A journey to improve dairy beef profits in Donegal
Operating a combined dairy beef and tillage enterprise in Drumlougher, Co. Donegal, Gareth Peoples is on a journey to improve the profitability of his beef farming business.
Over the coming years, Gareth will follow a plan as part of the DairyBeef 500 Campaign to improve animal performance, increase farm output, and reduce costs per kilogram of beef sold – leading to an improvement in the financial viability of beef enterprise. In this article, Tommy Cox, DairyBeef 500 advisor to the farm, outlines some of the key measures that will be implemented over the coming years.
Farming a total of 79.5ha – 50ha of which is grassland – all of the land is in one block. As some of the land is quite hilly, fields in tillage, grazing and silage production are allocated on the basis of ease of machinery work.
The land’s proximity to the yard brings benefits in terms of grassland management and Gareth has made improvements in this regard since enrolling in the campaign last summer. To date, all of the grazing fields have been subdivided with temporary fencing; extra water troughs have also been installed. Maximising the performance from grazed grass is one of the common elements associated with profitable dairy beef systems nationally. Focusing on improving grazing infrastructure, reseeding – 14ac of which was carried out in 2022 – and optimising soil fertility are all necessary in maximising the performance from grazed grass on Gareth’s farm.
As plans are in place to increase the stocking rate from the 1.7LU/ha recorded in 2022, a focus must be placed on improving soil fertility to ensure that the farm is capable of carrying additional numbers. The most recent soil tests completed indicated that just 1% of the grassland area is at optimum levels for soil pH, phosphorous and potassium. To address this, Gareth began using more compound fertilisers in 2022 and has applied for the National Liming Programme, with the aim of applying 2t/ac of lime to any areas that require soil pH improvements in 2023.
A total of 85 calves are present on the farm – 42 autumn-born and 43 spring-born - but in the coming years, Gareth will increase this number to 100.
The profitability of beef systems, with dairy beef being no different, is linked to the level of output achieved. By increasing stock numbers, Gareth will have more animals to sell, have a higher output figure and - if costs are managed appropriately, with this extra beef produced from grazed grass - an increase in net margin will ensue. Over the course of 2022, the farm’s gross output was 924kg/ha. However, the additional numbers will push the output figure closer to the 1,358kg/ha average achieved on the remaining farms involved in the DairyBeef 500 Campaign.
Increasing the profitability of a dairy beef system is not just as simple as buying more calves and hoping for the best. It involves managing the animals as efficiently as possible from the day they arrive right through to the day they walk you the ramp on the day of sale. The first point in this process is calf sourcing. As it stands, Gareth’s preferred calf type are Friesian males, which are carried to beef as 24 month steers.
Calf sourcing, health and feeding
One of the key elements to a successful calf to beef system is the care of the calf and this centres primarily on two avenues – calf health and calf nutrition.
The health of the calf and its subsequent performance begins with the herd of origin. As it stands, Gareth is sourcing calves from five herds, but he plans to further lower this to reduce the risk of introducing illnesses or disease to his farm.
When purchasing, Gareth aims to source a calf that is three weeks of age, as these calves are less prone to scours and diseases and require less veterinary intervention; all three are unnecessary complications for Gareth who has off-farm commitments with his sizeable contracting business.
To further enhance health, a vaccination programme has been implemented to cover RSV, Pi3, Pasteurella, and clostridial diseases. Careful monitoring of parasite burdens will also be undertaken through faecal sampling to assess the burdens of coccidiosis and stomach worms throughout the year.
Upon arrival to the farm, calves are batched in groups of 10 and are fed using teat feeders. Calves are fed twice a day up until five weeks, at a feeding rate of 6L/head. From day 35-45 calves are moved to once-a-day feeding (3L) and from day 45-60 calves are offered 2L/day. During this time, calves always have access to a course ration. By the time of weanling, they are consuming ~2kg/head/day.
Once weaned successful and free from health issues, calves are turned out to pasture. Concentrate is offered at 1.5kg/head/day post turnout for five weeks and straw is offered for six weeks. In June, calves will be split into two groups based on weight. The heavier calves will be offered 1kg/head/day of meal, while the lighter calves will be supplemented with 0.5kg/head/day throughout the grazing season. This ration is of 19% crude protein and consists of quality ingredients such as soya bean meal, barley and flaked maize. With the above strategy being employed, Gareth’s calves should achieve the targeted levels of daily gain of 0.7-0.8kg/head up until housing for spring-born animals.
The winter feed
Although grassland management and calf performance are key in achieving a profit from dairy-beef systems, one area that often gets overlooked nationally is the importance of winter weight gains. With dairy-beef systems, one of the critical targets is for weanlings to achieve a targeted daily weight gain of 0.6kg/head/day over the winter period.
This level of performance is critical to ensure the maximum use of compensatory growth is achieved when animals are turned out to grass for their second season. The one variable that is central to achieving this target is excellent quality silage; Gareth aims to produce silage quality in excess of 72% dry matter digestibility (DMD) this year. To achieve this, a late May cutting date is targeted. Remember, the quantity of meal required to gain this 0.6kg/head/day target is directly linked to silage quality. If Gareth’s silage has a DMD of 65%, his meal feeding cost will be €112/head. Where 75% DMD silage is available to weanling animals, this drops to €28/head over the course of the winter.
Failure to produce such a quality feed will not only have implications for the performance and meal feeding levels of weanlings, but it will have a negative economic impact on the costs associated with winter finishing.
Although Gareth’s beef system was profitable in 2022, achieving a net margin of €314/ha before subsidies, there is scope to improve this closer to the target of €500/ha as set out under the DairyBeef 500 Campaign. To achieve this, a focus must be placed on increasing output on a per hectare and livestock unit basis. The latter will be achieved by focusing on animal performance – through calf rearing through to finish, grassland management and silage quality.
Gareth Peoples is one of 15 farmers enrolled in the Teagasc DairyBeef 500 Campaign, for more information on the programme, click here.