Watch: thoughts turn to calving and grass in Louth
Matthew Halpin visited Martin O’Hare in Louth, where calving and grass were the main topics of discussion.

Martin O’Hare is the Louth representative in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge.

Located close to Dundalk, the farm is comprised of just over 47ha of grassland and just over 10ha of crops.

The proportion of grassland has increased since the beginning of the programme.

All land could be described as top-quality and free-draining.

On these 47ha, Martin is running a herd of 100 suckler cows.

Calving is split roughly 75:25 between spring and autumn.

A further 20 to 30 store cattle are also purchased each year, bringing stocking rate to an impressive 3.1LU/ha – a target set by the BETTER farm management team and local Teagasc adviser Hugh Rooney.

The farm is currently operating an all-beef system, with bulls being slaughtered under 16 months of age and heifers slaughtered at 24 months of age, apart from replacements.

Spring calving

At present, Martin has 82 animals to calve this spring.

Preparations are in full swing for calving, with close attention being paid to the dietary and health requirements of the herd.

The calving gate is ready to go.

Last year’s calves are performing exceptionally well.

The 30 bull weanlings are indoors on slats, receiving high-quality 73 DMD silage, a small allocation of straw and 6kg to 7kg/head/day of ration.

When weighed just after Christmas, the average weight of the group was 423kg, representing an average daily gain of 1.2kg from birth.

The plan for these bulls will be to push meal feeding up to ad-lib by the middle of February for slaughter 100 to 120 days later around 1 June.

Spring 2018 heifers were kept outdoors all winter on a GLAS catch crop.

Performance of these heifers has been exceptional, greatly helped by the perfect out-wintering weather conditions.

Heifers out-wintered on a GLAS catch crop.

With 37 heifers in the group, some will be picked out as replacements, while the rest will be for sale.

While all surplus heifers have traditionally been taken through to beef, Martin may look at the possibility of selling some surplus heifers as stores at one year old.

Heifers are supplemented with silage and ration.

Grass 2019

After walking the farm last week, early grass prospects are excellent.

Roughly half of the farm has strong grass covers. These strong covers will be spread with 0.5bag urea/acre and targeted for early grazing.

On heavy covers on the home block, the plan will be to turn out newborn calves and cows, if conditions allow.

On the out blocks, Martin hopes to use his 21 autumn cows and calves and his 2018-born weanling heifers to do all of the early grazing.

On the lighter covers, slurry will be applied.

By the time the heavier covers that received urea are grazed, those fields that receive slurry now should be fit for grazing then.

Lighter or poorer covers will receive slurry.

Looking further down the line, Martin will hope to close up his silage ground in the first week of April to meet his projected end of May cutting date, which will require all silage ground to be grazed tightly prior to this.

Of course, all of this is very much weather-dependant, but, at the same time, it is important to have some plan in place when it comes to grassland management.

After all, you can only play with what’s in front of you.

For more on how Martin is preparing for spring calving, see this week's Irish Farmers Journal in print and online.

BETTER farm spring walks: the messages to take home
Matthew Halpin reflects on the key points of the recent BETTER farm beef challenge spring walks.

The Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm Beef Challenge spring walks have passed, signalling just how quickly the year is moving on. On Thursday 4 April, Maurice Hearne welcomed around 100 people to his mixed suckler, beef, sheep and tillage farm in Dunmore East, Co Waterford. The following Thursday, 11 April, Ricky Milligan hosted a similar crowd on his suckler calf-to-beef and tillage holding near Naas, in Co Kildare. In this article we present some of the key learnings.

First-cut silage

Given the time of the year, a strong emphasis was placed on growing silage crops at both walks. The main points of advice were around closing up and fertiliser application. Table 1 details the effect of cutting date on silage quality and yield, and on the subsequent animal intake and liveweight gain.

Farmers seeking high-quality silage should be targeting a cutting date before 1 June. However, because yield is compromised in a strive for quality, farmers should also consider the type of stock they are carrying over the winter.

Weanlings and beef animals will need high-quality silage, but dry cows can make do with lower quality, thus allowing a higher yield to be obtained at cutting.

After picking a target cutting date, target close-up needs to be determined.

Fifty days is the length of time a silage crop will take to grow in normal growing conditions. Once closed, getting crop nutrition right is paramount. Figure 2 shows the nutrient requirements for first-cut silage, based on the soil index.

Remember to take note of the N volume applied. A silage crop will utilise around two units/acre of N daily. If 100 units/acre is applied, the crop can’t be cut for 50 days.

