Progressive farming - reaping the rewards from diversification and a scientific approach
Diversification and a scientific approach is paying dividends for Sligo beef farmer Kieran Henry
Published 22/06/2016 | 02:30
Beef farmers must embrace technology and scientific advances to boost their profits says Kieran Henry, one of the young farmers who will be speaking at the Teagasc BEEF 2016 event next month.
"One of my first pieces of advice to anyone looking to build up the number of beef animals on their farm would be to mimic some of the tasks that many dairy farmers now take as a given such as measuring grass and splitting the farm out into paddocks," says Kieran.
Kieran and his wife Caroline took over her father Henry Carr's farm in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo in 2011, after he availed of the early retirement scheme.
However, the evolution of the 45ha farm has been a steady work in progress. They started off with a small pedigree herd of nine Limousin cows and calves, and in recent years moved to rent a neighbouring 25ac. Now, the farm is making €650/ha but they plan to reach over €1,000/ha.
"I'd just gone 35 when I took over the farm - Caroline's father Henry was very easy to work with and there was a commercial enterprise there all along before we took over. He just opened the books and told us to do whatever we wanted to do," he says.
"Before 2011 we'd gone online with AgFood and ICBF and we'd started grass measuring. AS it has gone on I'd say he sees the benefit of the new technology and he enjoys it."
However, it was the grass measuring work under Teagasc and the PastureBase system that aided better animal performance off grass that Kieran feels gave him the added edge and confidence to progress the farm.
"It opened up my eyes as to what the actual stocking rate was. I found there was a whole lot more grass out there that I wasn't using properly," he says.
"I've managed to improve the silage quality from 60 DMD to 78DMD silage last year. It has been a progressive curve, as we've went along we've learnt it through targeting paddocks to take it out early, a better understanding of how the grass grows and not being afraid to take out the grass. I'm able to trust the figures."
One of the first tasks undertaken was to split the 30ac outfarm into eight paddocks with electric fences to allow for better grass management and extra water troughs and fences were put in on the home farm to create better paddock sizes. Next up is a farm roadway to allow better access to paddocks.
The Henrys are calving around 35 pedigree Limousin cows, with replacement heifers being kept on to build up the herd. "We've a full pedigree herd bar a few small commercial calves. We put the heifers in calf to an easy calving Limousin or Angus bull to actually calve at two years. It bucks the trend for pedigree breeders a bit. It means we have one extra live calf to sell and it means we can judge their first calf. Then when they calve at three to the pedigree bull it means only the best will be kept on for the pedigree herd."
He says farmers are choosing Limousin, Angus and Salier AI straws this year, with less Hereford being used in dairy.
The Henrys traditionally have opted for autumn calving as it suits the sale of the pedigree bull stock, but this year they calved seven in the springtime.
"The benefits of the autumn calving are that we have the pedigree bulls for sale at the right time in the springtime, it means I have the dry cows on grass in spring and it is more efficient," says Kieran, indicating they'll stay mainly autumn calving. However, he adds they may split the herd an create a commercial herd of animals.
They've also moved to sell young bulls for breeding.
"We've a strong focus on maternal lines for the suckler farmer or the dairy farmer," he says.
Farmers in the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) are now buying with the star rating in mind.
"The most important thing they are looking for at the minute is the stars - it is four and five star replacement bulls that we are selling. They are all easy calving," says Kieran who is a trained AI technician working part-time with Progressive Genetics.
"We're also a member of the ICBF maternal beef breeder programme and the feedback from that means our young bulls are rated even though they may not have sired anything.
"We don't get involved in showing animals. Most of our bulls are sold from the yard - when a farmer comes in he is looking for a functional bull that is fit to go and serve.
"With the BDGP programme in mind they have to have the maternal replacement index and it has to be proven. We've repeat customers coming back for bulls. Most farmers when they come into the yard they want a bull that looks well, is correct and good on his feet and has a nice head on him.
"We get the farmer to come into the yard to look at the bull before he sees the paperwork and the stars."
However, he says they also signed up to be accredited IBR free, BVD free and for Johnes Level One status. "That makes a big difference," he says, adding the bulls fetch from €2,500 upwards.
On the BDGP he feels that many farmers became frightened of it early on as they feared that they wouldn't be able to achieve the star ratings.
"At the end of the day it is going to put money into farmers pockets and when fellows look at it most guys are there already," he says.
"We also started contract rearing and last year was our first year. We contract reared beef heifers for a farmer that had lost ground and it worked for both of us. It worked so well he came back this year again and we also took contract heifers from a dairy farmer as well.
"We've 35 animals on contract and from our own perspective we see it as a way to bring in cashflow to the farm. It is a cheque every month and it will help us get a reseeding programme up and going to get the soil fertility up.
"It will help stabilise the future income of the farm and put certainty into it.
"Contract rearing is not for everyone but the first thing anyone considering going it should do is measure grass, you need the ability to grow grass efficiently.
"It is no walk in the park -there are targets and you have to meet them. With dairy heifers you are weighing once a month," he says.
His Teagasc advisor Tom Coll says this will also help boost the stocking rate in the short-term.
However, Kieran says they are currently limited by facilities to taking the animals for the summer months.
They've plans to add a five bay shed with a creep area to their current four bay double but are awaiting approval under the TAMS II Young Farmer Scheme.
One of the topics that Kieran feels strongly on is the National Reserve as they qualified under it to bring their entitlements up to the national average.
"The generation gap in farming is widening and we were lucky that Caroline's father retired and handed the reins over to us completely.
"The National Reserve is important as it will give farmers a bit of capital and extra revenue to make the farm more profitable," he says in the wake of Agriculture Minister Michael Creed confirming there was no funding for it in 2016.
"Don't be afraid to think outside the box," he urges.
"Farmers must adopt and move with scientific advances in agriculture. They need to switch to online systems and the simpler things that will help increase profits especially for beef farmers. As young beef farmers we need to be armed up with as much knowledge as we can to put on kgs of liveweight gain on contract heifers or beef animals. At the end of the day we are in it to make a profit."
However, he expects that plenty of issues will crop up at the special forum on 'Young Farmers in Beef' as thousands of farmers attend the BEEF 2016, Teagasc Open Day taking place on Tuesday, July 5, at Grange in Dunsany, Co Meath.