The Irish Grassland Association travelled to county Laois for the 2019 IGA Beef Conference and Farm walk. Held on June 20th the event was kindly sponsored by MSD Animal Health and Mullinahone Co-op. At the morning session held in the Abbeyleix Manor Hotel delegates were presented with three very informative and thought provoking papers on the subject of Soil Health, Suckler Herd Profitability and The Irish Beef Industry –Where to from here? In the forum that followed delegates got to hear the views and thoughts on the Beef industry from three excellent beef farmers.
The morning session was followed up by a farm visit to the beef farm of Ken Graham, a part time farmer who despite the fact that he works full time off the farm still achieves excellent performance with a spring calving Suckler to Finish herd.
Soil Health going back to basics- John Geraghty. Geraghty Consulting
In his presentation John initially outlined the importance of knowing the physical properties of your soil particularly the texture of the soil, and he outlined in detail the field attributes of soils with differing structures. In his presentation, John made it clear that it would be very difficult to work a farm without knowing the physical characteristics of the underlying soil and described farming without this knowledge as “Trying to farm with your hands tied behind your back”. In covering soil structure John outlined to delegates the consequences of poor soil structure and the negative impact on the environment, leading to flooding, runoff and loss of valuable soil nutrients.
John went on to describe the Soil Food Web outlining the interconnected nature of the various soil organisms and how they interact together and impact on the living environment on the farm. Delegates were left in no doubt as to the absolute critical role soil organisms play in maintaining a healthy and productive soil, and the importance of farming in harmony with the living soil. Whether you are a Tillage farmer or Livestock farmer John stated that “all farmers are livestock farmers” in the context of the living soil, and must cherish and protect the organisms that inhabit our soils.
Carbon is an element that is receiving great attention at the moment most of it negative from an environmental viewpoint. The crucial role played by carbon in the physical, chemical and biological process of soils was discussed at length, giving delegates a new perspective perhaps on the positive role played by soil carbon. The impact of the above ground activity of farming on the soil below ground was discussed, specifically damage to soil by machinery with John stating that “You cannot build soil with steel”. In his closing slides John said that Soil Health creates wealth and that Soil is a farmers’ primary resource, urging farmers to balance soil nutrient status to boost natural fertility and use plan diversity to improve soil and mineral nutrition.
Profitability of Beef Production-What has been happening? Aidan Murray Teagasc.
To be sustainable, beef farmers need to be profitable. Currently many beef farmers are struggling to return a profit from the marketplace. Aidan Murray of Teagasc outlined in his paper the changes in profitability on beef farms who completed a Profit Monitor over a ten year period commencing in 2008. Aidan identified that the gap between the top performers and those that are classified as average within their respective beef systems widened over the last decade. Encouragingly Aidan found that the top herds are seeing a return from improved efficiency from production. They are achieving good output on a livestock unit basis first and foremost and then they have the land available to be able to increase stocking rate.
Looking at the changes that occurred over the ten years from 2008 on the top third of beef farms both breeding and non-breeding Aidan noted that stocking rate increased from 1.95lu/ha to 2.26lu/ha on the suckling farms and from 1.61 to 2.2lu/ha on the non-breeding farms and increases of 15.9% and 36.6% respectively. This increase in stocking rate resulted in more kilos of beef live weight per hectare being sold off the farms, with an increase in value contributed to by increased prices and higher volumes. The top third of Suckling to beef farms increased profit from production from €61/ha in 2008 to €380 in 2018 and non-breeding farms over the same period from €83/ha to €605/ha excluding premia. The clear message from Aidan was that improved efficiency and cost control enabled these farmers to deliver more profit from production while their premia take has declined. In conclusion Aidan stated that
The Irish Beef Industry – Past, Present and Future Matthew Dempsey Chairman, The Agricultural Trust.
To examine any farm enterprise Matt suggested that we should ask three fundamental questions.
For the moment Matt concluded that there is a positive answer on the market for beef with world demand increasing.
Broadly speaking within Europe, Matts conclusion to this question was that Irish cash costs of producing beef gives us a highly competitive advantage. However, this competitive advantage disappears when you attribute a cost to reflect the value of land and labour compared to the cost of production in South America particularly Brazil, the largest beef exporter in the world.
Forestry for the first 15 Years with its Premia system Matt concluded is outperforming the average Beef farm as is Sheep. With regard to Tillage Matts view was that there is a continuing demand for its products, very high yields by international standards and a significant home market deficit where we only grow about 30% of the grain that we consume. Turning to milk Matt concluded that “There are only a handful of countries with our grass-based system”, and as result of the vast difference in incomes in beef and dairy farms there has been a significant move among large scale Suckler farmers into dairy production. With regard to genetic gain Matt showed in stark terms the difference in rate of genetic gain of the first calved Dairy heifer compared to the first calved suckler animal.
Dealing with the challenges to the beef sector Matt outlined 4 key areas.
Regarding his own involvement in beef farming Matt outlined the history of his farm going back to 1917 when his father purchased the farm which was part of the Duke of Leinsters Enormous Carton Estate. During the 1970s Matt built the second slatted cattle house in Kildare, building another 200 head unit later. Farming 150 acres of grass and 300 acres of Tillage Matt finishes 300 Bull weanlings on a non GM diet mainly with home grown cereals.
In his closing comments Matt commented that
Host Farmer Mr: Ken Graham.Cappanacleare, Mountrath, Co.Laois.
In the afternoon delegates got to visit an excellently managed Suckler to Beef farm. Ken is running 55 Suckler cows with one quarter of a labour unit employed while he works full time off the farm. The beef enterprise comprises 55 Suckler cows with all male progeny finished as bulls under 16 months and heifers at 21 months. The 55 Suckler cows and two breeding bulls are grazed together as one group in one hectare paddocks while the 27 fattening heifers are grazed together in one group. Grassland management is excellent with the 40 ha farm laid out in 34 paddocks, with the provision for subdivision of paddocks when necessary. Good grassland management is to the fore on the Graham farm with just shy of 10 tonnes of grass dry matter/ha grown and utilised on the farm with the recent exception of the BLIP year (2018) as described by Ken. The all grass farm carries a stocking rate of 2.31 lu/ha producing a beef output of 834 kgs of live weight per ha.
Breeding performance in this spring calving herd is excellent with a calving interval of 380 days achieved alongside a calving season of 9 weeks, resulting in 0.93 calves produced per cow per year. All heifers calve down at 24 months of age. The combination of excellent herd fertility combined with superb grassland management results in a gross margin per ha in 2018 of €634 a significant drop compared to 2017 when a gross margin/ha of €981 was achieved, the drop in profitability accounted for by additional feed cost incurred due to the drought in 2018.
On the day the Carbon footprint of the Graham farm was discussed with an output of 11 kg CO2-eq/kg LWT compared to a system average of 14, indicating the high level of efficiency being achieved on the farm.
Ken outlined to delegates some of the key factors in achieving success on the farm.
Delegates visiting the Graham farm were in no doubt that the excellent results being achieved on this part time Suckler farm were as a result of excellent well thought out farm practices implemented by a busy man with precision.