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.”
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.
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.
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.