Teagasc Business and Technology Adviser and Chairman of the IGA organising beef committee.
The Irish Grassland Association travelled to Kildare for the 2018 IGA Beef Conference and Farm walk. Held on May 24th the event sponsored by MSD Animal Health and Mullinahone Co-op proved to be a great success with delegates hearing three inspiring presentations at the indoor session, followed up by a farm visit to the O Connor beef farm that simply ticked all the boxes.
In his presentation the 2017 Grassland Beef Farmer of the year outlined his farming philosophy and his approach to grassland management which allows him to grow 14 tonnes of DM/ha. This performance is all the more impressive when Ger is operating a farm with 2/3 dry ground and 1/3 heavy. The bottom line is foremost in Gers mind and he told delegates that it costs him €1,200 per week to feed his cattle indoors, so grass is his most prized crop. The statement from Ger that “Good spring grass is better than 10 kgs of ration and a lot cheaper” brought home to delegates the absolute necessity to make best use of cheap spring grass. Paddock grazing and weekly grass measurement are some of the tools used by Ger to achieve high output, Ger inputs weekly grass measurements into Pasturebase and bases decisions such as reseeding of paddocks on annual grass production as shown on Pasturebase reports. Even though finishing bulls under 16 months Ger still finds good baled silage made from surplus grass from his paddocks makes a valuable contribution to the diet and saves him up to €250 per head in feed costs. With excellent grassland management and great attention to breeding Gers suckler cows produce a lot of milk and without creep feed his heifers gain 1.3 kgs/day and bulls 1.5 kgs/day up to weaning. The closing statement from Ger encapsulated his philosophy on farming “For me, the more grass I grow the more profit I make”.
Genetics underpins the science behind breeding and can be a very heavy topic, however Dr Donagh Berry in his presentation explained complex terms with very practical examples. His presentation explored how the science of breeding can increase the chance of genetic gain in a population. Berry in his opening slide clearly set out the potential for gain through Genetics by stating “The Sky is the limit”. How one twin could end up a 1-Star and the other a 5-Star left delegates in no doubt as to the complexities of the whole area of animal genetics. In deciding what bull to choose, Dr Berry told delegates it is a function of the differences in index value between the two bulls under consideration and the difference in reliability of the two bulls. The power of Genomic Evaluation to aid in making genetic progress was outlined, as was the critical importance of collection of accurate performance data on animals for example weighing of cattle. After a very engaging presentation Berry summarised his thoughts as follows.
Farmers and all players in the food chain were told by Professor Wall to consider themselves as being in the “human health business”, as they produce food which is the “fundamental fuel for human health”. In addition to nutrition and health Professor Wall listed four other areas requiring attention if consumers are to have confidence in the food they consume:i) food safety, ii) animal welfare, iii) animal health and iv) the adverse environmental impact of modern farming practices. However, Professor Wall contends that Irish Beef farmers need to be proactive in addressing these issues. On a positive note he suggested that the Irish Beef sector is well placed to address consumer concerns. The food chain is very complex and good regulation is there to protect consumers and also producers. The dairy industry was described as an ingredients industry offering a wide range of products as opposed to the beef industry which has a much more limited offering. The ageing process was an area identified by Professor Wall as a potential growth area for the beef industry, the ageing process being characterised by loss of muscle mass Professor Wall told delegates “many older people are not consuming adequate amounts of easily digestible protein so there is an opportunity for the beef sector to contribute to healthy aging. It shouldn’t be too hard to sell a product that slows down the aging process!”.
In the afternoon delegates got to visit an excellently managed Suckler to Beef farm. This 98 ha farm is managed in a three way partnership by Monica, Tom and Thomas O Connor. Thomas was on hand at each stand to answer questions and explain the philosophy behind this very successful operation. The stand out quote on the day was from Thomas when he said in relation to grassland management “We should not envy the Dairy farmer but copy them”. The beef enterprise will be focused on during the farm visit, comprising 100 Suckler cows with all male progeny finished as bulls under 16 months and heifers at 21 months. Each year 200 additional cattle are purchased for finishing comprising both young bulls and heifers. The unique feature of this farm is the way the O’Connor’s paddock graze the cattle in large groups during the grazing season. The 100 Suckler cows and four breeding bulls are grazed together as one group in two hectare paddocks, 104 young bulls have been grazed in one group for the grazing season, and 112 heifers are grazed together in one group. Grassland management is excellent with all the farm laid out in 2 ha paddocks, with the provision for subdivision of all paddocks. The three stands on the day focussed on the three pillars supporting excellent output on the farm namely: Breeding, Grassland Management, Livestock Management. The O’Connor’s are achieving an annual stocking rate of 3.3 livestock units per ha and a beef output of 1,498 live weight per hectare. Grass utilised on the farm in 2017 was 11.5 tonnes of dry matter per hectare.