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.

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.

BETTER farm: margins take a beating but production rises
Matthew Halpin reports on the BETTER farm e-Profit Monitor results for 2018

Year two financial data, for the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge participants, is in. It would be fair to say that before pen was even put to paper on completing e-Profit Monitors, the general consensus was that 2018 was an extremely tough year on farm finances.

Whether it was the difficult spring conditions or the long summer drought, each farm was hit one way or another.

As has been continually reported on throughout the last 12 months, conditions took their toll on key areas such as animal performance, herd health and grass growth – all of which chipped away at the bottom line.

Results

Table 1 provides a breakdown of e-Profit Monitor results by system, as well as the group’s overall performance. Jumping straight to gross margin, it is coming in at an average of €610/ha.

Unfortunately, this represents a 13% drop from the group average in 2017. As already mentioned, the signs were pointing towards a gross margin reduction after a turbulent 2018. However, it is the sudden halt in progress that will disappoint the programme farmers the most.

Coming from a base of €570/ha in 2016, 2017 performance showed a year-on-year gross margin increase of 24%.

With so much time and money invested in stock and infrastructure, farmers would have hoped to gather further momentum.

Now over halfway through the programme, it is clearly going to be a big challenge to hit the ambitious €1,250/ha target before the programme’s conclusion, but it is still achievable.

Breakdown

Taking a closer look at performance by system, 20-month bull beef operations returned the highest gross margin in 2018 at €801/ha. Figure 1 shows this was also the system with the largest year-on-year increase, up from €718/ha in 2017.

However, it would be naive not to exercise extreme caution with the 20-month system.

While demand and price for this type of stock was very good in the first half of 2018, the second half of the year and early stages of 2019 have been extremely difficult with price cuts, tight weight restrictions and long slaughter delays being imposed on overage bulls.

These are technically out-of-spec cattle and with that comes high risk.

On the other end of the scale, the figures for weanling producers leave a lot to be desired.

From what was an already low average gross margin of €311/ha in 2017, it has fallen further to €232/ha in 2018. Furthermore, a total of seven weanling producers has now dwindled to just one.

The reality is that the majority of these producers have moved into bull beef production, primarily under 16-month bulls, in pursuit of a higher margin.

But has the conversion worked? The average gross margin for under 16-month bull systems fell €667/ha to €614/ha. The reason for such a drop is largely down to the number of new entrants. In 2017, only five farms operated this system.

A year later, this has more than doubled to 12. As can only be expected, both the performance and efficiency of any first-timer is going to be less than that of the seasoned campaigners.

Those that have been running the under 16-month system for a number of years, fared well.

I think this is best reflected where the range for gross margins among under 16-month bull producers is from as low as €30/ha right up to an impressive €1,563/ha.

The question that must be asked now: is this just a snapshot of a much larger issue? It has been well documented that under 16-month bull beef has very high potential. However, realising this potential is a completely different thing.

With factors such as type of stock, weaning performance, feed quality, housing facilities and even processor relations playing pivotal roles, it is a move that farmers really need to spend time thinking about before any action is taken.

Production

On a positive note, overall farm production is up. The average stocking rate has climbed from 1.97LU/ha to 2.2LU/ha.

Furthermore, looking at Figure 2, average output recorded good growth of 126kg/ha to 859kg/ha.

As a general rule of thumb, top suckler-to-beef farms should be targeting a stocking rate above 2.3LU/ha and output of over 850kg/ha.

For the year, 20-month bull beef production and store selling posted good jumps in output, steer beef and weanling production held steady while under 16-month bull beef had a significant drop, again linked to the aforementioned influx in operators.

The fact that production figures are where they need to be is encouraging.

While neither weather conditions nor beef prices can be controlled by farmers, what’s inside the farm gate most definitely can be.

Going forward for 2019, if the programme farmers can continue to increase productivity, and external factors can facilitate a reduction in variable costs, then the bottom line should be looking a whole lot stronger this time next year.

Of course Brexit is probably the single biggest threat facing the entire beef sector.

Yet despite its threat, there is again very little that farmers can do at this stage only sit, wait and hope for a positive outcome.

Shedding some light on IBR in beef herds
The results of the pilot IBR programme, along with AHI advice on tackling IBR, will be detailed in this Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal.

In 2018, herds participating in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef programme enrolled in the first phase of a pilot IBR programme.

The programme was developed by Animal Health Ireland’s IBR technical working group (TWG) in collaboration with Teagasc.

The pilot programme involved sampling and testing a proportion of a herd for IBR, the application of an IBR on-farm veterinary risk assessment and management plan and provision of biosecurity and disease control advice.

The research was led by Dr Maria Guelbenzu, programme manager for BVD and IBR with Animal Health Ireland.

Results

In this week’s Irish Farmers Journal, the initial results of the pilot programme will be profiled.

Analysis of results shows that on average, positive "snapshot" herds were larger than negative herds and had a higher number of animals introduced directly from other herds (moves from farm) than negative "snapshot" herds.

Furthermore, positive herds experienced a higher degree of expansion (herds were 180% larger) than negative herds, which were only 25% larger than in 2013/14.

Advice

The article will also include a comprehensive summary of advice from Dr Guelbenzu as to how positive IBR and negative IBR herdowners should approach the disease.

  • See this Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal in print and online for the full article. Also, watch the video above of blood-testing cows on Shane Gleeson farm with local vet Matt Ryan and Teagasc BETTER farm adviser Alan Dillon.