As a consequence of Covid restrictions, the 2020 IGA Beef farm walk is taking a slightly different approach for 2020 where we are inviting each of you to relax and enjoy revisiting three of our previous host farmers through a virtual, online showcase.
This year on the week beginning 27th July, we will be releasing a selection of video footage through this website and across our social media channels (Facebook and Twitter ) where we will be revisiting three of our previous host farmers; Paul Turley our host farmer from 2011, farms in Downpatrick, Tom Halpin is farming in Co. Meath and hosted the IGA beef event in 2017 and the O’Connor family partnership from Kildare were our hosts in 2018.
Thus far 2020 has thrown each of us many challenges, but we will bring you a snippet of how each of these farmers and their farming systems have progressed and changed since we last visited them. I am sure you will find it very interesting to see how these three excellent farms have changed and developed in order to cope with the challenges that face beef farmers, and to get their views on where they see their farm going over the next few years.
Click view more below to see videos from the host farmers
The O’Connor Farm:
In June 2018 the Irish Grassland Association visited the O Connor farm near the village of Moone in South Kildare. The farm is run as a partnership by Monica, Tom and their son Thomas. It is a truly mixed farm with four enterprises comprising Beef, Sheep, Tillage and Pigs. In 2015 Thomas was the winner of the FBD Young Beef Farmer of the Year Award. The beef enterprise then was consisted of 90 Suckler cows with all male progeny finished as bulls under16 months and heifers at 21 months, with 200 additional cattle purchased for finishing, including both young bulls and heifers. The unique feature of this farm is the way the O`Connors paddock graze the cattle in large groups during the grazing season. The 90 Suckler cows and four breeding bulls are grazed together as one group in two hectare paddocks, up to 77 young bulls have been grazed in one group for the grazing season, and up 100 heifers are grazed together in one group. Grassland management was excellent with all the farm laid out in 2 ha paddocks, with the provision for subdivision of all paddocks. On our visit to the to the O`Connor farm in 2018 we saw the three pillars that supported high output on the farm – Breeding, Grassland Management, Livestock Management. The O`Connors were 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 in 2017 was 11.5 tonnes of dry matter per hectare.
The sheep enterprise has expanded to a flock of 250 Breeding Ewes, with plans to increase the flock to 300 ewes. No changes have been made to the Tillage area, the Pig enterprise also remains unchanged. The cattle enterprise has seen changes with 20 fewer Suckler cows in the herd partly due to a bull fertility problem necessitating increased culling within the herd. Fewer store cattle have been purchased due to the herd being TB restricted and also in a planned approach to meet the Organic Nitrogen reductions necessary to comply with the BEAM scheme. The O`Connors have invested in their beef enterprise with the building of a 6-bay slatted suckler house with a lie back, calving pens and two feed passages. In order to reduce labour input and in the interests of safe handling of livestock a new state-of-the-art cattle handling unit was built incorporating a circular forcing pen, drafting/handling pens and weighing facility with Bluetooth-compatible clock to enable reading of EID tags. Due to the drought that prevailed in May/June, bulls were put onto finishing rations earlier in order to maintain rotation length and average farm cover. In order to achieve better utilisation of nutrients in slurry a dribble-bar was fitted onto the existing slurry tank. This also enables the O’ Connors to spread slurry onto the grazing paddocks and reduce chemical nitrogen usage, while at the same time reducing ammonia emissions. Chemical fertilizer use has changed with protected urea the product of choice to further reduce ammonia emissions while reducing fertilizer costs. As if Thomas was not already busy on an intensive livestock/tillage farm and involvement with Macra, he has taken on the role of IFA County Chairman for Kildare/West Wicklow.
Regarding future plans the O Connors intend to increase ewe numbers further to 300 breeding ewes. Once the farm becomes clear of TB and the BEAM reduction period has passed the suckler cow numbers will go back up to 90 cows along with a resumption of normal cattle finishing numbers. All cattle will be EID-tagged to facilitate efficient and safe capture of cattle performance and allow rapid interpretation of weighing results.
Irish Grassland Association Beef 2020 – Thomas O Connor – Changes since 2018
Irish Grassland Association Beef 2020 – Thomas O Connor – Breeding
Irish Grassland Association Beef 2020 – Thomas O Connor – Grassland Management
Irish Grassland Association Beef 2020 – Thomas O Connor – Working with the environment
The Turley Farm
In 2005 Paul Turley, who farms in Downpatrick, Co. Down, had an important decision to make – whether to continue with his small-scale store-to-beef operation or to drive on and develop a farming system that increased the holding’s bottom line. Deciding to run with the latter, Paul – continuing to work part-time – turned to running a suckler-to-beef enterprise, slaughtering all progeny with the exception of replacement heifers, which were sold at 12-14 months-of-age.
