West remains suckler stronghold as cow numbers dip below 1m
The Minister for Agriculture has released the latest figures for the numbers and locations of suckler cows in Ireland.

The number of suckler cows in Ireland has dipped below one million, with the latest figures showing there are now 951,397 suckler cows in the country.

Western counties remain a stronghold for Ireland’s beef herd, despite numbers contracting since the end of 2017, when CSO figures showed there were 1,018,300 suckler cows.

Drop of 7%

There has been a 7% (66,903 head) drop in the intervening 12 months.

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed revealed the numbers as of the end of 2018 derived from the Department's Animal Movement and Identification (AIM) database in response to a parliamentary question from Fianna Fáil's Charlie McConalogue.

Suckler farms

Just nine counties account for over half of all the sucklers in the country – Galway, Mayo, Cork, Clare, Donegal, Kerry, Roscommon, Cavan and Tipperary.

The Minister also revealed there are over 66,000 farms that have at least one suckler cow. The same nine counties as above make up just under two thirds of all suckler farms.

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Farmer viewpoint: how the €100m beef fund should be paid and to who
Farmers at Nenagh mart, Ballina mart and the Teagasc dairy beef open day in Johnstown Castle outlined what they want from the Brexit beef compensation fund.

Michael and Ornagh Darcy

Calf to store Piercestown, Co Wexford

“That money will go straight into the hands of the factories and the feedlots. A proportion of the cattle is in feedlots and it will be just another tool for the factories, whereas it should go to the family farms.

“The people finishing the cattle are getting them cheaper. If we’re serious about protecting the beef industry, they have to target the family farm.”

John Dunne at the Teagasc dairy beef open day in Johnstown Castle, Co Wexford. \ Thomas Hubert

John Dunne

Suckler and calf to beef Portarlington, Co Offaly

“I think it should go directly to the finisher. The beef man was never one to hold on to money. He will bring it straight to the mart and send it back down along the line to the store or weanling producer.

“It’s the family farm that needs the support, not the factories that own feedlots or the feedlot operator, they have cashflow. There should be a limit on the number of cattle or the amount for each farmer. Giving everybody a little amount of money is purely a vote-getting exercise.”

John Gleeson, at Nenagh Mart.

John Gleeson

Suckler and drystock Puckaun, Co Tipperary

“The money is just an election gimmick if you ask me. I’d be afraid it’s going to be like the Single Farm Payment and all the schemes that we have; 80% of the money going to 20% of the farmers.

“It’s always the smaller farmers, like myself, who are getting the raw deal – the weak are getting weaker. I’d like to see the smaller farms given preference with this fund to give them a chance.”

Joe Cahill, Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, at Nenagh Mart.

Joe Cahill

Suckler and drystock Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary

“Personally, I’d love to see it coming as a payment per suckler cow because I think if the suckler cow isn’t supported, we will all be left rearing dairy stock in a few years.

“Unfortunately, at the moment it looks like most of the money will end up in the hands of the big finishers. At the same time, we have to remember that a lot of the trade in the marts depends on one or two of those big buyers standing around the ring.”

Michael Mitchell, Castlebar, Co Mayo. \ Frank Dolan.

Michael Mitchell

Suckler to weanling/beef Castlebar, Co Mayo

“It should go to both finishers and to suckler farmers. Both are feeling a lot of pain since Brexit started to bite. The fairest way to pay it to cattle finishers is as a payment per kilo of beef sold since last autumn.

“To make the pot go as far is it can, the payment should be capped either up to a weight like 380kg or 400kg or a maximum per head. Where the farmer is bringing them to slaughter, they should receive a higher payment per animal than those that buy cattle to finish.”

John Morahan, Kilmaine, Co Mayo. \ Conor McKeown

John Morahan

Suckler to beef Kilmaine, Co Mayo

“Factory feedlots should not qualify for any of the fund because of how they are used to control the market. The fund should be backdated to cover cattle slaughtered from the autumn onwards when price pressure started.

“The fairest way to pay it is on a payment per head, with higher payments for cattle slaughtered at higher carcase weights, as these cattle are the ones hit the hardest by lower prices and tougher price cuts. It probably should be capped at a 500kg carcase.”

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Thrive: finding the right dairy calf to beef system
Calf quality, dairy calf to beef systems and grassland management were all explored as part of the Teagasc DairyBEEF open day. William Conlon reports.

Dairy-beef systems have the potential to be profitable but a high level of animal output from grazed grass is required. This was according to Padraig French of Teagasc who was addressing those in attendance at the DairyBEEF 2019 open day at Johnstown Castle.

“There are a range of different calf-to-beef systems that farmers can choose but it is important that the system is matched to your farm system. The majority of calves for beef that are coming from the dairy herd are Holstein Friesian, Angus and Hereford with continental breeds making up only 15% to 20%,” Padraig said.

Whatever system is operated, a high level of animal output per hectare will underpin the profitability of the system. However, this also comes with increased exposure to market prices.

“We have seen that the 16-month Holstein Friesian bull beef system can be profitable but it is extremely risky.”

Figures presented by Teagasc on the day show that there is the potential to achieve a net margin of €331/ha with this system at a beef price paid of €3.84/kg. This is with an average carcase of 280kg and 8.6 animals finished/hectare. This will not be a viable system for many.

