Watch: assessing weaning weights and faecal sampling in Longford
Longford BETTER Farm participant Robert Abbott was faecal sampling and looking back at this year’s calf performance recently.

Edgeworthstown-based suckler and sheep farmer Robert Abbott is the Longford participant in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm beef challenge. Robert, who also works off-farm, is running a 43-cow, spring-calving suckler herd and a 30-ewe, early lambing flock.

Cow type on the farm is a 50:50 split between continental cows and first-cross cows from the dairy herd.

Robert has been working on increasing his cow numbers since joining the BETTER Farm Programme, and mainly through the purchase of cows with calves at foot, has an extra 10 cows to calve in the spring.

While the original plan for the farm was to push numbers to 50 cows, housing capacity may limit this expansion to 46-47 cows, but extra bulls may be bought-in to boost output as much as possible.

Balancing sucklers and sheep

Lambing begins on 1 January and is usually finished by the first week in February. Calving is slightly later than a typical spring-calving herd with the first calves expected to drop on 1 March each year.

This means calving and lambing don’t overlap – something that can put a huge strain on mixed suckler and sheep farms.

With cow numbers increasing and housing nearing full-capacity, it is critical to have grass available in spring to allow for early turn-out, when weather allows.

Last year, Robert admits this wasn’t the case: “We still had good grass in December and let the sheep graze it. Looking back, this was a mistake because we had no grass for the cattle in February.

"I definitely won’t be doing that again and the sheep will be allocated an area and I’ll put a feeder with them if I have to.”

System

Recently, Robert has moved to an under 16-month bull-beef system. Last year, five of his bulls were finished under 16-months, this year that number will exceed 10.

The remaining bulls will be squeezed and run at grass with store heifers next year.

All heifers are sold live in the autumn as 20-month stores, except for those kept within the herd as replacements.

Weighing

Weanlings were weighed on 19 November which was around housing time.

A housing weight can be an excellent barometer to judge how animal performance has been for the grazing season, as well as evaluating winter performance, provided animals are weighed at turn-out next spring.

Going forward, this can provide farmers with great insights as to what went right and what could be worked on in future winters.

Since the cows are calving in March and April predominantly, weanling weights will understandably be slightly behind those of an early, spring-calving herd. Average weights of bulls and heifers was 334kg and 280kg, respectively.

Perhaps a more appropriate figure to look at is average daily gain (ADG). With a male ADG of 1.2kg and a female ADG of 1.1kg, calf performance has been spot-on this year, which is impressive given the challenging summer conditions.

Faecal sampling

Faecal samples were taken from the weanlings during the second week of December to assess fluke and worm burdens which will allow for a targeted winter dosing regime.

Results showed a low positive result for rumen fluke in both bulls and heifers while heifers showed positive for roundworms and lungworms.

A number of possible treatments are now open to Robert which will constitute a dose for fluke with the option to target worms as well.

Lice will also need to be treated against and will be included in the treatment plan.

For more on Roberts farm and to see how stock are performing indoors, watch the video below.

Watch: why an autumn-calving system suits Offaly BETTER Farm
Organic beef producer Ken Gill calves his 70 suckler cows in the autumn.

Ken Gill is one of two Offaly participants in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm beef challenge. Farming on 95ha of heavy-clay soil in Clonbullogue, Ken is also the only organic beef producer in the programme.

Ken is running a herd of 70 suckler cows. His farming system is simple with the aim to slaughter steers and heifers at 24 months of age, as many off grass as possible. Replacements are also bred on-farm.

As with most organic livestock farms, Ken manages his grassland in a crop rotation to maintain soil health and fertility.

Oats, a pea-barley mix and red clover are the three main crops in the rotation.

Autumn calving

For Ken, autumn calving suits the organic system very well. “Obviously, we can’t spread fertiliser here so autumn calving leaves us with a much lower demand for grass earlier in the year,” Ken explained.

“Calving later gives us time to build up a bank of grass throughout the summer for grazing in the back-end”.

Autumn calving also means the majority of calves are born outdoors. On this farm, it works very well.

“We use the paddocks in front of the house for holding cows for calving. We can keep a good eye on them there.” For the few births that need assistance, the yard is also close by.

Calves born outdoors are also at less risk of exposure to disease or infection than those born inside.

Ken Gill with Teagasc BETTER Farm adviser John Greaney.

2018

In 2018, calving performance was very impressive with 68 calvings occurring within a 10-week period, beginning on the last week of July.

The calving interval for the herd was excellent at 368 days, while the herd’s six-week calving rate was also very impressive at 68%.

Breeding

Breeding takes place indoors and now comprises a high usage of AI. Cows are monitored several times daily for heat and are separated for AI upon obvious signs of heat. No heat detection aids are used.

Previously, cows would have been separated from their calf too while in the AI holding pen, but Ken found this was adding stress to both the cow and the calf.

As a result, a creep gate into the AI holding pen has been installed for calves to gain access to their mothers.

With AI working well, Ken is strongly considering going 100% AI for the forthcoming breeding season.

For more on organic beef production on Ken’s farm, see this week’s Irish Farmers Journal in print or online.

Producing organic beef in Offaly
Matthew Halpin visited organic beef farmer Ken Gill on his farm in Offaly last week.

From Clonbullogue, near Edenderry, Ken Gill is one of two Offaly participants in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge. Ken is also the only organic beef producer in the current phase of the programme. Farming on 95ha of good-quality ground, Ken says his aim is to keep his beef system as simple as possible: “The plan here is to run a herd of 70 cows, to calve them all in the autumn and to finish the bullocks and heifers at two years of age, as many off grass as possible.”