For this to work, Paul needed a fertile cow that would: look after herself; have a good temperament; calve unassisted; have a good milk yield; and produce progeny suited to a simple grass-based system. After studying various breeding strategies, the decision was made to go for an Aberdeen Angus cow bred from a British Friesian herd. These heifers and cows were then crossed back to pedigree Aberdeen Angus sires.
“We were prepared to sacrifice half a grade in confirmation at slaughter to have the extra milk,” Paul explained.
In the time from 2005 to 2011, when the farm hosted the Irish Grassland Association (IGA) Beef Tour in July, Paul built the herd up to 115 spring-calving cows and grew the size of the farm to 80ha – focusing on maximising the gain from grass and minimising labour.
With this in mind, the breeding programme was simple. The calving date was designed to follow the grass growth curve on the farm. The Co. Down native only calved cows for nine weeks and had no problem selling any in-calf cows that were due to calve outside this window. This tight-calving spread led to increased levels of output and reduced labour on the farm.
After the grazing season, calves were weaned in the month of December and – at an average age of 9.5 months – steers would weigh 360kg, while their female counterparts would weigh 330kg. This represented impressive weaning weights from a milk and grass-based diet only.
Once weaning was complete, both cows and weanlings were out-wintered, with weanlings carried on kale over this period; cows were also fed on kale and had access to wood-chip pads. As mentioned, replacement heifers were typically sold off the farm for breeding at 12 months-of-age weighing approximately 380kg. Heifers not suitable for breeding were brought to beef and slaughtered off grass at an average age of 17.5 months – typically from July onwards. Steers also followed this production system. The average carcass weight stood at 315kg, with exceptional animals hitting 380kg. Approximately 50% of the progeny graded R, while the remaining 50% graded O+.
This was – and still is – a low-cost system of farming, with the cheapest resource available – grass – playing a pivotal role and excluding the need for expensive concentrates. The fact that all animals are out-wintered – and with only minimal machinery kept on the holding – fixed costs are also kept to a minimum.
“The quad bike is the most important piece of equipment on the farm. We have one good tractor with some grassland management equipment such as a fertiliser spinner; that’s all we need,” he said. “Everything else is contracted out, shared or hired in.”
In the intervening period from 2011 until now, Paul has upped the ante and the farm has undergone some noticeable changes. Fuelled by the return of his son, Frank, to the farm both men are now home full-time. This has paved the way for a more intensive system, but never strays away from the grass-based production model.
Where there was scope for grassland management and grazing facilities to be improved, measures have now been put in place, with a full rotational-grazing system employed, accommodating paddocks, fencing and water troughs. Also, regular grass measuring takes place on a weekly basis and every four-to-five days during critical periods; this leads to better utilisation (of grass) and better management decisions on the farm.
The cow type on the farm is largely the same – an Aberdeen Angus from a British Friesian herd. However, Paul notes that the sourcing of the ‘right’ cow has become increasingly difficult. As a result, Paul and Frank use some of their home-bred heifers as replacements leading to a three-quarter Angus; one quarter British Friesian-type cow in some instances.
However, while the cow-type remained largely unchanged, new genetics were introduced to a proportion of the herd in 2016 – Wagyu, with the first calves hitting the ground in 2017.
“The decision was market led and we always chase a premium. We started looking at other options and I thought Wagyu could work well here with the suckler image. It’s worked well to date, but it has been a very steep learning curve,” he added.
Paul has now secured a contract with a retailer and beef processor for a year-round supply of Wagyu beef, so an autumn-calving system is also operated on the farm now, with the first of these calving in 2020. While a proportion of Angus cattle are still finished on the farm, the plan going forward is to move to a 100% Wagyu system. The first Wagyu steers slaughtered off the farm hit a 360-370kg carcass weight at 26 months, while heifers had an average carcass weight of 320kg at 27 months. The farm now spans across some 162ha and 180 cows were inseminated this spring through a fixed-time AI programme.
“The Wagyu system is a work-in-progress, but it is showing promise, or we would have backed out of it already,” he concluded.
