The Future Beef Programme
- Future Beef is a network of 24 suckler beef demonstration farms positioned across Ireland and supported by three experienced advisors.
- Each farm is representative of their region in terms of farm size, soil type, production system, stock numbers etc.
- Key objectives of the programme are to: Create more sustainable and profitable farms. Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) and ammonia emissions. Improve water quality. Improve biodiversity.
- The key focus areas are breeding, grassland management and health.
- Future Beef farmers will increase efficiencies and adopt technologies, new and old, to make beef farming more profitable, while also making it more environmentally and socially sustainable.
- Through farm walks, discussion group visits, press articles, regular updates on the website and social media, the Future Beef programme will show these technologies working on the demonstration farms.
Future Beef is Teagasc’s new suckler beef demonstration farm programme that comes under the umbrella of the Signpost Programme. It comprises of a network of 24 demonstration farms - 22 commercial family-run farms, the Future Beef Programme and the Kepak Feedlot in Caulstown, Co. Meath. The farms, positioned across Ireland supported by three experienced advisors. Each farm is representative of their region in:
- farm size
- soil type
- production system
- stock numbers etc.
Farm size ranges from 13 hectares to 114 hectares, and the herd size ranges from 12 to 87 suckler cows. The production systems vary between farms and include;
- calf-to-steer/heifer beef
- calf-to-bull (under-16 months of age)/heifer beef
- four are also buying in dairy-bred calves.
Mixed beef and sheep farms are also featured with flock sizes ranging from 50 to 250 ewes, along with two organic farms.
When designing the programme, we wanted to represent the majority of systems within the beef sector - not a small task in the context of Irish agriculture. Regionally, each farm faces the same climatic and environmental challenges as their farming neighbours, while nationally the financial and time pressures are the same – they are one of you.
Irish beef farmers already produce a top-quality product, which is exported worldwide. With the support of the Future Beef team, each farmer will endeavour to increase efficiencies and adopt technologies, new and old, to make beef faming more profitable, while also making it more environmentally and socially sustainable. This will be achieved by focusing on reducing inputs and the costs of production, while increasing the performance of every animal on the farm.
- Create more sustainable and profitable farms.
- Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) and ammonia emissions.
- Improve water quality.
- Improve biodiversity.
To achieve these objectives, the main focus areas are:
- Grassland management
Every cow should produce a calf every year. If a cow is not doing this, she should be culled and replaced. For many this will involve a refocus on: nutrition, health and housing. By increasing calves/cow/year from the national average of 0.85 to 0.95 calves per cow the net margin per cow can be improved by €98, there is also a 6% reduction in carbon footprint. Each calf must be of good genetic merit for beef traits, targeting a 200-day live weight (LW) of 250 kg as a heifer and 300 kg as a bull. To bring that into focus, that is an average daily gain of at least 1.15 kg LW.
All replacement heifers should be calving at two years of age. This is key to reducing costs on farm while also reducing the overall carbon footprint of beef production. Calving at 24 months vs. 32 months can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions per farm by 4-5% while increasing profitability by €77 net profit per cow.
Key focus areas are:
- Calve heifers at two years of age by focusing on target weight gains: 1.2 kg LW/day until weaning from the cow, 0.6 kg LW/day over the first winter, turnout to grass early in the second grazing season and gaining >1 kg LW/day. Replacement heifers should be 60% of their expected mature bodyweight at 14/15 months of age. Ideally, you should measure this on your own farm by weighing a selection of 5+ parity cows; many suckler farmers will have this completed under BEEP-S scheme.
- Increase the average daily live weight gain of all animals on the farm from birth, mainly through better genetics and improved grassland management. By increasing calves’ average daily gain from 1.05 to 1.20 kg LW you can increase the value of your weanling by €97, assuming that a kg of live weight is worth €2.50. This will also help to reduce the age at slaughter, and thus the amount of methane produced per animal.
- Body condition score (BCS) cows and heifers. Body condition score estimates the ‘cover’ of subcutaneous fat on the ‘frame’ of the animal. The range goes from 0 (emaciated) to 5 (grossly over-fat). Individual condition score units are usually divided into half and quarter scores. A spring-calving suckler cow should have a BCS of ~2.5-2.75, while an autumn-calving cow should have a BCS of ~3.0, post-calving.
- Nutrition: test silages and balance each cows diet for energy and protein based on her BCS at housing, thin cows may need extra feed, while fat cows will need to be restricted. After calving all suckler cows should be fed top quality silage (>70% dry matter digestibility, DMD). For best results try to calve cows at a time of year when they can be turned out to grass straight away.