The figures also highlighted that if there was a 20c/kg drop in beef price, this system would have a net margin of -€152/ha. The system is severely restricted given that 63% of the total diet will be made up of concentrates.

One system that has the potential to deliver a net margin of €873/ha, and was the most profitable system highlighted by Teagasc on the day, is finishing early-maturing heifers at 19 to 20 months of age. Animals finished per hectare in this system was 3.9 with an average carcase weight of 235kg. Slaughter price was €3.95/kg with an additional breed bonus of 30c/kg.

“One issue with the early-maturing breeds is that over the past few years we have seen a decline in conformation,” Padraig explained. “Twenty per cent of these type of animals will not make the minimum specifications and you won’t get the breed bonus. Dropping from an O+ grade down to an O- grade could mean a potential loss of 40c/kg.

The other most popular system that dairy beef farmers will look towards is finishing early maturing steers at 23 months of age. The research has shown that this system has the potential to deliver a net margin of €534/ha. Again, a high stocking rate is required with the need to finish 2.5 animals per hectare to deliver this level of margin. Slaughter price is €3.90/kg with a breed bonus worth 30c/kg. Carcase weight is an average of 315kg.

“We need farmers to look at the calves that they are buying. There is a big range of bulls even within the one breed and this can have a big effect on the carcase.”

“Whatever system you choose to go with, finishing cattle off grass at a younger age will tend to be the most profitable system,” according to Padraig.

Choosing the right calf

There was a lot of talk on the day about the genetics of the calves used in a dairy calf-to-beef system. ABP’s Stephen Connolly, who is involved in ABP’s dairy calf-to-beef Blade programme, believes that beef farmers need to drive the change of dairy farmers using better bulls.

“A huge problem is beef farmers going in and buying calves, they don’t go in and ask about the genetics,” Stephen said.

“They should go in and ask about the breeding and if they don’t like it they should walk away. If dairy farmers can use a good bull for carcase traits on cows then it can make a big difference.”

The need for beef farmers to build relationships with dairy farmers was continually highlighted throughout the day – not only to provide an outlet for calves but to ensure a higher-quality calf.

Grass quality

Nicky Byrne, grassland researcher with Teagasc, spoke about the importance of getting as much grass as possible into the diet. “Grazed grass is the cheapest feed available to our ruminant production systems in Ireland. Each additional tonne that we can utilise on our drystock farms will increase net profit by about €105/ha. But we are only at about 58% of our efficiency in terms of grassland on drystock farms.

“We are only growing about 7.5t nationally and utilising about 5.6t. That is only capable of supporting a stocking rate of 1.1LU/ha and that is our national stocking rate across drystock farms.

“What is key for calf-to-beef systems is increasing output per hectare and how this is achieved is crucial. We need to achieve higher levels of individual animal performance. We also need to increase our carrying capacity and stocking rates. Combined, both of these are going to increase our output per hectare. This must come on the back of grazed grass. We need to be targeting 80% of our animals’ total lifetime feed requirements coming from a combination of grazed grass and grass silage with a minimal amount of farm concentrates brought into our farm systems.

“If we can achieve this, we will maximise our level of economic and financial sustainability.”

He continued: “We need to focus on the key steps. We need to focus on soil fertility and only about 10% of soil samples from drystock farms are found to be the optimum in terms of pH or P and K.”

Grazing infrastructure, in particular, is what will let many drystock farms down when it comes to improving output from the farm, according to Nicky.

“Fencing does not have to be fancy – a simple gravel roadway servicing the majority of the paddocks with grass spur roadways. This kind of a system has very low levels of traffic on the roadways. The only cost associated with the spur roadways is the cost of the fencing but what they help us do is to utilise our grass in the shoulder of the years.

“Even in terms of labour efficiency, it is a one-man job. We can move all the groups of cattle with minimal effort because of a good roadway network.”

Increasing the number of paddocks on the farm should be a first step for anyone serious about developing an efficient calf-to-beef system.

“We need to increase the number of paddocks across our farms. If we take a 21-day rotation and divide it by our two-day residency, we know that we need 11 to 12 paddocks per grazing group on our calf to beef farms,” Nicky said.

“If we extend it beyond the two-day residency, animals are going to choose to graze the regrowth and we are going to reduce the overall productivity of these paddocks.”

Suckler herds in BDGP making higher genetic gains
The ICBF has issued progress reports for herds over the last five years with BDGP herds making higher genetic gains than those outside the programme.

Suckler herds participating in the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) are experiencing higher rates of genetic gain than non-BDGP herds, according to the latest figures.

Analysis of herd data from the last five years by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) has given an early picture of the effects the BDGP has on the national herd, since it was launched in 2015.

Across six key performance indicators (KPIs) - cow replacement index, first-calver replacement index, average calving interval, calves per cow per year, heifers calved between 22 and 26 months and six-week calving rate - BDGP herds have an equal or higher rate of genetic gain in all but one (Figure 1).

Gains

The ICBF expects further gains to be made in calving interval and calves per cow per year as replacement heifers bred since the beginning of the programme begin to enter the national herd.

Herd size was an area where reports tracking herd progress over five years showed a significant difference.

BDGP herds had an average of 26 cows in 2018, an increase of two since 2014. Non-BDGP herds decreased over the same period with the average herd falling by one to 16 cows (Table 1).

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