The Irish Grassland Beef event 2023 took place on the farm of Chris McCarthy, Crookedwood, Mullingar, Co Westmeath on Tuesday 13th June. A beautiful sunny June evening perfectly reflected the quality of stock on show on the farm on the evening which was kindly sponsored by FBD.
The first board of the walk looked at the overall system and was outlined by Chris and IGA council member Christy Watson.
Chris works full-time off the farm, but the level of detail evident on the farm simply does not happen without a lot of hard work, dedication, drive, and determination. The beef system in operation on the farm is probably best described as being meticulously planned simplicity.
And, a simple system it is. The three-quarter bred Limousin cow type on farm has power, milk, calving ability, strong carcase characteristics and fits perfectly into the McCarthy’s system. A terminal Charolais stock bull is used to produce top-quality U and E-grading bulls and heifers.
The 46-cow, spring calving herd calve in a tight block early in spring and get to grass typically in February where they are rotationally grazed on a well set up paddock system where one person can move stock at any time on their own. Well-managed swards combined with good soil fertility result in over 11tDM/ha of grass being grown from relatively low chemical nitrogen inputs at just 125kg/ha (102 units/acre).
This high-quality grass is efficiently converted to live weight through a milky cow and by a calf with a high genetic ability culminating in the consistent production of heavy weanlings in September, averaging 290kg for heifers and 330kg for bulls. Heifers are sold to a local farm in October each year at around 320kg to 330kg average weight. The bulls are housed in early November at roughly 380kg to 400kg where they go on to be finished at under 16-month bulls.
The bulls consume around 1.8t/head concentrate lifetime and have an average carcase weight of 478kg at 15.9 months of age. That translates to a lifetime performance of almost 1kg carcase/day. While these are heavy carcase weights, Chris works closely with his processor and they know he can deliver high conformation carcases with sufficient fat cover.
The farm extends to 28ha which is all in one block. This aids labour management around moving stock thougout the grazing season.
The overall stocking rate on the farm is 2.05LU/ha. While this is almost double the average suckler farm in the country the stocking rate is not excessive with Chris under the 170kgN/ha limit.
A high level of output is what is driving the entire system. There was 769kg/ha liveweight or 374kg/LU produced in 2022.
From a financial perspective, this translates to a gross output of €2580/ha and a gross margin, before any support payments of €1283/ha.
The second stop of the evening looked at the role of grassland and the importance of soil fertility. IGA council member Paddy Casey outlined that the McCarthys achieve a long grazing season of over 270 days which maximises the proportion of grass in the diet and keeps production costs as low as possible in the cow-calf unit.
Indeed, grass and grass silage account for over 80% of the total feed used on the farm – considering that there is a bull beef system in operation and heifers are sold as weanlings this shows there is a high level of performance coming from grazed and conserved pasture.
Almost 90% of the farm has a soil pH of greater than 6.2. The entire farm is index 4 for P and 88% of the farm is index 3 for K. Higher fertiliser prices in recent years has seen Chris reduce the use of compound fertiliser which has resulted in K levels dropping on some parts of the farm something Chris is eager to correct in the coming years.
During the main grazing season there are just two grazing groups on the farm which means two things – firstly it is easier to manage fewer groups and secondly, there is significant grazing pressure through big group numbers so that once the group enters the 4acre paddocks they graze them out in three days and then move on to fresh pasture.
The third stop of the evening focused on animal health, both on the McCarthys farm and with more general advice being shared by UCD vet and lecturer Eoin Ryan. Chris is minimising the risk of purchasing replacements by using the same few farms each year for his stock while the bulls are on a pneumonia vaccination protocol prior to housing in autumn to minimise the risk at housing time. Chris is also using quiet wean nose paddles which he says takes the stress out of the weaning process.
The paddles are fitted to the nose of the weanlings and they are allowed out once again with the cows, however, they are unable to suck the cow. After four days the cows and calves are separated and the farm is having great success with it.
Finally, there was a stop in the bull shed with the remaining under 16-month bulls being finished currently on farm. Aidan Murray, Teagasc Beef Specialist who is no stranger to the McCarthy farm having dealt with them when they were participants of the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm programme in previous years, said that the success of the farm could not be attributed to any one thing and it was the sum of all the individual parts and the attention to detail that was seen onf farm.
