Watch: meet new BETTER farmer Ger McSweeney
Cork farmer Ger McSweeney joined the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm beef challenge this year and has begun working towards his targets.

Ger McSweeney farms on just under 40ha outside Millstreet, Co Cork.

His farm is mostly heavy in nature and is split in two. However, the outfarm is less than a five-minute drive away.

Ger is currently running a herd of 33 suckler cows, predominantly Limousin-cross. The plan is to reach 50 suckler cows by 2020.

The herd has also been split-calving, spring and autumn, in recent times, but this is set to come to an end this year, as Ger looks to streamline labour input with a 100% spring-calving herd.

Calving will begin in December and run to the end of February.

Ger explained that December to February calving allows him to “get the full benefits from grass with strong calves” and allows him to “have an animal for sale at off-peak times”.

Previously, a weanling system was in operation, but this has moved to an under-16-month bull and 22- to 24-month heifer beef system.


As the herd expands, Ger is also hoping to expand his use of AI.

Incorporating terminal and maternal characteristics into a herd to cater for the beef system and breeding replacements on farm is something that Ger says can be challenging so AI, he said, “could give me a greater opportunity to use bulls high up on both traits”.

Capitalising on grass potential

Good grassland management is something Ger has really embraced over the last two years.

The adoption of a paddock system and the uptake of grass measuring on a weekly basis has been, and will continue to be, an underpinning factor for the future progression of the farm.

Ger said: “This year, I took out between 80 and 90 surplus bales. I never would have had these before.”

For the future, the plan is to turn attention to soil fertility.

With local Teagasc B&T adviser Ellen Standish, soil samples will be taken in spring and nutrient deficiencies will be addressed accordingly.

Land reclamation

This year, a big reclamation job was carried out on 3ac of ground unfit for grazing.

Firstly, ground was turned-up with a digger before last winter.

Then in June, during the drought, the whole field was cleaned off. Springs were then marked and drained into a nearby stream.

The land was then levelled before reseeding with a heavy soils mix using a one-pass system. It also received lime and four bags of 10:10:20 during seeding.

Since then, it has received a post-emergence spray and a further two bags of 10:10:20.

Ger said: “It is so important to utilise what you have on the farm first before looking at anything else.”

To read more about Ger and his plans as part of the BETTER Farm beef challenge, see this week’s Irish Farmers Journal in print and online.

Watch: pulling out the plate meter in Offaly
Matthew Halpin visited John Dunne in Offaly this week, where grass measuring was firmly on the agenda.

Having reached mid-February and with grass and ground in excellent condition, farmers right across the country should be looking to get stock to grass at every opportunity.

However, before rushing out too many animals, it is worth taking a few hours to do an opening grass cover measurement – something that John Dunne, along with his son James, recently conducted.

John and James farm just over 110ha, outside Portarlington, in Co Offaly. There is a single home block with two yards situated on it, while another substantial grazing block is leased about 10 miles away. Land type is primarily very good.


John operates a steer- and heifer-beef system. He plans to run over 100 suckler cows and to purchase in a further 100 dairy-bred calves.

Unfortunately, 2018 was a very difficult year on the farm. A bout of pneumonia hit during the spring, with a number of young calves lost. Suckler cow numbers took a hit as cows were culled.

Calving has commenced, wih seven cows calved so far.

This spring, there are 70 females due to calve. Calving commenced 10 days ago and to date seven cows have calved, with one bearing a set of twins.

Seventy cows is well below where John wants to be, but the plan is to up his numbers as soon as possible. Assuming he carries over 60 to 65 of his current herd for next year, he hopes to get a batch of at least 40 heifers together for breeding this spring. Keen to try his hand at AI, this bunch of heifers will be the perfect starting point.

On the topic of dairy calves, John is still undecided as to how many he will purchase. Having got on well with calves in the past and the boost to cash flow they bring, he would like to buy. That said, the price must be right.

Work plan

Elsewhere on the farm, 108 spring 2018-born steers and heifers were kept outdoors on a forage crop all winter. The crop was sown in mid-September and while the yield wasn’t huge, utilisation was excellent. The steers also received 1.5kg/head of concentrates and had daily access to silage.

All 2018-born stock were out-wintered.

There is less than a week left of this crop. Once gone, bulls and heifers will be spilt and let to grass. Silage ground will be grazed first. When split, heifers will be weighed and evaluated to identify potential breeders.

Dairy-bred heifers will need to be at least 360kg at breeding (1 May) and continental stock will need to be 380kg. To reach these targets, the animals need to be 300kg and 320kg respectively at this week's weighing.

Fertiliser also needs to be spread. This week, the plan is to spread half a bag (23 units) of urea per acre across most of the farm. Slurry has not yet been spread and this will only be done after the silage ground is fully grazed off.

Grass measuring

Measuring grass is a critical part of good grassland management.

The steps for measuring grass using a plate meter are as follows:

  • Record the opening reading on the platemeter.
  • Walk the field/paddock (in a w or v shape), taking a designated number of drops. Anywhere between 20 and 50 drops works well. The more drops, the greater the accuracy.
  • Record the closing reading on the platemeter.
  • Subtract the opening reading from the closing reading and divide by twice the number of drops (each step on the platemeter is 0.5cm). For example, if 30 drops were taken, divide the difference by 60.
  • The result will be the cm of grass in the paddock. To convert to kg DM/ha, every cm over 4cm contains 250kg DM/ha.
    BETTER farm: feed costs climb 68% in 2018
    In the second part of the BETTER farm profit monitor analysis, Matthew Halpin looks at how on-farm costs took a significant jump in 2018.

