Newford Farm shows the way for suckler beef start-ups

Teagasc and Dawn Meats have established a new stand-alone suckler herd at Athenry, Co Galway.

The cow type is an early maturing (Angus/Hereford) cross from the dairy herd.

Replacements will continue to come from the dairy herd.

The Newford Herd will be run on a fully commercial basis, to demonstrate the potential of a moderately large suckler beef farm to generate a viable family farm income, when operated to the highest level of technical efficiency and best practice.

The Newford Herd is designed to play a similar role to the Greenfield Dairy farm in Co Kilkenny; best practice in suckler beef farm systems will be developed and demonstrated.

Economic and environmental requirements, animal welfare, sustainability and health and safety will be central.

New benchmarks for achievable performance will be set for profitable, low cost, beef production.

The farm

The farm is at Newford, Athenry, a stand-alone unit close to the Teagasc Mellows Campus. The farm consists of 55.8 hectares (138 acres), split into three blocks.

Much of the land can be described as free-draining, with about eight hectares (20 acres) requiring drainage.

The main block of land is dry, good-quality grassland, comprising about 26.72 ha (66 acres).

This area will be used for grazing suckler cows and calves.

The second division is also good-quality dry land, comprising 15.51ha (38.3 acres), located about a mile away (by road) from the main block.

This area will be used to graze yearlings early in the year, before closing for two cuts of silage.

It will also be used late in the year to reduce grass demand on the two grazing blocks, by grazing finishing animals (18-20-month heifers or steers).

The last block, comprising 13.57ha (33.53 acres) is about a mile away in the other direction.

It is heavier in nature, and will be used to graze steer and heifer followers in their second grazing season.

Increasing grass growth

The success of the farm depends on growing and utilising very high volumes of grass over a long grazing season.

When up and running in 2016/2017, the farm will be stocked at 2.7 livestock units per hectare (100 cows, 100 calves, and 100 followers).

To put the scale of the farming challenge into perspective, the farm will need to grow about 13 tonnes of dry matter per hectare.

In order to increase grass growth, significant improvements were made to the farm’s infrastructure in early 2015.

Adam Woods, Teagasc, says new paddocks have been set up in the main block of land.

New water troughs were installed in the centre of permanent divisions, allowing paddocks to be temporarily divided and to give better control of grassland management during peak grass growth.

Ten hectares (25 acres) of the farm were reseeded in October, 2014, and a further nine hectares (17.5 acres) were reseeded in the spring and summer of 2015.

It is hoped to reseed 10% of the land area per year.

Single stands of top PPI (Pasture Profit Index) grass varieties Glenveagh, Abergain, Aberchoice and Abergreen have been sown, and their performance will be measured through the project.

Soil fertility is quite good. The farm pH averages 6.14; 97% is at Index 3 and Index 4 for phosphorus; and 51% of the farm is Index 3 or 4 for potassium.

Paddocks low in K have been earmarked for slurry this spring, and paddocks low in pH are addressed at reseeding time with three tonnes of lime per acre.

New cattle handling facilities were erected in August 2015.

This will allow easier administration of health treatments and will facilitate regular weighing to monitor performance.

Sheds were converted into calving pens, with nine calving pens in place for calving later in the spring.

Other shed conversion works will take place during the summer.

Yearlings will go out by March 1, with freshly calved cows following shortly after, weather permitting.

The farm system

The farming system will be a suckler-to-beef steer and heifer system, with steers finished at 20-24 months, and heifers finished at 20-22 months.

The aim is for heifers to be finished at 320 kg carcass weight, and steers at 350kg.

The system is projected to deliver a gross profit margin of €700/ha in 2016, €800 in 2017, €1,000 in 2018, and in excess of €1,100 in 2019.

The Angus/Hereford cow type from the dairy herd had an average weight in November 2015 of 511kg, and a body condition score of 2.95.

Cow weight is likely to increase as cows mature.

High terminal index bulls will sire progeny to be slaughtered.

Replacements will continue to come from the dairy herd for the duration of the project.

While some may question this replacement strategy and cow type, it is important to be aware of the expansion in the dairy herd.

This type of replacement will be readily available to suckler farmers, and the farm will demonstrate their suitability or non-suitability for a suckler-to-beef system.

Weanling performance

The 2015 progeny were sired by three Limousin sires, THZ, ZGP, and S1427, or a five-star Simmental or Charolais stock bull.

The high milk yield of cows and good grassland management were key drivers in weanling performance, with bull calves gaining 1.25kg/day since birth, with an average weight of 326kg.

Heifer calves had an average weight of 315kg, gaining 1.19kg since birth.

Replacement heifers had an average daily gain of 0.79kg since birth.

These animals will be prioritised for early turnout in spring to help them reach target mating weight for the herd at 15 months of age (320kg to 330kg).

The management team are looking at contract rearing their replacements up to the point of calving to ensure the Newford system is kept very simple. Weanlings will be carried over the winter on the best quality silage, while available, with bulls supplemented with 2kg and heifers with 1.5kg of concentrates until early January, when feeding rates will be reduced in advance of turn-out.

Breeding performance

The herd was synchronised in 2015, but with a conception rate of 37%, failed to hit the targets set.

A contributor to lower than expected performance could be tight grass supply putting cows under more nutritional stress than required.

Performance recovered after this, with the nine-week scanning rate increasing to 75 out of 89 (from the six-week scanning rate of 56 out of 89 cows scanned in calf).

The breeding plan for 2016 will follow a similar format of AI for six to nine weeks followed by cleaning up with stock bulls.

Calving will take place from February 20 to April 30 — 10 weeks.

As the farm is managed by one labour unit, calving difficulty is an important consideration when selecting terminal sires, and a limit of less than 6% calving difficulty was set. Other criteria for AI sires are five stars on the terminal index, greater than 25kg carcass weight, and higher than 80% reliability.

Winter housing

Cows were housed on November 1, followed by finishing animals and weanlings.

All cows get 100 grams/head/day of pre-calver minerals.

Bull calves get 1.5kgs/head/day, and heifer calves 1kg/head/day for January; meal feeding will cease in February. Replacement heifers are fed 1.5kg/head/day, and finishers get 7kg/head/day.

Cows will be penned and given scour vaccines, beginning this week, and continuing according to calving date.

Data reporting

The farm will operate in a completely transparent manner, with all measurements and data available to visiting groups, other interested parties, and the farming public.

The farm has a dedicated www.newfordsucklerbeef.ie website with weekly farm notes uploaded so farmers can keep track of progress and management changes on the farm.

The farm is also open to the public for pre-arranged farm tours and open days will be arranged in the near future.

For farmers or others wishing to visit the Newford Herd, adam.woods@teagasc.ie is the contact email address.


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