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.

Breeding

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: focus on the basics paying off in Sligo
Glen McDermott’s enthusiasm and hard work is beginning to reap dividends on his Co Sligo suckler farm.

Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge participant Glen McDermott is farming 41ha of variable ground just outside Castlebaldwin, Co Sligo.

The land is split into two blocks in close proximity to each other. There is also a yard on each.

Last year, a further 16ha were also secured under a long-term lease.

The plan is to run an under-16-month bull-beef system and a heifer-beef system with surplus females that are not retained for breeding.

Last spring, 53 cows were bred. This has increased to 66 this breeding season and the ultimate goal is to run a herd of around 80 suckler cows.

Improvements

Since the beginning of the programme, Glen has firmly bought into two key areas of suckler farm improvement – grass and breeding.

On the grass front, soil fertility, spraying, reseeding and even reclaiming newly leased ground have been ongoing processes with very high success rates.

Ground is quickly reaching its full grass-growing potential and to compliment this, paddocks, a water system and roadways have been developed simultaneously.

An under-16-month bull-beef system and breeding replacement heifers for calving at 24 months requires top-quality suckler genetics.

Over the last number of years, the use of AI has been growing steadily.

A combination of maternal and terminal sires are used each season, with Simmental, Charolais and Limousin being the main breeds used.

To quickly build numbers, some maiden heifers were bought in at the start of the year and Glen ensured that these too were four- or five-star animals.

For more information, see this week’s Irish Farmers Journal in print or online or watch the video above.

The corner-stones of suckling
Glen McDermott is working hard and fast to improve grass and breeding on his farm. Matthew Halpin reports

Grass and breeding are two cornerstones of suckling and their contribution to overall suckler farm performance are enormous. For example, Teagasc estimates that increasing the amount of grass utilised on a drystock farm by 1t DM/ha in a year is worth as much as €105/ha. Likewise for breeding, Teagasc research into five key suckler-farm performance indicators, all driven by good breeding, showed the potential to generate an extra €300/cow net margin.

Glen McDermott, the Sligo BETTER farm beef challenge participant, is looking at both grass and breeding to unlock more potential from his farm. On 41ha (owned) plus a recently leased 16ha, he is operating a suckler to under 16-month bull and heifer beef system.

Grass

To maximise a farm’s potential, every acre of ground needs to be fully utilised. Since joining the programme, reclaiming and improving large parts of ground that were under-producing has been key. Soil fertility was the first port-of-call so lime (86t spread in 2017), slurry and compound fertilsers are all being utilised better. Some parts of the farm were dominated by rushes and this problem was corrected with MCPA and Fourfrontier sprays. However, without doubt, the most important element to improving under-performing swards was reseeding – the most significant of which took place last autumn.

Picture one: before.

Early in 2018, Glen put pen to paper on a 12-year lease for 40 acres across the road from his home block. At the time the land was in very marginal condition, the ground was rough, with rushes and old grasses dominating the majority of the sward. Since then, the transformation has been dramatic. In mid-summer work commenced on just over half of the block, with ditches and drains being cleaned. Once that was finished, the ground was sprayed off and the dead material was cut.

Picture two: after.

After that, it was reseeded. Glen did most of this himself giving it three runs of a disc harrow, which he purchased, sowing the grass seed, fertilising and rolling. A full paddock infrastructure was then installed in the back end of the year, complete with a water system and roadway serving all paddocks.

As things stand, the reclaimed ground has received an early application of urea and two applications of 18:6:12. The fourth rotation started late last week with the suckler cow AI group.

Breeding

As the saying goes: an ounce of breeding is worth a tonne of feeding. For Glen, improving the breeding within his suckler herd was a major stepping-stone to improving his farm’s overall performance. “Our plan is to slaughter all bulls under 16-months and also to breed most of our replacements from within the herd at two years of age. “You need good stock to do this,” Glen explained.

A SI2469 Simmental heifer calf.

Dabbling with AI for a number years, this year 100% of breeding will be via AI. A group of 39 cows and a group of 27 maiden heifers are being run with two vasectomised bulls fitted with chin-balls. Last year, Simmental sires Lisnacrann Fifty Cent (SI2469) and Curaheen Earp (SI2152); Limousin sires Elderberry Galahad (EBY) and Castleview Gringo (GWO) and Charolais sires Fiston (FSZ), Gedeon (GEZ) and Cavelands Levi (CH4252) were used. A similar mix of maternal and terminal sires will be used this year. Each cow will receive AI a maximum of three times and each heifer will only get two chances in a bid to keep the calving period tight and fertility high.

A FSZ Charolais bull calf.

The high number of replacement heifers is required to build numbers. With 66 for breeding this year, that’s 13 more than this time last year. “I think around 80 suckler cows is my target for this farm,” he added. Of the 27 maiden heifers, roughly half are home-bred and half were purchased this spring. “I only bought four- or five-star heifers,” he said. “I do believe the stars are identifying the animals with the best breeding potential,” added Glen. Heifers between 390kg and 450kg were purchased and prices ranged from €900 to €1,100 per head.

In pictures: autumn reseed up and running in Mayo
Matthew Halpin checked in with Tommy Holmes in Mayo last week where the first spring rotation on the autumn reseed was nearly complete.

Mayo Teagac/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm beef challenge participant Tommy Holmes is one of the top grass growers in the programme.

After growing over 13t DM/ha in 2017, he went one better in 2018 hitting just below 15t DM/ha for the year.

After joining the programme, infrastructure was the first thing that needed some perfecting. The home block was relatively well set up, but an 8ha out-block was not hitting its full potential. Extra fencing soon resulted in four fields becoming 11 paddocks here.

Furthermore, Tommy explained that measuring grass on a weekly basis allowed him to make grassland management decisions with confidence and helped him to fully utilise what he was growing.

Reseeding

Reseeding is now the final part of the puzzle for Tommy and it is an ongoing process on the farm. The plan is to reseed approximately 5% to 10% of the farm each year.

Last autumn, a seven-acre field on the 20ac out-block was reseeded. The ground was sprayed off, ploughed, disc harrowed and power-harrowed and sowed on 15 September.

The seed mix was fully perennial ryegrass consisting of 3.5kg Seagoe, 3.5kg Dunluce and 4.5kg Abermagic.

Sheep were taken in to graze the new reseed over the winter and to encourage tillering of the new grass.

In spring, the ground first received 2,500gal/acre of cattle slurry, which was followed 10 days later with 23units/acre of N in the form of urea.

The last application has been a dressing of 1.5bags/acre of 18:6:12.

This reseed, along with the remaining 13ac will graze 50 bulls for the summer; two groups of 25.

The first rotation of cattle grazing is almost finished. It would have been finished sooner had wet weather in March not forced re-housing for a time.

For more information, read the article in this week’s Irish Farmers Journal in print or online.