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Thursday 8 December 2016

Reducing feed costs is key to profitable suckler farming

Published 22/07/2015 | 02:30

Donie Ahern speaking at the Teagasc Suckler Farm in Herbertstown, Co Limerick
Donie Ahern speaking at the Teagasc Suckler Farm in Herbertstown, Co Limerick

The economics of keeping a suckler herd was a hot topic for the hundreds of farmers gathered to learn how one Limerick farmer managed to double his gross margin while reducing landbase by a quarter over four years, writes Martin Ryan.

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It was an issue that caught the attention of those attending the Teagasc Better Farm walk, near Herbertstown, Co Limerick, as the host farmer Donie Ahern told how the farm that carries a suckler herd of 85 cows, mainly crossbred Limousins from the dairy herd, had been struggling.

Mr Ahern, who previously procured cattle for factories around Munster, told how he increased the gross margin per hectare from €474 in 2011 to an achievable target of €1,208 in 2015 on the 'model farm', which got its name as one of the early Foras Taluntais farms, a predecessor to Teagasc.

The stocking level has gone from 1.69 livestock units per hectare (LU/ha) to 2.43LU/ha. Meanwhile, the land base reduced from 82ha to 63ha with a saving of €10,000p/ac on rented land, gross output increased from €1,347/ha to €2,417/ha, while the variable costs have been reduced from 64pc of output to 50pc.

However, the farmer feels he should consider whether he would "be better off not keeping the sucklers" after he sat down to analyse the return from the progeny of his own herd against the bought-in stock on the farm.

Yearling bulls are being purchased in January or February for €800-900/hd and finished off at double the money by autumn on a mainly grass diet, with minimal meal feeding to finish off.

"I honestly don't know how suckler farmers selling weanlings can survive if they are getting €800 to keep a cow and a calf for a year," says Mr Ahern, arguing that it does not pay relative to finishing cattle.

Mr Ahern, who is married to Maria and runs the operation with his son Paudie, qualifies the statement by adding that he does not have any special deal with the factory, but KK Club membership, with Kepak, is worth a small premium.

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He reckons that the cattle coming in at €800-€900/hd and eating solely grass until August 1 deliver the margins as it costs around €80-€90/hd to put on 200kg liveweight for six to seven months. Liveweight gain on grass is consistent at 1.6kg/day, which shortens the finishing period on meal.

Grass management

"All the gain is got before they enter the shed. The system is driven by plenty of quality grass," he adds, with the finished bulls selling at around €1,800.

He said the secret to it has been getting more out of their grass management and reducing the meal bill.

He has cut back heavily on the amount of ration fed from €740/ha in 2012 to €519/ha last year, but mention of concentrate quality comes with a strong health warning.

"A lot of farmers would want to look at the quality of the ration they are getting. If the ration is right and silage is good it should work," he says.

To increase output he is now purchasing an extra 50 yearling bulls, eight yearling heifers, and a few extra calves each January to February to be finished along with the farm progeny.

The number of finished animals being sold off the farm has increased from 85 to 160 last year and the target is for slightly more in 2015, with replacement heifers contract reared.

Mr Ahern said the analysis of the farm operation under the Teagasc beef monitor was one of the "best decisions" he ever undertook, with local Teagasc advisors, Pat Blackwell and Derek O'Donoghue, and Better Farm advisor, Alan Dillon.

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