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: a good start on the Redstart in Laois
Out-wintering on Redstart has got off to the perfect start for Harry and Joe Lalor in Laois. James Dunne reports.

For Co Laois Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge participants Joe and Harry Lalor, their first time out-wintering cattle on Redstart is going well so far.

With a total of 13ac of Redstart sown, the father-and-son pair have 71 cattle out on the crop at present; 66 weanling heifers and five cull cows.

For feed-out, the fence is being moved two yards twice daily while a bale of silage is also being allocated once daily to ensure fibre is maintained in the diet.

Problems with heifers going under the strip-wire have been rectified by putting a bracket on the temporary fencing stakes and running a second poly-wire along the feed face.

While the crop was being sown, a 30ft strip of headland was left outside the cattle to make access the round feeder easier when delivering the bale of silage. This has worked very well keeping ground damage from heavy machinery to a minimum.


The crop was sown by direct-drilling on 1 August after a crop of silage was harvested. The direct drilling method resulted in no disturbance of the sod by simply cutting a slot in the ground and then dropping the seed into that slot.

Harry explained his thinking behind using the direct-drilling method: “We burned off the grass after the silage was cut and sowed the Redstart by direct drilling. It works very well now having the bit of grass coming up with the crop because it keeps the soil structure in place.”

The field only got two bags of 22.7-2.5-5 fertiliser/ac during sowing as it was felt that nutrient levels in the soil would be good as a result of the 18:6:12 for the silage crop.

All cattle were bolused before going on to the crop to help eliminate any problems with copper or iodine deficiencies.

To manage the changeover from grass to brassicas, cattle were eased on to the Redstart for around five days, only getting five or six hours per day.

Once they were waiting to get back into it, they were kept there permanently.

Faster growing

The Lawlors also have another 14ac of rape, which was sown on stubble ground. This was sown late, around 10 September, as the barley crop was late getting harvested.

The decision was taken to sow rape as opposed to Redstart as it is a faster growing crop.

All going well, the rape should be at a suitable height for feeding out by the time the Redstart has been grazed.

The Lalors made use of the Fodder Production Incentive Scheme, which allocated €100/ha for sowing catch crops such as rape and Redstart after tillage crops. It is hoped the crops will last until the end of January and, after that, the cattle will go out to grass before first-cut silage fertiliser is applied.

BETTER farm: remembering quality as well as quantity
This week, Matthew Halpin looks at the results of the silage samples taken on the BETTER Farm beef challenge farms recently.

By now, farmers across the country are probably worn out at the thoughts of completing fodder budgets and listening to advice around measuring and managing silage stocks and winter feed demand. With much of the focus in recent months being directed at the quantity of silage in the yard, one element that has possibly been forgotten about is the need to test for silage quality.

But why is this important? Well think of it this way: every dairy farmer certainly knows the protein content of their dairy nut for example. And every beef farmer will more than likely know the protein and energy value of their beef ration too. Furthermore, it goes without saying that silage is probably the number one component in winter diets across beef, dairy and sheep farms in Ireland meaning there is no good reason why you shouldn’t know its feeding value too.

Silage sampling on the BETTER Farms

As part of the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge, all participants must take silage samples at the beginning of each winter. The importance of taking silage samples this year is perhaps even greater than other years due to difficulties experienced on many farms as a consequence of the extreme weather conditions. Once silage sample results have been received, each participant will have the chance to formulate winter diets accordingly, with the help of their local B&T adviser and their BETTER farm programme advisor. In many cases this can go a long way in reducing quantities of silage or meal offered to animals or in improving animal performance.


Table 1 gives the average result of first-cut and second-cut silage samples across the entire group of participant farms. This table alone suggests that both first and second cuts are in-or-around where they need to be. DMD is perhaps the figure that most people will look to first. With average DMD sitting at just under 70% and 69% for first and second cuts, respectively, there is certainly room for improvement. Obliviously some are making the desired 70% plus DMD silage, but there is also a strong cohort still below the magic 70% DMD figure. Going forward, to get the majority of BETTER farms to optimum silage quality, this average DMD figure will need to rise above 72-73%.

It is also worth commenting on the difference in DM% which pretty much reflects the conditions experienced during 2018. First-cut silage averaged a reasonably high 29% DM across all BETTER farms, however, the almost 33% DM average recorded for second-cuts on these farms is remarkably high, but an expected result given the drought conditions towards the latter part of the grass growing season.

