In an initiative between the Farming Independent and Teagasc, to show how show how suckler farming fits farm business and lifestyle goals on many Irish beef farms, Aonghusa Fahy explains how ‘routine’ and a simple farming system enable him to keep so many balls in the air
With land in Galway and Clare, Aonghusa Fahy has a complicated farming life. On top of that he has a 14-month-old child with wife Olivia and a teaching job, leaving him no option but to be disciplined.
“Teaching makes you have routine. I know exactly what I am doing before I do it,” he says. “I look at the stock in the morning, put out silage in the morning. Then in the evenings you get your jobs done.
“Otherwise you just don’t get the same output from your time. But you have to keep the system very simple.”
Aonghusa has been teaching in Ennistymon Vocational School for the past 12 years. His teaching subjects are Construction, DCG and Ag Science. Six years ago he took over the running of the family farm, some 60 acres, in Ardrahan, south Galway.
“There is 33 acres that is arable, the rest has some forestry on it and there is some wetland. It’s where I keep the suckler herd, which I’ve built up to just over 30 cows.”
While he sells some of the better weanlings in the mart, Aonghusa finishes most of the cattle between the two farms.
“Over the last few years I’ve moved to bringing all the cattle through to slaughter, but was maxed out here in Galway and thought it would be too labour intensive to have more cows at home,” he says.
“I had an interest in finishing my own stock and it’s something I want to develop more in the coming years, looking hopefully at identifying a market for them and producing specifically for that market.”
Four years ago Aonghusa inherited 66 acres from an uncle in Tulla, 36km from his home farm, just as he was setting up to rent another 25 acres, also in Tulla, from another uncle.
About 35 minutes away, he says it’s “manageable”, but his uncle is able to keep an eye on things during the week and Aonghusa has someone come in to help feed the cattle during the winter months.
“I try to get there three to four days a week, but during calving season I’d only get there twice.”
Calving season this year started poorly with three losses but has turned a corner, with healthy calves now coming unassisted and quickly.
“I had a bad run this year and had to pull eight out of first 11 calves, of which three died. I’m still waiting on a lab report for one of them, another was born dead and another came upside down and died.
“But since that things have improved with the arrival of unexpected twins from a heifer that scanned with only one bull calf and the last 10 calves have come unassisted, and all calves are now thriving.”
His suckler herd, a mix of Limousin, Simmental, Charolais and Hereford, are “anything that will rear a good calf” but some are at a stage where they need replacing.
AI wasn’t a huge success on the farm this year, he admits, but it something he’ll try again this year with some changes.
“About a third of the cows that were AI’d held to first service but any repeats were covered by the stock bull.
“This was maybe down to me using synchronisation last year and getting timing wrong, but it is a learning curve and I will be looking to do more AI this year.”
Aonghusa also uses a Limousin stock bull, with AI for genetic improvement, a terminal sire and a vasectomised bull, calving all the cows at Ardrahan.
The 33 acres there he describes as good, free-draining land, which allows him to turn out the cows after calving, usually the first or second week in February.
With an aim to keep the calving season as compact as possible, he pre-scans all the cows, to ensure everything is cycling, and he runs tail paint every few weeks.
“I also have a high-percentage cull, taking out four cows last year,” he says. “This year I am looking at getting rid of maybe five cows.
“I ran six heifers with the bull last year and five went in calf. Usually I’d only let the bull out for seven or eight weeks and if they are not in calf after that they are culled.
“This year the plan with AI is to pick certain cows that I want to get replacements from, and double service them — AI them, then AI any repeats after which they will run with the stock bull.
“I have five heifers to keep this year and I’ll AI them and buy a new young bull for the farm.”
Aonghusa is currently finishing two 12-month old bulls, with the aim to get them finished at 14 months.
“They are 590kg at the moment on ad lib meal. The seven bullocks I am trying to finish at around 400kg carcass weight are on 5kg of meal a day and good quality silage.
“I hope to get them gone by 25 months but it could even be sooner as I have to reduce my nitrates for the BEAM scheme.”
Aonghusa finished 26 animals last year — the heifers at 24 months and the bullocks at 26 months.
It was December last year before Aonghusa weaned the calves, and they are taken to the Clare farm.
“I try to wean them as late as possible and I try get them as heavy as possible before I wean them, introducing concentrates for four weeks before weaning.
“Delaying it means they are healthier, I find, and reduces the stress as I let them in to the cows over a week and reduce the time there, literally weaning them off the cow. The longer it goes on, the less stress on the weanling.
