Beef finishing with a flourish
Doing the simple things well is key to the success of the Zurich Farming Independent Beef Farmer of the Year
Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30
Attention to detail is key on the hillside farm where Michael Murphy's calf to beef rearing enterprise is delivering some eye-catching results in a tight margin business.
There were strong crowds gathered in the sunshine at the 84ha farm, just outside Nenagh, Co Tipperary, where the former under-21 Tipperary All Ireland winning hurler concentrates on rearing calves from the dairy herd to finish as heifers and steers for the factory.
"We are seeing dairy herds expanding and more and more people will be getting into rearing calves from the dairy industry and finishing them," said Donal Mullane, the Teagasc regional manager.
Michael does all the simple things right, with a stocking rate of 2.22LU/ha to deliver a gross margin of €1,143/ha which is around double the national average of €572/ha, explained the farm's Teagasc advisor Michael Daly.
"He manages the grass properly, maximises weight gain from grass, has good animal health procedures, very low calf mortality and measures his performance on a daily basis, weighing cattle regularly," says advisor Michael Daly, with animals spending one winter housed on farm.
The well-laid property with an artery of roadways set out with precision amid neat electric fenced paddocks hints at it's past as a dairy farm, with 70pc of the land at index 3.
"I lost my herd in 1998 with brucellosis. I was milking 90 cows, and the Department insisted on taking everything - cows, heifers and calves. I had a pedigree herd, I just decided I wasn't going back milking and the urge still hasn't hit me to go back either," said Michael.
He has a small portion rented land, and a block of some 50ac around 19 kilometres away.
Up to two years ago, he was finishing all purchased Friesian calves as 16-month old bull beef.
"I got on well with it, but financially I didn't get on well. It was a tough job, and from a health and safety point of view it was a dangerous job as well with Friesians. I wasn't sorry to get out of it and we all know what happened bull beef last year. So I got out in time," he said.
His meal bill came to €60,000 last year, compared to €120,000 in 2012 for the bull beef production.
Around 120 to 130 bull calves are purchased at two to three weeks of age in January through an agent in Kerry, with bull calves castrated in May and finished at 23 months with average carcase weights of 325kg last year. Then the same volume of heifer calves are generally bought in April, a mix of Angus and Hereford crosses.
Last year, on his first year rearing Angus and Hereford heifers they averaged 270 kgs carcass weight at 19 months with 34% grading R= and the remainder grading O+3+. All the steers went to the factory in two days in December, while the heifers went over 48 hours in October.
However, this year the heifers are being drafted as they reach finishing weights following problems with bloat late in the season last year. The steers are generally housed for 80 days with 5kg feed a day prior to being sent for slaughter, however, he is aiming to reduce costs by finishing a percentage off grass in October.
All of the animals have lifetime average daily gains of 0.94kg/day, with less than 2pc calf mortality on the farm, the advisor explained.
Michael told how he dabbled a small bit in raising continental heifers off the suckler herd but found stock was too expensive.
"I've yet to come across a system that beats my Friesian steer system," said Michael.
"I'd have reservations about the Hereford and Angus thing, whether I'll stay in there or not. It is not very long ago since it was nearly impossible to sell a Hereford or Angus stock bull. But now it is the latest craze in the beef industry - everyone wants them. But there is a limit to them," he says.
"I made a big mistake last year holding all the heifers until October, with problems with bloat. It was mainly down to the fact they were fit a month or two months before hand but were left there.
"I could be classed as a weighing scales addict. I weigh a lot of cattle and you need to be on the case of Hereford and Angus constantly as even the finishing heifers, some are doing less than .5kg a day on meal which tells me they're near finished and if they don't get the bullet they'll eat into my profit.
"There is only a certain weight you'll take them to."
Michael pointed out the Friesian steer system is beating the Hereford and Angus system by almost €100 a head.
Teagasc beef specialist James Keane said the gross margin per head in the Friesian to steer system last year was €496 but the weights also high with calves going into the sheds at 290kg.
He pointed out the research from Rob Prenderville in Teagasc Johnstown Castle has shown the most profitable Friesian steer system is to finish off grass at 21 months at high stocking rates. "Michael is actually ahead of some of the figures we're seeing coming out of Johnstown Castle in terms of weight gain," the specialist said.
Michael also warned the price of the Hereford and Angus calves were too expensive.
"Calf buyers that are buying the Hereford and Angus calves are giving away the bonuses to the dairy men on day one," he said.
With dairy stock, there is huge variation in calf weights in Friesian, Hereford and Angus, he said, adding he tries to avoid animals from crossbred cows.
"It all goes back to the cow they come out of," he said. "My pet subject at the minute is Angus and Hereford calves coming out of crossbred cows and not knowing it," he said. "The dairy farmers know the breeding of the animals and it should be made available for those buying calves.
"It is not fair, not honourable. It is impossible to tell with an Angus or a Hereford at two or three weeks old what it is out of but you'll know at six months what it is out of.
"All the information is available and should be put on the cards and on boards in the marts. It might separate the good stock from the middling stock," he said, adding buyers would protected against paying "big money" for "rubbish".