- Pick appropriate sires/bulls: understand the breeding indexes and how they can help improve the herd, i.e. Replacement Index vs. Terminal Index, calving difficulty, carcass weight, daughter milk and what the ‘reliability’ is for the trait.
- Health: have a robust animal health plan; sick animals or animals with a parasite burden will not perform to their optimum.
- Housing: appropriate housing for all types of stock. The requirements of suckler cows differ from those of finishing animals. Space allowance for lying and feeding is also critical and farm safety should always be in mind when designing sheds.
Good ‘quality’ grass is the cheapest feed available to any beef farmer. Intake of good quality grass must be maximised by the animal to achieve high live weight gain. This will reduce the amount of silage and concentrates that needs to be fed, while also decreasing the length of time an animal stays on farm. This equates to fewer inputs, lower costs and increased profitability, while also reducing GHG and ammonia emissions.
Key focus areas are:
- Developing practical grassland management programmes for each region and system.
- Taking soil samples and correcting soil fertility to grow more grass with less inputs. The EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategies are seeking a reduction of up to 20% in fertilizer usage by 2030. On beef farms it is estimated that a 25% reduction in fertilizer usage can reduce GHG by 1%. Start with lime application to fields with a pH <6.2.
- Introducing clover to pastures, where appropriate.
- Extended grazing: ensuring early spring grass by having a ‘closing plan’ in autumn to help build ‘covers’. An additional two weeks grazing can reduce farm GHG emissions by 2%.
- Getting slurry and farmyard manure spread as soon as ground and weather conditions allow in spring will reduce the amount of methane produced.
- Increased use of low emission slurry spreading (LESS) can reduce GHG emissions by 1%, while also reducing ammonia emissions.
- Switch, as far as possible, from calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) to protected urea; Teagasc trials have shown it has 71% lower nitrous oxide emissions than CAN.
- Paddocks, infrastructure and rotational grazing to maximise grass utilisation and the amount of grass grown annually on the farm. Every extra tonne of DM/ha/year utilised = €106/ha (Grass10). Improved grassland management will also lead to improved animal performance and a reduction in age at slaughter, thus reducing GHG emissions. If concentrate is used to make up for poor grassland management, GHG emissions will not be reduced as concentrate has an associated carbon footprint.
A sick animal or an animal with a parasite burden will not perform to its potential. A farm needs to have a plan in place that will deal with parasites, viruses, bacteria and illnesses. Key focus areas are:
- Implementing a comprehensive health plan.
- Vaccination to prevent disease.
- Correct dosing policy using faecal sampling to reduce the risk of anthelminthic resistance.
- Improved ventilation and environment in sheds.
- Nutrition: Diets based on forage analysis and animal requirements.
Performance on the farms participating in the programme will be recorded throughout the year - you cannot manage what you do not measure. Monitoring on the farms will permit measurement of the impact of improved technical efficiency on profitability and the environment. The National Farm Survey (NFS) will collect all data on the farms. All results will be communicated through the Future Beef website, social media, discussion group visits and farm walks.
Improving water quality and increasing biodiversity on these farms are key aspects of the programme. Future Beef will work closely with the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP), to inform the participants what can be done on their own farms to reduce their impact on water quality. Simple measures like how to maintain drains and watercourses, when should I clean a drain and how should I do it?
Similarly, for biodiversity, are farms and farmyards too “picture-perfect”. Can I as a farmer leave more space for wildlife; should I just fence off that awkward corner and let it re-wild or could I plant it with oak trees? What about the spaces I do have, can I manage them better to encourage more biodiversity, how should I manage my hedgerows etc.? We do not want to look at any one area in a vacuum; there is no advantage to reducing GHG’s if we destroy our watercourses. Through farm walks, discussion group visits, press articles, regular updates on the website and social media, the Future Beef programme will show these technologies working on our 24 farms. We will demonstrate how they reduce the GHG emissions, improve water quality and biodiversity, and also how they are affecting the profitability of each participant. If you see these technologies working on your leader’s farm, will you adopt them too?
Further information about the Future Beef Programme is available on the website
Martina Harrington, Aisling Molloy, Gabriel Trayers, Colin J. Byrne and Pearse Kelly
We wish to thank the farmers that have agreed to take part in the programme. We look forward to working with them and their local advisors over the next five years. We are confident that all parties involved in the programme will benefit hugely from the experience. We wish to acknowledge all the sponsors of the Future Beef Programme and thank them for their commitment to the programme:
- ABP Food Group
- Ashbourne Meats
- Dawn Meats
- Euro Farm Foods
- Foyle Food Group
- Kepak Group
- Kildare Chilling
- Liffey Meats
- Moyvalley Meats
- Slaney Foods.