Irish Grassland Association Beef 2020 – Paul Turley – Farm overview and animal performance
Irish Grassland Association Beef 2020 – Paul Turley – Grassland Management and Utilisation
Irish Grassland Association Beef 2020 – Paul Turley – Farm Dealing with Expansion
Irish Grassland Association Beef 2020 – Paul Turley – Farm System Change and the Future
Irish Grassland Association Beef 2020 – Paul Turley
The Halpin Farm
The Irish Grassland Association is revisiting Halpin family farm in Co Meath this summer, as part of its virtual farm walk series. Run by Tom, in partnership with his son Matthew, the farm comprises 160ac of free-draining grassland situated in one block. The farm is devoted to a suckler cow-to-beef enterprise with the fundamental objective being to maximize animal performance through good grassland management and high-quality, continental genetics.
Farm Walk: In July 2017, the Halpin family farm hosted an afternoon farm walk as part of the Irish Grassland Association’s Beef Open Day. The walk immediately followed a morning Beef Conference which took place in the Headfort Arms Hotel in the nearby town of Kells. While there have been some substantial changes on the farm since then, many key aspects of the operation have stayed exactly the same.
For instance, in the last three years the farm’s core system has remained untouched. Male progeny are brought to under 16-month bull beef, while suitable female progeny are retained as replacements and surplus females are brought to beef at 20 to 22 months of age. The breeding strategy on the farm is also unchanged in the last three years, with Charolais, Limousin and Simmental genetics in equal use to maximise hybrid-vigour which serves to benefit both the future ‘cow-makers’ being born on the farm, and indeed the beef bulls destined for slaughter. Cow numbers are relatively unchanged with 97 calving in 2020.
Consolidated calving period: In 2017, attendees to the farm walk would have learned about the farm’s split-calving system, whereby 60% of the herd calved in February and March and the remaining 40% were calved in June and July. However, in the last three years, and after careful consideration, the herd has been in transition to 100% spring calving. Indeed, Spring 2020 was the first year in which the full herd calved down between February and April.
While the somewhat unique summer calving system had its benefits and attracted plenty of interest from visiting farmers over the years, ultimately the decision to move to all spring calving was made based on the ability to better manage the herd overall, to reduce the number of grazing groups on the farm for improved grassland management and to streamline labour at various stages of the year. It was also felt that the productivity of the Summer calving herd in relation to their incurred feed costs was significantly lower than their Spring calving counter parts, given the fact they were rearing a calf mainly indoors.
Grassland: Grazing and grassland management on the farm have also continued to evolve. During its four year participation (2012-2016) in phase two of the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm Beef Programme, the farm dropped rented ground and opted instead to maximise grass production and utilisation and subsequent animal performance on the home block.
Attendees at the 2017 walk will have seen that infrastructure on the farm was impressive, with a total of 40 divisions already in place, with a combination of paddocks and some larger blocks for silage cutting. This has since increased to 50 divisions, with most offering the potential to be sub-divided. Soil fertility has also been under continuous improvement, with Spring 2020 soil tests indicating a 100% sufficiency in K and an 80% lime sufficiency. P levels need some more attention with some index 2’s needing a push towards index 3.
At the 2017 event, it was acknowledged that reseeding was the final piece of the grassland puzzle that would be required to fully capture the potential of the land on the farm. Those wheels have since been set in motion. In August 2019, a 15ac block was reseed in a traditional plough, till and sow fashion. With more than pleasing results obtained, the plan is to reseed another 13ac block in Autumn 2020, while the longer-term objective will be to reseed the entire farm in blocks of 10-15ac each year in the autumn.
2020 Update: To date, 2020 has been a pleasing year, farming wise. The first, full Spring-calving season went well with 104 live calves on the ground from 97 calvings. An unprecedented 11 sets of twins more than offset four mortalities.
The breeding season has also drawn to a close. After being forced to cull the Simmental stock bull in 2019, that disappointment actually presented an opportunity to use AI in the herd. A batch of 34 cows were synchronized in a fixed time AI programme. Initial results were positive, with scanning showing 23 in calf to the first service and 7 held to their first repeat. A final scan is yet to be completed on the four remaining cows. The Charolais and Limousin stock bulls will be taken from their respective bunches of cows and maiden heifers on 10th July.
First cut silage was made on 2nd June with a somewhat disappointing yield due to prolonged drought conditions. The second-cut crop looks more promising. Seventy-five bales of surplus grass have been made to date, with another 5ac earmarked for cutting. Under 16 months are killing well, coming to an average carcase weight of 395kg at 15 months of age.
Irish Grassland Association – Beef 2020 – Tom and Matthew Halpin – The farm system
Irish Grassland Association – Beef 2020 – The Halpin Farm – The farm in 2020
Irish Grassland Association – Beef 2020 – The Halpin Farm – Future plans