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Future Beef: A review of weights, grass growth and soil fertility


The Teagasc Future Beef Programme is a network of 24 beef demonstration farms located right around Ireland. 22 of these farms are commercial farms and the other 2 are non-commercial.

The programme is funded by the Irish meat processors and is supported by three programme advisors. The farms participating in the programme are representative of their local area in terms of farm size, system, land type and challenges. The objectives of the programme are to create more profitable and sustainable farms, reduce GHG and ammonia emissions, improve water quality and to improve biodiversity. Aisling Molloy, Future Beef advisor, provides an update on weighing, soil fertility and grassland performance from 2022 in this article.

Weanling weight at 200 days

All farmers in the Future Beef Programme are participating in the suckler BEEP scheme. As part of this, the suckler cows and calves were weighed on the same day pre-weaning. ICBF then generated a 200 day weight report to make the information comparable within the herd, and to see if standard targets were being achieved.

The target 200 day weight for a male calf is 300kg and the group average was 294kg. This ranged from 248kg to 325kg. As an example, the difference between the average weight of 294kg and the lowest weight of 248kg was 46kg. A quick sum shows if this was multiplied by a value of €2.34/kg it equates to €108 per head. There were 44 male weanlings on this particular farm which leaves a value difference of €4752 between their male calves and the group average.

The target 200 day weight for a heifer calf is 250kg and the group average was 270kg. This ranged from 231kg to 335kg. Again if we take the difference between the lowest performing heifers at 231kg and the group average of 270kg, there is a 39kg difference. Multiplying this by a live weight price of €2.46/kg is €96/head. There were 29 weanling heifers on this farm which leaves a difference of €2784 between their heifers and the group average.

Other positives from increasing the 200 day weights of weanlings include an earlier sale date, less groups of stock on the farm, less slurry produced and housing facilities required and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The weaning efficiency of the cows is another figure in the reports and it is a measure of the calf 200 day weight as a percentage of the cow’s live weight. The target for this is 42% and the group average was 43%. This ranged from 39% to 51%. It measures the cow’s ability to do her job efficiently, and to see if she is on track to wean a calf that is 50% of her body weight.

When looking at the suckler cow’s performance in the herd, a number of options have to be considered to determine if she is a ‘good’ cow. Temperament should be number one on the list from a health and safety perspective. If she is a danger to you, she should not be there no matter how nice a calf she produces. Fertility is the next obvious one – she should be producing one live calf every 365 days. Following on from this she should a good milker and this should be reflected in her calf’s weight at 200 days of age, her Eurostar replacement index (genotyped 4/5 star, positive figure for milk and negative daughter calving interval figure) and in in her weaning efficiency figure (>42%).

Grass growth

The farmers in the programme measured grass on their farms in 2022, many for the very first time. The main method of measuring was with the plate meter, although some more experienced farmers were confident assessing it visually. The information for each paddock was entered onto the PastureBase Ireland (PBI) app as the farm was being walked. The information allowed the farmers to make management decisions for the week ahead, such as taking out surplus paddocks for silage if grass growth rates were high, or spreading organic or chemical fertilisers to help boost grass growth if it was lower than expected.

Most farmers walked their farms every 1-2 weeks during the main grazing season and the average number of grass measures for the group was 27. While some of the farms were later starting measuring and 6 farms had less than 20 measures during the year, PastureBase shows that an average of 8.12 t DM/ha was grown across the farms for 2022.

The information gathered throughout the year is really useful as it highlights the best and worst performing paddocks on each farm. There is also a facility to record fertiliser applications during the year which makes it very interesting to compare the growth response across the farms. On one farm an average of 19kg nitrogen/ha was required to grow 1t DM/ha. In contrast one of the organic farms in the programme only used 1.05kg of organic nitrogen/ha to grow the same 1t DM/ha. It will be an interesting figure to monitor over the coming years, and in line with our national targets to reduce chemical nitrogen by 20% from the Climate Action Plan 2021, it indicates that there is huge potential to do so.

Figure 1: Example of annual paddock yields for 2022 from PBIExample of annual paddock yields from 2022 from PBI

Soil fertility

At the beginning of the programme, all of the participating farms had soil samples taken. Soil fertility is an integral part of a farming system and the main focus is on the soil pH, phosphorus index and potassium index for each sample. The soil pH is hugely important as nutrients may only become available to the grass plant at certain pH levels. The ideal pH for mineral soils ranges from 6.3- 6.5 which allows maximum nutrient uptake by the roots of the grass. Grassland soils maintained at pH 6.3-6.5 have the potential to release approximately 60kg to 80kg/ha more nitrogen (N) than soils with pH 5.0 and will also make better use of the chemical fertiliser applied.

The results from the Future Beef farms show that 17% of the farms are optimal for soil fertility, i.e. have a soil pH >6.2 and have a phosphorus and potassium index of 3 or higher. However 83% of the soils are outside of the optimal range.

When we look at the soil pH for the farm, it shows that 53% of soils have a pH greater than 6.2. 10% of soils have a pH less than 5.5, 16% have a pH of 5.5-5.9 and 21% have a pH of 5.9-6.2. Spreading lime will help to correct this and most farmers took advantage of opportunities to spread it in autumn 2022.

Figure 2: Summary of soil fertility on Future Beef farms

The phosphorus index on the farms is reasonably good, with 53% of soils in index 3 or 4. 22% of soils are in index 1 and 25% are in index 2. Increasing the soil pH will help to release phosphorus that would be locked up in the soil. Other ways of increasing these indexes are quite straight forward such as testing slurry and spreading it on silage ground where there are big nutrient offtakes, and using 18-6-12 as the main compund for grazing ground. All Future Beef farms have nutrient management plans in place which gives recommendations for each field on the farm, and it also prevents them from exceeding their chemical nitrogen and phosphorus limits.

The potassium indexes are also quite good, with 66% of soils in index 3 or 4. Only 9% of soils are in index 1 and 25% are in index 2. As with phosphorus above, it is important to return slurry to silage ground to help replace nutrient offtakes. High potassium compounds can also be spread to top up fields such as 0-7-30 or muriate of potash (50% K). However care must be taken in early spring and late autumn if spreading these to reduce the risk of grass tetany in cows. A little and often approach works best.

Summary

Overall there is huge scope for improving weanling weights, grass growth, soil fertility and response to fertiliser on the Future Beef farms, as with all other farms across the country. Doing so will help to reduce emissions and make our beef farms more profitable. 2022 profit monitors are being completed on the Future Beef farms at present and will be analysed over the coming weeks to see how the farms performed financially.

To find out more on the Future Beef Programme, where regular updates from farmers are provided, click here.