Jimmy Madigan’s Kilkenny farm had a gross margin of €540/ha in 2011. Since switching from rearing steers to keeping bulls, that figure has risen to €1,241/ha, thanks also to soil testing and improved fertility
Jimmy Madigan has more than doubled profits on his Kilkenny suckler farm over the last decade, by focusing on soil fertility and genetics.
He has 100 sucklers, 150 store lambs, 60 store bulls, 10ac of tillage and some forestry on his 235ac holding at Ballyhale, where he farms alongside his wife Annmarie and their four young children Hannah, Jim, Kate and Eddie.
A crowd well in excess of 200 people gathered on the land for the Irish Grassland Association beef event.
The farm is divided across three platforms and the overall stocking rate is 2.14LU/ha. The average paddock size is 4.4ac and the majority of the farm is serviced by new roadway, water and powered fencing.
The suckler herd is split equally between spring and autumn, with 85-90 cows calving down in total. These cows are largely based on the home block in Ballyhale, along with bulls for finishing.
The second block contains the store lambs and beef heifers, and the third block is where you’ll find the breeding heifers.
Calving interval for the suckler herd is 369 days, compared to the national average of 395. The spring six-week calving rate is 86pc.
The percentage of calves dead at birth was 2.6pc, above the national average of 1.01pc.
Calves dead at 28 days was 5.2pc, again above the national average of 2.36pc. The Madigans’ calf per cow per year rate is 0.9, above the national average of 0.86.
Attendees commended Jimmy for his honesty with calf mortality figures.
“I’ve been on 200 cow farms in the past and they’d try to tell you they have mortality at zero,” one farmer said.
Jimmy explained: “We lost five calves to cryptosporidiosis last spring, which has left our figures high. The mothers of these calves were culled, apart from one pedigree Charolais.”
All cows are calved in the shed and held for a week before being sent out to grass. Calves are dehorned and vaccinated against clostridial and IBR, and are given a shot of Bovipast.
Calves are being weaned off the autumn herd, and Jimmy will give a teat sealer to the cows as calves are removed.
Weaning performance figures for 2021 shows that bulls had an average daily gain of 1.32kg, while heifers gained 1.2kg. The average 200-day weight for bulls was 312kg, with heifers on 284kg.
The 2021 autumn-born calves were weighed on June 12: bulls were 428kg on average while heifers came in at 395kg.
Home-bred bulls are finished alongside bought-in stores. Average slaughter age for bulls is 15.9 months at 428kg and 19 months for heifers at 345kg. Liveweight produced is 829kg/ha or 452kg/LU.
Bulls receive 900kg of meal and two bales of silage during their time on the farm.
Taking part in the ABP Advantage Beef Programme, Jimmy is required to finish his bulls under 400kg carcass weight.
Replacement heifers for the suckler herd are home-bred and bought in. The purchased heifers make for an unusual but interesting system.
Each year, Jimmy targets 6-10 black Limousin heifers from a local dairy farmer as replacement for his autumn-calving herd.
These heifers are then bred by AI to a range of bulls, including Belgian Blue sire Serpentin ZSD, Limousin sire Jagerbomb and Charolais sire Balthayock Musketeer.
“With those black Limousin cows, you can put any bull on them,” he said. “They are very practical and don’t get too heavy, weighing 600-650kg.
“A lot of the black Limousins coming from ZAG have shown to be light on milk but this isn’t an issue for our heifers with their good British Friesian and Fleckvieh mothers.”
Heifer calves from the autumn herd then go on to replace sucklers in the spring-calving herd.
Jimmy is also breeding his own replacement stock bulls and has a pedigree Charolais bull coming of age in the autumn. Overall, AI constitutes 20pc of the farm’s breeding programme during an average year.
With an infertile bull identified last year, the percentage of AI used in the previous autumn and spring ran higher.
Jimmy joined the BETTER farm beef programme in 2012, which was the beginning to the transformation of the farm’s profits.
The farm’s gross margin was €540/ha in 2011. When Jimmy left the programme in 2015, his gross margin stood at €1,080/ha.
In 2016 the farm switched from rearing steers to keeping bulls. Today, the farm’s gross output is €2,069/ha, with a gross margin of €1,241/ha.
“The second winter with steers is a killer and we didn’t have enough space in the sheds for them,” Jimmy said.
“We were ending up with heavy bullocks and then getting cut on specs. Now we monitor the bulls heavily and can stay within spec.
“We were also able to add an additional 20 cows to the suckler herd.”
The main drivers of the sharp increase in gross margin over the past 10 years have been soil testing and improvement of fertility, attention to grassland management, production of top-quality silage, focus on genetics and good health practices.
“It’s been a collection of a lot of simple things like giving the cattle new grass twice per week instead of once. I learnt a lot from speaking to other farmers,” Jimmy said.
Teagasc advisor Terry Carroll outlined that the first step in getting the farm’s grassland up to spec was a look at soil fertility.
“There’s no point starting with anything else. This means looking at your use of lime and getting the right P and K into the soil,” Terry said.
“After you get grass right you have to ensure you have your cattle groupings correct. This farm has six groups. Too many groups can counteract your good paddock system.”
The Madigans’ farm has 35 paddocks for grazing and over 80pc of the farm is above 6.2 pH. 98pc of the farm is in index three and four for potassium, and 40pc is in index three and four for phosphorus.
Pre-turnout ground receives 2,300 gallons/ac or 18:6:12 at 1.5 bags/ac. After grazing 27 units of nitrogen is applied, which works out at five bags per season or 125 units in total.
Grass and silage accounts for 89pc of total feed used, and total tonnes grown is 12t DM/ha.
First cut took place on May 13 and results from a silage test show 76pc DMD.
In late April, Jimmy reseeded a paddock with a seed mix composed of 10kg PRG, 2kg white clover and 2kg red clover per acre.
The land was burnt off with glyphosate, two tonnes of lime was applied, and the seed mix was sown with a one-pass drill. Compound 13-6-20 with sulphur was then applied.
Grazing recently began in the paddock, with a strong grass cover and clover clearly visible throughout.
Teagasc research officer James Humphreys was on hand to walk attendees through the best practices for establishing clover and the potential cost savings when the legume is utilised fully.
“I’m impressed with the reseed on the farm here, it’s fantastic. This field should produce 150kg of background N/ha per year,” James explained.
“The idea is to not have to apply any chemical N to this paddock for the lifetime of the reseeded sward.
“In Solohead we have found this practice to be beneficial as the application of chemical N can actually hold the clover back.
“We are four years into the trial and our paddocks are going from strength to strength. With correct management I’d be surprised if this paddock doesn’t do every bit as well as any other paddock on the Madigans’ farm.
“White clover acts in the same manner as ivy spreading up a wall.
“Red clover’s growth is completely different, with a good initial kick and then a tendency to die out over subsequent years.
“Clover is fixing nitrogen from about six weeks after reseeding.
“It’s important to get weeds under control immediately after the establishment phase. Getting docks under control early on can remove the issue for the lifetime of the sward.
“We’re looking at fertiliser prices staying at current levels for at least another year, so reseeds with high clover inclusion are well worth consideration.”
Farmers are advised when developing highly productive clover based swards to have high availability of P and K in the soil; maintain pH between 6.5 and 7; keep covers low over winter, graze down to 4cm; and ensure the distribution of the legume is maintained throughout 70-100pc of the sward.