    In the first part of the 2018 Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge e-Profit Monitor analysis last week, we revealed that despite overall production (kg/ha) within the programme being up 17%, the group’s average gross margin (€/ha) was down 13%. As we can reveal this week, a sharp rise in on-farm costs was the main reason for the decline.


    Table 1 provides a detailed breakdown of the variable costs incurred among the different systems, while Figure 1 provides a year on year costs comparison between 2018 and 2017. Overall, total variable costs have risen by €349/ha to €1,158. This marks a 43% year on year increase.

    By delving deeper into the variable costs, the reasons for such an increase start to become clear. Firstly, as farm plans begin to take shape, many farms implemented a systems change. As discussed last week, the number of weanling producers fell from seven to just one, while the number of under 16-month bull systems jumped from five to 12. Despite typically having the highest output, under 16-month bull beef also requires higher levels of inputs, predominantly in extra feed costs. Alternatively, weanling systems have lower output but usually incur the least costs.

    So, as a large number of farmers moved towards systems which offered high levels of output, it stands to reason that variable costs would increase too. But was this the sole reason? I think a key metric here is the cost to output ratio.

    Quite simply, this figure, given as a percentage, expresses a farm’s variable costs relative to its output. Roughly speaking, suckler farms will have a costs to output ratio of 50-60%. Looking at the cost to margin ratio for 2017, the overall group ratio was 53%. In 2018, it was 65%. With that, it can be determined that while extra production led to extra costs, other factors caused the disproportionate increase in costs. Unsurprisingly, the weather conditions were the biggest culprit.

    During both the terrible spring conditions and the prolonged summer drought with no growth, many farmers were forced into significant levels of extra expenditure on feed. Farm feed costs soared by almost 70% (€200/ha) as a result. Attempts to kick-start growth during the summer with extra fertiliser spreading caused expenditure on fertiliser and lime to climb by 32% (€59/ha). Other costs, such as contractors rose by 56%, while there was also significantly higher vet costs in a few individual cases as a result of the bad spring.

    Regional variation

    While poor weather conditions impacted all farms, the extent to which farms were affected depended heavily on location. Broadly speaking, the whole country suffered during the spring with heavy rainfall, snow and stormy conditions delaying turn-out. However, it was a case of mixed fortunes during the summer as farmers in the south burned-up but northern farms witnessed record growth.

    Figure 2 details the difference in feed costs by region for 2017 and 2018. As expected, southern counties were the worst hit, with feed costs in the south increasing by 168% (€469/ha) and by 106% (€282/ha) in the south-east. On the other end of the scale, feed costs in the west and north only rose by 25% (€83/ha).

    Watch: completing an eProfit Monitor
    Ahead of the BETTER farm eProfit Monitor analysis for 2018, Matthew Halpin looks at the steps involves in completing the forms.

    The 2018 e-Profit Monitor results for the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge participants are in. Inside this Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal will be the first of a three-part series analysing the financial performance of the programme participants for the last 12 months.

    After an extremely tough 2018, it is pleasing to see that on-farm productivity has increased, though the extra costs stemming from tough weather conditions have impacted the group’s gross margins.

    eProfit Monitor

    Carrying out an eProfit Monitor for 2018 should be a priority for all drystock farmers. After all, a farm is a business and every business is built on financial performance.

    If completing with the assistance of your local B&T advisor, the first step involved is to download and print the Teagasc drystock profit monitor input sheet. This input sheet can be found here.

    Alternatively, if completing the form by yourself, log in to ICBF Herdplus, select applications and then profit monitor.

    It is important that you know exactly what you’re doing if attempting to complete your own profit monitor on Herdplus.

    Direct payments

    Sales and direct payments” is the first income section to be filled in. The value of your basic payments and other premia are required here. All this information can be found here.

    Livestock sales and purchases

    The next section that requires income information is livestock sales and purchases details. The information needed for this can be found in your ICBF Herdplus account under the sales and purchase history section.

    Livestock opening, closing and average details

    This section gives the average number of stock on the farm over the year, as well as looking at the livestock inventory. It is vital to record inventory changes from the year. This information can again be accessed through the profit monitor section of your ICBF Herdplus account under livestock summary. It is then up to you to give a realistic valuation of your current stock using Teagasc's standardised livestock valuations.

    Variable and fixed costs

    Variable and fixed costs is the final section of the input sheet to be filled out. Many farmers may find it difficult to dig out the information required, but there are a number of sources available. My advice here is to contact feed suppliers, merchants and vets that you buy from and ask them to print account summaries for 2018 – they should be happy to do so. After this, look back at the cheque book, dockets and invoices and online banking for further expenditure.

    There is a lot of crossover with fixed costs and although they’re not easy to calculate, they’re vital to understand. Average fixed costs on drystock farms are around €500/ha. Buildings usually depreciate by 5-10% annually, machinery depreciating from 10%-20% depending on the machine.

    Analysing your results

    The most important part of the process is to then sit down and analyse your completed eProfit Monitor. Examine where the strengths and weakness are within your system and use this information as a tool to improve your margin for 2019. Furthermore, look at the 2018 eProfit Monitor results for the BETTER farms in this Thursday’s paper and see how you compare.