Organics

Operating organically certainly has its differences from conventional farming. What first springs to mind is the inability to use chemicals and artificial fertiliser – a huge part of high-output conventional farming systems. However, there is much more criteria involved in organic farming, some of which includes the requirement for all cattle, including suckler cows, to have access to straw bedding, the ability to only use organic concentrates and being subject to a maximum stocking rate of 170kg N per hectare.

But, organic farmers are incentivised for their work. Across the board, organic farmers receive a subsidy of €170/ha up to the first 60ha and €30/ha thereafter. Organic beef also benefits from a price incentive, usually 20% above the conventional beef price. In Ken’s case, he has had a contract with an organic producer group, Goodherdsman as part of a producer group. The three-year contract offered an appealing price for a steady supply of organic beef. Unfortunately for Ken, contract renewals are not currently being offered and beef prices offered to him have dipped since the start of the year a result.

Management

Excellent management is key to success in organics. To combat the absence of artificial fertiliser and to provide adequate straw for livestock, most organic operators will manage their grassland in a crop rotation – just as Ken Gill does. “I have about one-third of the farm in permanent grassland, but the other two thirds are constantly in a rotation,” Ken explains. The two main crops grown are oats and a barley-pea combi mix. Ken has a contract to supply Flahavan’s with a high proportion of his oats each year, but some of the oats and all of the straw is used for feeding and bedding on the farm. The barley-pea mix, which is basically an arable silage, is pitted and acts as a very high-quality feed during the winter for his weanlings and beef cattle. This is very significant as it greatly reduces the need to purchase organic concentrates, which are usually valued in excess of €500/t.

The rotation of grassland with crops, and also the incorporation of a red clover silage crop into the rotation, is key to maintaining soil health and fertility. Furthermore, cattle slurry, large quantities of farmyard manure, imported dairy sludge and mineral fertilisers play a significant role too. Only last year, 2t/acre of lime was spread in order to free up all available Ns, Ps and Ks.

Performance

To date, the attention to grassland management and feeding is paying off. Reflecting on the 2018 e-Profit Monitor, Ken had a stocking rate of 1.88LU/ha. Albeit, Ken did have a significant fodder reserve to rely on for the year, however, there is no denying that good soil management, combined with improved grazing infrastructure, has made a big difference. Furthermore, animal performance is showing positive too.

The predominant breed on the farm is Angus at present. Ken explains: “Because I’m trying to get as many cattle killed off the grass at two-years-old as I can, I wanted to bring in an early-maturing breed that could hit these targets.” A look at 2018 slaughter performance shows that his bullocks (38) averaged 333kg and graded R=3= at 25 months of age. Heifers (18) killed out at 264kg and R=3+ at 23 months.

However, concerned that his cow size was getting too small, Ken has turned towards more continental breeding in the last two years. “I wanted a little more scope in the cows,” Ken points out. “Because we are using more and more AI, I’ve started bringing in a lot of Simmental and Limousin genes through bulls like Castleview Gazelle (LM) and Lisnacrann Fiftycent (SIM) to breed replacements off.” These cattle won’t be out of place in a group of beef animals either, mind you.

With more continental breeding evident in this autumn’s calves, weights are higher as a result.

Weighing all calves on 1 March, males averaged 228kg and females averaged 221kg. That’s an ADG of 0.99kg and 0.95kg from birth, respectively. These calves were able to walk outdoors to fields beside the yard all winter. Males were castrated three weeks ago. All calves are on the point of weaning now too.

BETTER Farm: improving quality while expanding the herd
As cow numbers jumped from 83 to 115 in five years, the Joe and Harry Lalor's herd replacement index has also improved significantly.

Joe and Harry Lalor are farming full-time on their family farm just outside Ballacolla, Co Laois.

They are the county’s representatives in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge.

The farm's system consists of a 115-cow spring-calving suckler herd and a mid-season lambing flock of 225 ewes and 90 ewe lambs.

Eighty-two hectares of mainly free-draining grassland are apportioned to the cattle enterprise. A further 30ha are for the sheep.

All cattle on the farm are finished. What would have traditionally been a steer-beef farm has transitioned to a bull-beef farm.

Heifers are also slaughtered from 20 to 24 months.

Progress

In 2014, the herd consisted of only 83 cows. That’s a 30-cow increase in five years to 115.

Impressively, as cow numbers have gone up, so too has the herd's replacement index.

The new ICBF five-year trend report for the Lalor’s farm shows that the replacement index for mature cows has jumped from €83 in 2014 to €101 in 2018.

Furthermore, this brings the herd into the top 10% within the country.

Looking at replacement heifers, the trend is similar.

What was €91 in 2014 has since climbed to €107 in 2018, this time just €8 below the top 10%.

Other key performance indicators to improve have been calving interval (376 days down to 367 days) and the percentage of heifers calved between 22 and 26 months (0% up to 90%).

Calving commenced in early March, with 15 out of 115 calved as of Friday 8 March.

Calving

Calving commenced in early March, with 15 out of 115 calved as of Friday 8 March.

The bulk of calving takes place in March and April to alleviate pressure on housing.

“March is often a bad month weather-wise, so leaving it closer to April gives us a better chance of getting newborn calves out quickly”, Harry said.

To find out how calving is going so far this spring, as well as how conditions in 2018 affected the farm, see this week’s Irish Farmers Journal in print and online.