Beef Event 2023
The 2023 Irish Grassland Association Beef Event heads to Westmeath this year to the farm of Chris McCarthy in Crookedwood N91FX22 just north of Mullingar. The farm walk takes place on Tuesday, June 13th at 6.00pm.
The McCarthys farm is made up of 28 ha of relatively free-draining soil and has the added advantage of being on one block. The farm is home to a spring- calving herd comprised of 46 Limousin cows mated primarily to terminal Charolais stock bulls. Alongside the commercial herd, Chris runs a small number of pedigree Charolais cows which provides stock bulls for his own use as well as selling a number of breeding stock each year. The current stock bull is a Doonally New (CF52) bred bull with Chris having a fondness for other Charolais stalwarts such as Pirate (PTE). When he combines these terminal genetics with his three- quarter bred, red Limousin cow, the results speak for themselves with outstanding quality suckler stock being bred on the farm, consistently over the past number of years. Chris said “it has to be a red Limousin, I used to operate with the odd black Limousin cow but in terms of delivering what we want here, I have moved solely to red cows over the past few years.”
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.”