“It’s the only time they are fed concentrates, at weaning. My main aims on the farm are to get a calf per cow every year and to get live weight gain on the calves of 1.2kg for heifers and 1.3/1.4kg for the bull weanlings.”
Aonghusa weighs the weanlings three or four times during the summer and in the winter around this time, to make sure they are hitting targets.
“It’s the only way to see how you are going and measure if you are improving.”
He put up a new shed last winter in Ardrahan, a three-bay with creep behind it. The 19ft pens are divided into three for feeding and three for creep.
“It’s made a massive difference to labour,” he says.
“When I took over Tulla I had a two-bay, double-slatted house and it was difficult to keep the cows, they were all packed in and it was a lot more labour intensive as I had to have more cows out during the winter.
“Even during calving, it was very intensive as I didn’t have enough pens for calving. Now I have nine pens for calving.”
He also introduced a paddock system on the farm three years ago and is measuring grass regularly.
“The paddocks make sense as it means the fields are smaller and we get through them quicker,” he says. “I try to cut every field once a year and try to get cows in under 1500kgDM. The calves are creep grazed in front of the cows all summer and autumn
“I don’t see the paddocks as adding to the work — if I had larger fields it would take an army to get the cows in at times. Now, every two or three evenings I move them. When the cows go out you get to herd them at the same time.
“Since I started measuring I know the tonnage I’m producing and that I can identify poorer performing paddocks which are earmarked for more attention in the future.”
While Ag Science trips used to centre around events such as the Ploughing Championships and attending field trips at the agricultural colleges, Aonghusa has used his home farm for field work with the class.
“I’m putting into practice what I am teaching in school and I’ve used videos and pictures to show them how I am doing things,” he says.
“It’s good to show them the practical application of the course.
With regard to future goals, Aonghusa says: “My farming plan is to become more efficient, make the cattle more efficient and improve the breeding.
“I also want to look more closely at the markets and what I want to sell to.
“I don’t have it nailed down exactly what system or market I want to sell my cattle into, but I think there are great opportunities for selling your own meat.
“There is a market for locally produced food and people want to buy what they know and where it came from.”
There are two key contributors to the success of Aonghusa Fahy’s system: top-notch animal husbandry and good grassland management, writes Mícheál Kelly.
He is clearly a very driven and ambitious farmer with a keen eye for detail.
In the recent years, The home farm has seen many changes in recent years with the number of grazing areas available to him doubling through incorporating a paddock system.
Originally this was exclusively done with temporary reels and posts but now as he is more accustomed to his herd demand and what each field is capable of growing, you can see more permanent infrastructure appearing on the farm.
Aonghusa has doubled the number of grazing areas available to him by using a paddock system.
Originally this was done with temporary reels and posts but now as he is more accustomed to his herd demand and what each field is capable of growing, you can see more permanent infrastructure.
Aonghusa has been carrying out regular grass covers with a grasshopper since 2019 which are recorded on Pasturebase, and this data informs all his management decisions.
Over 14.5 tonnes grass DM/Ha were grown on the farm in 2020, and it is obvious that his confidence in the technology has grown.
He knows exactly what feed he has available and is now making calls to take paddocks out or adjust fertiliser rates without hesitation and this has been key to achieving the high levels of growth on farm.
The stocking rate runs at around 2.9LU/Ha during the summer so it can be nerve-wracking to remove large portions of the ground as silage but he has the experience to trust the figures and run tighter margins without being left short.
Year on year the length of the grazing season and the number of grazings achieved per paddock is increasing.
Generally if weather allows, the cows are calved and out to grass as soon as possible; 90-100pc of the cows are calved in a six-week period, which means a uniform calf crop and the grass demand is relatively steady from the start of the grazing season.
The paddocks system is paying dividends with the cattle entering covers of below 1500kg DM/Ha throughout the season which is lush leafy grass.
On top of this the calves can creep graze ahead of the cows as the season progresses.
The average daily gain of the calves is increasing each year with average growth rates of: 1.31kg per day for bulls and 1.18kg for heifers in 2020.
This rise is apparent since the switch to rotational grazing, with some cows achieving a weaning efficiency of over 50pc.
Without the attention to detail it would be difficult to keep grass ahead of the number of cows Aonghusa is now running on the home block but he has made the system work for him.
He also works off-farm so the benefit of keeping all the cows and calves close-by more than compensates for the effort he puts into grassland management.
In fact I would go as far as to say that, the effort he puts into grassland management increases his quality of life and the time he gets to spend with his family.
Micheal Kelly is Aonghusa Fahy’s Teagasc drystock advisor and he is based in Athenry.