The 2016 IGA Beef Conference was held in the Radisson Blu Hotel and Spa, Limerick on Wednesday April 27th. A highlight of the day was an address from award winning Welsh farmer Glasnant Morgan. The conference also featured presentations on grassland management, breeding, financial management and plans for the development of the Pallaskenry College suckler herd.
There is a widespread mentality among beef farmers that they are unable to match up to their dairy counterparts when it comes to producing grass, but Micheal O’Leary from Teagasc debunks this and says it is possible to grow between 12 to 15 tonne dry matter per ha (t DM/ha) of grass no matter where in the country you are or what system you operate. Soil fertility is the main factor driving production on these farms with farms having a pH of at least 6. Micheal praised beef farmers for how competent they were at walking the farm and taking grass measurements, but he highlighted that they must improve when it comes to making the critical decisions. Farms are well able to grow over 12 t DM/ha of grass if they put the right system in place.
Looking at figures from the 1,000 farmers sending in measurements through Pasturebase, 20% of which are beef farmers, he stressed that the main factor holding back growth on farms was not location but rather management. Research has shown that every kilogramme of grass that is grown in the spring is worth 16 c. Micheal outlined some of the key factors affecting available spring grass. Data from Pasturebase shows that paddocks closed on 2 October grew 1,100 kg DM/ha over the winter compared to just 650 kg DM/ha on paddocks that were closed on 23 November. Spring grass supply reduces by 77 kg DM/ha every week paddocks are closed after 2 October, which shows the importance of early closing of paddocks where possible.
Micheal accepted that winter growth rates were influenced by weather conditions, but he added that every farmer controls 50% of the grass grown on their farms over the winter. Early spring grazing is critical to maximising grass production, with farmers who finished their first rotation by 10 April growing 200kg DM/ha more than their counterparts whose first rotation went on past this date.
For mid-season grass management, it is vital that farmers stick to a rotation length of approximately 21 days. Leaving stock in paddocks for too long means cattle will eat the energy reserve of the grass, which will in turn lead to slower regrowth in paddocks.
Mervyn Parr from Teagasc Grange focused on optimising reproductive farm efficiency in the suckler herd. He presented results from two trials. The first result was on the impacts of pathogenic challenges on reproductive performance. For this Mervyn looked at the presence of different infectious pathogens in vaccinated and non-vaccinated herds. A total of 155 herds were used for the trial, encompassing 5,554 cows.
His second trial focused on breeding management and the use of AI. He examined the use of synchronisation and fixed-time AI on over 2,205 cows. He compared the cost of using a stock bull, which was €52 per cow per year for a 30-cow suckler herd. While using synchronisation with fixed-time AI on a herd of the same size cost between €47 and €62 per cow per year.
Peter Young from the Irish Farmers Journal gave a talk on how to improve financial management on your farm. He emphasised the need to set goals, which are different for each farmer, on what they want to get from their farm. He outlined the need for farmers to balance the management of the day-to-day farming activities with the financial planning needed for the farm to succeed.
The importance of developing a monthly cashflow budget on the farm could not be overstated. He did accept that you would not get it perfect the first time but the more experience you get, the more accurate your monthly cashflow budgets would get. With volatile prices common for farmers, the aim is to focus on what you can control.
Glasnant Morgan is a sheep and beef farmer from Wales and at this stage of his career is now passing his experience onto others. “I have been involved in a mentoring programme in Wales called the Young Entrants Support Scheme. The scheme entitles young famers under 40 up to four days free mentoring. It involves us calling to the entrant’s farm and looking at their accounts and making a business plan for the farm. The entrants also come to visit the mentors’ farms and see how they are run. This is very good because it keeps us on our toes as well. We have to do some homework on developing the farms and making sure they are run as efficiently as possible. Fertiliser and lime are usually the two keys costs which are analysed and are also the key behind good grassland management.
Glasnant talked openly about the need for succession plans for a truly sustainable business. “I’ve sorted out succession when I’m alive. We have three sons in the family, the eldest of whom farms at home with me. We have helped out the other two sons and they all know exactly the situation and what they will receive in the future”.
He firmly believes that for farmers to be really successful they have to enjoy what they do, especially on the farm. Grazed grass is integral of his farming system. The aim is to get the most from pasture to maximise self-sufficiency. In the spring, 10% of the farm has grass seed stitched in with a grass harrow and hopper. A paddock system is used for sheep.
Principal of Pallaskenry Agricultural College, Derek O Donoghue told the conference of the plans to upgrade the college’s suckler herd. “With the farm being used as a tool to teach over 650 students, it must demonstrate best practice, but it must also be a viable and profitable suckler herd.” At present a 50-cow suckler enterprise is run, among others, on the farm. What was traditionally an autumn-calving herd is changing to a spring-calving system to fully utilise grass production and live weight gain from grass on the farm.
There is a clear need to alter the breeding programme to improve the maternal genetics of the herd as the average is currently €65. This puts the herd at an average of three stars, which is not where the college wants to be. The aim is to get the herd to an average of €180 to €185 on the Replacement Index, which would place them in the top 1% in the country. This would lead to a €120 increase per cow; with 50 cows on the farm this would be an increase of €6,000.
A common theme throughout the conference was the need for farmers to use a network of people for advice, and this applies also to Pallaskenry, accepted Derek. A new suckler herd will be sourced with the help of ICBF. The herd will not be breed specific. Derek was adamant about this. As long as the cow is high on the replacement index, it does not matter what breed the cow is. A key target is for calves to achieve and average daily gain of 1.1 kg from birth.
While this type of herd may cause management issues with different breeds, the college has to demonstrate best practice. Derek concluded by saying “the student is number one, and to be best you need to learn from the best.”
Peter Young and William Conlon (both Irish Farmers Journal) contributed to this article
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