Ricky, with the aid of his father Henry and family, operates a suckler to steer-beef and dairy-calf-to-beef system on the outskirts of Robertstown, Co Kildare.
The farm compromises of 63.9ha in total, 20.2ha of which is tillage, with the remaining 49.2ha in grassland.
The land itself can be described as being top-quality free-draining soil, which has the potential for an extended grazing season.
The grassland area is split in two blocks; the main block of over 25ha is situated around the yard, with the remaining 24.2ha outfarm situated approximately 4km away in Newtown Donore.
Forty spring-calving suckler cows with a genetic base of Hereford crossed with Simmental and Limousin and a 40-calf dairy-calf-to-beef system make up Ricky's beef enterprise.
All stock on the farm is taken to beef. Males are slaughtered as steers at 20 to 24 months of age. Heifers are slaughtered slightly earlier at 20 to 22 months of age.
To boost profitability, Ricky is planning to increase the dairy-calf-to-beef operation to 60 to 70 calves and to slightly increase suckler numbers to 45.
The increase in dairy-calf-to-beef would complement the sucklers already in place on the farm. Ricky already has suitable infrastructure in place on the farm to cater for them.
The farm was making steady progress until last year, when extreme weather events during the spring and summer took their toll on the farm. The extended dry spell over the summer severely reduced grass growth.
That, coupled with the late spring, meant a lot of extra meal and forage was purchased, resulting in a significant extra cost.
While 2018 was one to forget, Ricky is enthusiastic about the future. The primary focus will be building fodder stocks next year and continuing the push to maximise the potential of the farm.
Feeding the soil to produce the feed
Approximately 90% of the soils sampled in Ireland are sub-optimal in one of the three major nutrients – pH, phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). As part of the Teagac/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge, we aim to improve soil fertility on participating farms.
The target for farmers participating in the challenge is to have a pH average of 6.1 on mineral soils and an average pH of 5.7 for peaty soils.
Along with looking to improve pH levels, farmers are also looking to improve P and K levels, aiming to have at least 70% of the farm in index 3 for both P and K by the end of the programme.
On each farm at the commencement of the programme, one soil sample was taken on every four hectares to determine the P, K and lime status.
Using these results, a nutrient management plan was prepared for the farm to try to rectify any nutrient imbalances.
A soil pH of between 6.3 and 6.5 is ideal to allow for maximum nutrient uptake by grass. Correcting the pH is the first requirement in optimising grass growth.
Figure 1 shows that all of Ricky’s soil samples are pH 6.2 or higher, so Ricky just needs to monitor and maintain these levels.
Recent studies have shown that grassland soils maintained at pH 6.3 to 6.5 have the potential to release approximately 60kg to 80kg/ha more nitrogen (N) than soils with pH 5.0, thus representing a significant cost-saving opportunity. Looking at Figures 2 and 3, there was major soil fertility issues to be addressed on the farm with regards to P and K. The results show that almost the entire farm is low in phosphorus, with 44% of the soils at index 1 and 49% at index 2. Just 7% of the farm was in the optimum index of 3 or greater.
Ricky Milligan measuring grass with BETTER farm adviser Tommy Cox.
Phosphorus is very important for crop establishment and root development; it also plays an important role in the nutrition of livestock. Soils at P index 1 will produce approximately 1.5t/ha less of grass dry matter compared with soils at index 3; therefore, an improvement was essential for extra grass growth.
Potassium levels are also an issue, with less than 20% of the farm in index 3. Potassium increases stem strength, improves drought resistance, cold tolerance and, most importantly, increases yield.
Since the programme started, lower-index paddocks have being targeted with slurry, farmyard manure and compound fertiliser containing high levels of P and K, as opposed to spreading straight nitrogen which was often applied in the past.
Hitting the specs with Hereford beef
All farmers participating in the challenge must be Bord Bia quality assured and must aspire to finish stock which meet all the required specifications.
Liveweight must also be measured three times annually to ensure performance targets are being achieved and to ensure cattle stay in-spec.
In order to get better prices, farmers must finish stock that has good conformation scores and correct fat covers to achieve above and beyond the base price.
Happy with Herefords in Kildare
Hereford is the predominant breed on Ricky Milligan’s farm, with a Hereford stock bull used and the majority of dairy-cross calves coming from Hereford sires.
This early-maturing beef breed has, in recent decades, declined in popularity, with suckler farms turning to continental breeds instead. However, this is not the case in Robertstown as Ricky believes that Herefords are the best breed for his system, as housing is scare and Herefords, being an early-maturing breed, have an edge with their potential to be finished off grass prior to the second winter.
To add further value to the product, the farm is a member of the Irish Hereford Prime programme where price bonuses of €0.10 to €0.25/kg can be secured based on the time of the year and the specifications of the cattle.
Generally, carcases must grade minimum O=, not exceed a fat score of 4= and weigh between 220kg and 380kg to receive these bonuses. Only animals less than 30 months of age qualify for the bonus payment.
All males on Ricky's farm are castrated at six months of age and slaughtered as steers at 20 to 24 months of age, while his female progeny, along with dairy-cross heifers, are also brought to beef at the slightly younger age of 20 months.
Typically, concentrates are not be introduced to finishing stock until September at the earliest, as cheaper liveweight gain can be obtained from grass.
The BETTER farm spring walk on Ricky Milligan's farm takes place on Thursday 11 April at 1pm. The farm is located at Robertstown, Naas, Co Kildare, W91 TY32. It is a KT approved event.