
So far we are very pleased with how the calves are coming
Forty cows to calve also represents a slight increase in numbers from 2018 of 35 suckler cows. Cow-type is also receiving a slight adjustment with more continental breeding creeping in to replace the traditional dairy X genetics.
This batch of calves is also the first out of the Grieve’s new Charolais stock bull. Sired by the popular Doonally New (CF52), the bull has an impressive terminal index value of €156. While calving difficulty is touching on the higher end of the scale at 8.40%, John says “so far we are very pleased with how the calves are coming.”
What the Charolais stock bull lacks in terms of replacement traits, it is hoped to be made up through the incorporation of Salers breeding through the use of AI. Interestingly, the farm herd is not vaccinated for anything, with disease rarely a problem on the farm.
In 2017, Gerard and John made the decision to move away from a weanling system and finish their own bulls under 16-months. The plunge was first taken with the 10 best 2017-born weanlings. Slaughtered in early April, these bulls achieved an average carcase weight of 365kg and grade of U=3-, impressive figures for attempt number one.
Satisfied with the system, the Grieves have decided to finish all of their male progeny under 16-months. With calving running from January to March, target slaughter date will be May and June. Grading already appears to be perfected, so as they become more familiar with the system, the goal will be to push carcase weight closer to 400kg.
As it stands, the 2018 born bulls are performing well. The oldest bulls have already been built up to ad-lib ration (12kg/head/day) and straw. These will be slaughtered in early April. The younger bulls are on 3-4kg of ration, high-quality silage and straw, soon to be built up to ad-lib. Weighing on 26 December showed they were doing 1.2kg/day on this store diet.
Gerard and John made the decision to rear 17 dairy calves this spring, with the objective of boosting output for minimal investment. The system operated by the Grieves also facilitates the calf rearing; bulls are sold out of the shed under 16 months while heifers are sold live as weanlings in the back-end of the year, apart from a small handful of replacements. This opens up the opportunity to buy-in a group of stock to maximise grass utilisation during the summer.
Seventeen calves were purchased at an average price of €80. Summer management was excellent, with calves given access to the best quality grass and routine parasite treatments were administered. At housing calves were placed on a diet of high-quality silage and 2kg/head/day concentrates. With an average birth date of 19 March, the calves on 26 December stood at an average weight of 277kg, representing an average daily gain from birth of 0.82kg.
If we castrate them they will be on the farm for too long
On the dairy calf system, both John and Gerard were apprehensive about the system going forward. “As it stands, it’s very hard to know what route to take with these calves,” John said.
“If we castrate them they will be on the farm for too long, I had originally planned to leave them as bulls for slaughter at 20-months but recent advice is to avoid this. If I was to sell them now as stores, we would certainly lose money.”
Ultimately, it was agreed that the calves should be turned out for grazing as early as possible, with the most likely route being slaughter under 20-months.
Going forward, it is unlikely the Grieves will purchase dairy calves this spring, with the plan being to store the weanling heifers over the winter in 2019 instead.