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.

Plenty of progress in Donegal
Matthew Halpin visited the Grieve farm in Donegal last week for an update on the farm's progress.

Father and son partnership Gerard and John Grieve are the Donegal participants of the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge.

The land base comprises of 45ha, a portion of which is leased in. The land would be described as predominantly heavy.

Gerard and John are running a suckler and sheep system.

Since the commencement of the BETTER farm programme, suckler cow numbers have increased from just above the 30-cow mark to 40 suckler cows.

In turn, ewe numbers have decreased slightly to just over the 100 mark.

Adviser John Greaney with John and Gerard Grieve.

The farm system has also undergone a slight change, with all male progeny now being brought to under-16-month bull beef – a shift away from what used to be a weanling system.

Last year, 10 2017-born bulls were finished under 16 months as a trial. Satisfied with the performance of these bulls, all male progeny from 2018 are now in the shed for finishing in this system.

A bull in the under-16-month system.

Down the road, the Grieves are even looking at the option of constructing a finishing shed and purchasing in bulls to go along with their own stock to supplement output and gross margin.

All 2018-born males are being finished.

A small batch of dairy bull calves were purchased in this year and reared.

They are currently housed and will be turned out to grass as early as possible, with the plan being to slaughter these at 20 months.

The dairy bull calves.

Not fully sold on the system, John and Gerard are not planning on buying dairy calves this spring and will instead opt to hold on to their heifer weanling for the winter as opposed to selling them as weanlings.

2018

Last year was an excellent year for the farm.

Given the heavy nature of the land, it was a bumper year in terms of grass growth.

Looking at Pasturebase figures, in excess of 3t DM/ha extra grass was grown over the course of the year.

This is further reflected in the fact that the date for making second-cut silage was six weeks earlier than the previous year and even allowed for an unprecedented third cut to be made.

Performance was also very high.

Scanning saw 41 females out of 42 in-calf, while average daily gain for the bull calves was 1.2kg throughout the summer and autumn.

Those 41 females scanned in-calf have just begun calving, which will continue until mid-March.

Calves sired by the new CF52 stock bull.
Calving has commenced.

For more on the Grieve farm, see this Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal in print or online

ABC in Donegal
Matthew Halpin visited the Grieve family farm last week to get an update on progress for 2019.

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.

Arrivals

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.

Bulls

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.

Calves

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.

Watch: thoughts turn to calving and grass in Louth
Matthew Halpin visited Martin O’Hare in Louth, where calving and grass were the main topics of discussion.

Martin O’Hare is the Louth representative in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge.

Located close to Dundalk, the farm is comprised of just over 47ha of grassland and just over 10ha of crops.

The proportion of grassland has increased since the beginning of the programme.

All land could be described as top-quality and free-draining.

On these 47ha, Martin is running a herd of 100 suckler cows.

Calving is split roughly 75:25 between spring and autumn.

A further 20 to 30 store cattle are also purchased each year, bringing stocking rate to an impressive 3.1LU/ha – a target set by the BETTER farm management team and local Teagasc adviser Hugh Rooney.

The farm is currently operating an all-beef system, with bulls being slaughtered under 16 months of age and heifers slaughtered at 24 months of age, apart from replacements.

Spring calving

At present, Martin has 82 animals to calve this spring.

Preparations are in full swing for calving, with close attention being paid to the dietary and health requirements of the herd.

The calving gate is ready to go.

Last year’s calves are performing exceptionally well.

The 30 bull weanlings are indoors on slats, receiving high-quality 73 DMD silage, a small allocation of straw and 6kg to 7kg/head/day of ration.

When weighed just after Christmas, the average weight of the group was 423kg, representing an average daily gain of 1.2kg from birth.

The plan for these bulls will be to push meal feeding up to ad-lib by the middle of February for slaughter 100 to 120 days later around 1 June.

Spring 2018 heifers were kept outdoors all winter on a GLAS catch crop.

Performance of these heifers has been exceptional, greatly helped by the perfect out-wintering weather conditions.

Heifers out-wintered on a GLAS catch crop.

With 37 heifers in the group, some will be picked out as replacements, while the rest will be for sale.

While all surplus heifers have traditionally been taken through to beef, Martin may look at the possibility of selling some surplus heifers as stores at one year old.

Heifers are supplemented with silage and ration.

Grass 2019

After walking the farm last week, early grass prospects are excellent.

Roughly half of the farm has strong grass covers. These strong covers will be spread with 0.5bag urea/acre and targeted for early grazing.

On heavy covers on the home block, the plan will be to turn out newborn calves and cows, if conditions allow.

On the out blocks, Martin hopes to use his 21 autumn cows and calves and his 2018-born weanling heifers to do all of the early grazing.

On the lighter covers, slurry will be applied.

By the time the heavier covers that received urea are grazed, those fields that receive slurry now should be fit for grazing then.

Lighter or poorer covers will receive slurry.

Looking further down the line, Martin will hope to close up his silage ground in the first week of April to meet his projected end of May cutting date, which will require all silage ground to be grazed tightly prior to this.

Of course, all of this is very much weather-dependant, but, at the same time, it is important to have some plan in place when it comes to grassland management.

After all, you can only play with what’s in front of you.

For more on how Martin is preparing for spring calving, see this week's Irish Farmers Journal in print and online.