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Making Part-Time Suckler Farming Work

06 March 2020
Type Media Article

By Colm Kelly, B&T Drystock Adviser, Teagasc, Galway/Clare

Time is the greatest currency and is at a premium for part-time farmers. A higher level of management is required to make this enterprise work in a compressed time slot. Planning and proactivity are key skills that can keep farming an enjoyable and successful experience “the difference between farming well or poorly is about two weeks”.

Calving & Health:

It is not sustainable to breed animals that require more interventions to calve or nursing ‘lazy’ calves. Calving camera, space, naval iodine, good colostrum and plenty of straw are fundamentals for a part-time farmer. Where mal-presentations occur a simple philosophy; if you can’t correct the problem relatively easily a vet call out fee is probably more of an investment than a cost. Scour and pneumonia are big costs in terms of lost performance and extra workload. Many farmers vaccinate weanlings for pneumonia prior to housing along with good ventilation and lungworm control. Vets increasingly have the means to test scour samples for the specific cause especially if the sample is taken after the calf first shows signs.


Calving gate, good lighting, fit for purpose housing, crush and pen are essential. I worked with a farmer previously that said “farmers will spend money on machinery they’ll use three times a year and have the crush held together with baling twine”. Safety and handling cattle in a relaxed controlled manner are non-negotiables going forward.   


Good pre-calving nutrition can decrease your workload significantly. Producing higher (leafier) quality silage for weanlings/finishing cattle reduces costs significantly. Adopt a mindset of ‘how can I get more grass in to my specific system’. There is no hiding from the fact that grass is cheap, high quality feed and anything else that an animal eats is necessary but not that profitable. Soil test every 4 years and use your adviser to help act on the results.


Fertility is the Achilles heel on a lot of suckler farms decreasing the sales potential of the enterprise. The main problems are: hard calving’s, infection from interventions at calving, poor plane of nutrition, poor body condition, genetics, low culling rate, trace elements, disease, poor heat detection or bull fertility issues. Fundamentally if a cow does not go back in calf within a reasonable time frame there is a reason for it. The worst thing to do is to accept it as normal. ‘Redline’ traits in bull selection target better than breed average; calving ease, docility and carcase weight. High reliability AI is preferential especially for heifers.


A trend I notice regardless of low cost or higher cost systems is that suckler farmers often struggle to get enough animals sold to cover their costs. The business is live weight production. To optimise live weight production the cow must produce a calf averaging as close to 365 days between calving’s as possible, the calf must achieve a better than average weight for age and needs to show the ability to grade R+ to U+ to achieve a premium in the market place. Any cow not capable of achieving all of these as one farmer put it “is like a hole in the ship only letting in water”. The hardest thing to communicate to farmers is that a cow slipping from Spring to Autumn calving is reducing the amount of saleable live weight and severely compromising their ability to cover costs.

Schemes & the Environment

The modern farm produces two products: Food and Environmental goods. The ideology of farming is to make your profit from selling cattle but the reality is that even profitable beef systems will still make most of their income from direct payments. Dismissing schemes such as BEEP is like leaving a crop unharvested in the field.


A weakness in most beef operations is poor financial recording and analysis. An annual eprofit monitor report or similar ‘production account’ is crucial for better decision making. Tax accounts are prepared for compliance and your accountant’s role is to make you as ‘tax efficient’ as possible. An eprofit monitor report examines in more detail the physical and cost performance of your business at an operational level. To make best use of the resource monitor the trend over a number of years rather than knee-jerk reactions to an individual year. Your adviser can assist in preparing this report. Table 1 accompanying this article published in the Teagasc ‘Beef 2018’ booklet shows indicative differences in competitiveness between high performing and national average farms where KPI’s were addressed.