The right cow for the system, good genetics that delivers high growth rates, excellent grassland management, a time efficient system, achieving high output per livestock unit and ultimately and most importantly consistently delivering a financial dividend at the end of the day.
He concluded that the farm ticks the boxes in terms of economic, environmental and social sustainability which is key to the future of suckler beef production in Ireland.
Historically, replacements were purchased as in-calf heifers from one or two sources but Chris found that these were getting more and more expensive and so he has since moved to bringing in maiden heifers over the past two years. “I was sourcing them from the same farm every year for a number of years but I have had to move around in the last few years in order to get the type of stock I want. It is something that is getting harder and harder to find all the time.”
The farm is quite heavily stocked and in the past Chris has been in derogation but now operates just below 170 kg N/ha each year. This high stocking rate helps to drive the output/ha ultimately driving the profitability of the farm. Calving starts the first week of February and is typically finished by mid-March. In 2021 there was an issue with a sub-fertile bull which has resulted in the calving spread increasing slightly over the past two years but it is something that Chris is working on pulling back quite quickly. “There was a big turnover of cows that year, we increased the length of the breeding season slightly but still there were 18 cows not in calf and they were all culled. I am working off farm full- time so I need calving to be compact and have it over with. We have made big progress last year and I would hope to do the same again this breeding season and be back to a six or seven-week calving season in the next couple of years.”
Cows and calves start to be turned out to grass in small numbers as soon as the weather conditions allow which is typically around the 15th to 20th of February with around the 10th of March being the mean date for turnout. The grazing infrastructure on the farm is simple but effective. Chris can move a batch of stock singlehandedly anywhere on the farm. He says that stock are used to getting a move to fresh grass and so he can lead them to new grass when they need a move. There are a number of farm tracks and there are 10 or 12 temporary fence reels that Chris uses to make passages through paddocks if needed. Everything needs to be able to be done by one person. Good genetics combined with excellent grassland management is key to high growth rates in calves over the first season at grass. Chris was a member of the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm programme where he gained his grassland management skills. “I enjoyed measuring grass, it really did give you confidence that you were ok to take out a paddock or show you where there was a deficit coming in a couple of weeks’ time.
The system in place could be described as being simple, but very effective. Being busy off farm means that every hour on the farm needs to be productive. Chris estimates he spends around 15 hours per week on the farm across the entire year. The biggest workload is obviously in winter and during the calving season but Chris is slow to handle cows at calving if they don’t need it. “I have cameras on the phone that I can watch the cows on. I like to leave them alone as much as possible. Only when there is no progress being made will I handle a cow, and so far this year I only have assisted one cow calving.
One change implemented since finishing in the BETTER farm programme is the move from a weanling trading system to an under 16-month, bull beef operation. At weaning, which takes place in late September, bull calves are typically 350 kg to 360 kg. They are fed meal two weeks pre- and for four weeks post-weaning and once housed in November they start on 2 kg of ration which increases to 4 kg by the New Year. This then moves to 6 kg by 1st of February and ad lib by the 1st of March.
There has been an increased focus on silage quality on the farm over the last number of years also with Chris seeing it as a key way to reduce the total amount of meal fed to bulls. Currently, they are consuming around 1.8 t/head lifetime of concentrate. These bulls are achieving big weights at under sixteen months with average carcase weights around 460 kg. These animals are going on the grid and are typically grading U+ for conformation and 2+ on average for carcase fat score. Chris is obviously working closely with his processor to ensure the market is there for this type of stock each year.
The farm walk will highlight the key components of the system around soil fertility and grassland management, genetics, labour requirements and financial performance.
Also on the day, there will be a focus on animal health with University College Dublin vet Eoin Ryan discussing what farmers need to do on suckler-to-beef farms in terms of keeping animals healthy. Teagasc’s Aidan Murray will also be on hand discussing the factors that make Chris’s system both profitable and sustainable.
The event is kindly sponsored by FBD which the IGA hugely appreciates as without such support events such as this simply wouldn’t be possible. Speaking ahead of the event, Donal Riordan, from FBD said: “We at FBD are delighted to support the IGA Beef Event in 2023 as it allows beef farmers to look at efficient and sustainable production systems that will help overcome the challenges which will inevitably face farmers over the next decade.”