Silage sample measures explained

Dry matter (%):

This is the amount of matter remaining after all water has been removed. The energy and protein value of silage is quoted in %DM. The higher the DM, the higher the intake of energy and protein will be for every 1kg of fresh weight silage an animal eats. In general lower DM silage will have lower intakes and higher DM silage will have higher intakes.


A well preserved silage should have a pH of between 3.8 and 4.5. You can get away with a dry, high-pH silage, however, a wet silage with a high pH, will not keep as well and usually intakes will be low. If pH is below 3.8, this can lead to acidic conditions, a sharp smell and a higher risk of acidosis.

Ammonia-N levels (% of total N):

High ammonia levels show poor preservation. This can be due to high grass nitrogen levels at cutting or low sugar possibly from wet, young grass being cut. Values of <5% indicate excellent preservation, while >15% will lead to reduced intakes.

Crude protein (%):

This measures the protein concentration of the silage. Young leafy reseeded swards will have higher protein values. Inadequate fertiliser applications can lead to lower protein levels.

Values >15% indicate young leafy swards. Too high of a crude protein value (17% +) can be a sign that a good portion of the plant’s protein will be rapidly degradable and thus not easily utilised.

Also, feeding very high crude protein silages during breeding is not advised.

ME (MJ/kg):

This is the amount of energy in the silage. Young grass will have the highest energy while mature grass will have lowest energy. The younger and dryer the grass, the more energy the silage will supply for milk production in suckler cows and liveweight gain in beef stock.

DMD value (%):

DMD stands for dry matter digestibility. This is a measure of the feeding value of the silage expressed as a percentage. Late cut, old swards can have a DMD as low as 55DMD while excellent leafy silage can be > 75DMD. Silage with a high DMD will be digested quicker and lead to higher intakes.

Dry matter: 20-30%

pH: 4-4.5

Ammonia-N: <10.1

Crude protein: 13.5-17%

ME (Energy): >9.8

DMD: >70%

Watch: Scotland hosts BETTER Farm study tour
Last week, the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm beef challenge participants visited Edinburgh, Scotland

The Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge’s annual study took place in Scotland last week.

Touching down in Edinburgh airport on Tuesday afternoon last, a farm tour and a visit to AgriScot agricultural show were squeezed-in before departing for home once again on Thursday afternoon.

Farm tour

Ewan Smith hosted the 26-person group of visiting farmers on his farm on Tuesday evening. Ewan farms 600ac of tillage in East Lothian, just outside Edinburgh, however, the farm also has a feedlot which finishes between 400 and 500 cattle annually.

Ewan’s system is very much in the minority in that area of Scotland.

Given the high quality of the land, much of the efforts in the area are focused on arable farming. Dairy also plays a big part.

Roughly speaking, the ratio of dairy and beef farms in the area and further south would be 50:50, much higher than the 80:20 ratio in favour of beef farming further north.

Ewan Smith.

Cattle purchased are 90% dairy-bred, typically between 12- and 18-months old, at liveweights of 300-500kg.

All stock are weighed, EID tagged and vaccinated for IBR on arrival. They are vaccinated for fluke and worms six weeks after this.

There are no slats on the farm, meaning all cattle lie on straw beds. They are cleaned every six to eight weeks.

Given the vast areas of tillage in the area, the farm is self-sufficient in straw and grain.

Furthermore, Ewan has access to bi-products of food manufacturing such as pot-ale, draft (wet distiller’s grains), vegetables and even pure potato starch. This significantly reduces feed costs on the farm.

AgriScot beef demonstration

An interactive demonstration was the stand-out beef event at AgriScot agricultural show this year. It demonstrated how a butcher selects prime cuts and how finishers can meet the butcher’s requirements. The audience could interact with questions using electronic handsets.

The markings on this animal show the variance in meat cuts on different regions of the carcase and the corresponding difference in values of each cut.

The butcher informed the audience that section A contains the most expensive meat cuts like the sirloin, fillet and rib cuts.

Next, was section C which contains the rump and round roasts.

After this is section D which contains the chuck, brisket and shank; while section B contains the least-valuable cuts with the flank and manufacturing beef originating here.

The markings on this animal show the differences in the loin and the rump of the carcase. The traditional Sunday roast comes from part D of the rump. Part A contains the sirloin and fillet, part B is the rump and part C is the top-side.

To learn more about the beef demonstration and Ewan Smith’s finishing operation, see this week’s Irish Farmers Journal in print and online and watch the video above.