Grassland weeds

Grassland weeds are evident in a lot of swards subjected to severe drought stress last summer. In Kildare, Shay Phelan, crops specialist with Teagasc, explained: “Weeds are opportunists, the seeds are in the soil all the time. They’re just looking for sunlight and the correct conditions to grow.”

With grass under severe pressure last summer and with swards grazed bare, weeds got the opportunity to germinate.

Once established in the sward, weeds can have a significant financial impact on a farm. “Firstly, think of the price of nitrogen, think of the price of P and K. The weeds are using up those nutrients, they are competing with the grass and they are costing you money,” Shay explained. “Weeds are also reducing the performance ability of animals grazing the sward. Output targets are far less achievable.”

According to Shay, an integrated weed management approach is best: “Gone are the days where the answer is a can of spray. Grazing management, topping, alternating grazing and silage should come first. A herbicide should be the last option.”

Grazing ground tightly this spring may be enough to choke out the weeds once again. However, where spraying is required, the best time to spray is when the weed is young (definitely before it produces seed heads) and when growth is good (to maximise herbicide uptake). Despite usually being more expensive, longer-acting herbicides were recommended.

Soil fertility

Farmers at both farm walks were guided through five steps to building soil fertility:

Step 1 – soil test

A soil test should be carried out at least every five years but, in cases where swards are being pushed hard, every three years is ideal. Testing will provide a phosphorous (P), potassium (K) and pH analysis of the soil.

Step 2 – soil pH

Optimum soil pH is between 6.3 and 6.5. Where pH is maintained close to the optimum range, an increase in grass DM production of at least 1t/ha/year can be achieved.

This has subsequently been calculated as a €105/ha benefit or a return of €4 for every €1 invested in lime. Lime can be spread at any time of the year but single applications should not exceed 7.5t/ha.

Step 3 – P and K

Farmers should aim for grassland P and K indexes of three and four. Soils at index three or four for P and K, compared to index one, can grow an extra 1.5t DM/ha annually. Building P and K levels is a long-term task which will require P and K to be applied at maintenance, plus build-up levels.

Step 4 – slurry

The majority of the nutritional value in slurry is in K (69%) and P (19%). For this reason, P and K should be used primarily for low-index soils. Every 1,000 gallons of slurry provide five units/acre P and 30 units/acre K. The timing of spreading has no effect on the availability of P and K. Nitrogen in slurry will range from three to six units/acre per 1,000 gallons depending on weather conditions. In monetary terms, 1,000 gallons of cattle slurry is worth between €20-€25.

Step 5 – balance

Soil fertility is only as strong as its weakest link, so the nutrient that is in shortest supply limits grass yield. Compound fertilisers should be used as a balancer to target nutrients which need building.

Sulphur is one thing to consider. Although there is no test for it, 30% of Irish soils need it. Grazing ground should get about 20kg/ha (16 units/acre) of sulphur annually.

Listen: getting that spring feeling at Kildare BETTER farm walk
Silage making, breeding, grassland weeds and calf-to-beef were just some of the topics covered at the second BETTER farm spring walk on Thursday.

On what was a very pleasant spring day in Kildare, a crowd of close to 100 people attended the second Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge spring event on Thursday.

The walk, which was hosted by suckler-to-steer and dairy-calf-to-beef farmer Ricky Milligan, covered a broad range of topics focusing on key management factors for this spring.

Disappearing before my eyes

The first stand on the day was presented by BETTER farm adviser Tommy Cox, who gave an in-depth breakdown of the farm’s profit targets for the next three years (Table 1). Given the free-draining nature of the soil on the farm, the drought of 2018 resulted in significantly higher-than-normal expenditure on fertiliser, fodder and concentrates.

Listen to "Ricky Milligan on his farm in Kildare" on Spreaker.

“I think the most stressful time of 2018 was when I looked out on to the silage ground that had been fertilised and I realised the grass was almost disappearing before my eyes,” Ricky reflected.

Other stands on the day featured technical advice in the areas of growing silage crops, optimising soil nutrition, managing grassland weeds and preparing for breeding.

Calf-to-beef

At the stand on dairy calf-to-beef systems, BETTER farm adviser John Greaney went through the key considerations for farmers when it comes to purchasing dairy calves this spring, particularly in relation to price.

A calf-rearing budget for Ricky Milligan’s farm in 2018 was also presented (Table 2). “The plan is to certainly have calves on the farm but so far this year I’ve held off on buying any because of price,” said Ricky.

For more, see next Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal and listen to the podcast above.

Watch: Kildare spring walk preview
Kildare’s Ricky Milligan is hosting the second Teagsc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge spring 2019 walk.

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.

Robertstown results

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.