Farm Ireland

Saturday 21 April 2018

Little seasonal cheer as Brexit and kill numbers dampen prices

Led by huntsman Dermot Hanniffy, over 100 riders turned up for the Laois Hunt's St. Stephen's Day meet in Abbeyleix. Photo: Alf Harvey/
Led by huntsman Dermot Hanniffy, over 100 riders turned up for the Laois Hunt's St. Stephen's Day meet in Abbeyleix. Photo: Alf Harvey/

Gerry Giggins

There hasn't been too much in the line of festive cheer surrounding beef prices over the last month.

The traditional Christmas price surge in early December didn't materialise mainly due to the large numbers of cattle available for slaughter and the continuing uncertainty surrounding Brexit.

This time of year always marks the mid-way point in the Irish winter finishing period. The resilience of beef finishers is witnessed by the fact that most sheds have been filled again this year.

Historically, support for the beef finishing sector has been poor, with seemingly little systemic changes from the time of the last beef crisis. If corrective action isn't taken we will end up down the route of other European countries, where the beef sector only handles the by-products from the expanded dairy herd.

No one could argue that this will improve our beef exports prospects. My New Year's wish is that measures can be implemented to halt the decline in our suckler beef herd.

Improved payments for carcass quality - and finally including meat eating quality characteristics in our payment system - would justly reward the breeding and feeding of all suckler bred, beef animals.

The very mild autumn weather led to challenges at housing for a lot of cattle.

Most farmers and vets will testify to the greater incidences of animal health challenges, particularly viral diseases. In a lot of cases, sheds of cattle are only getting into their 'thrive' now.

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The increasing number of weighing scales on beef farms has led to a greater degree of accuracy for the farmer in judging animal performance and for me in adjusting finishing diets where performance hasn't been satisfactory.

In discussing cattle performance with farmers who don't weigh animals, their gut feeling isn't always good enough.

There are many good indicators as to how animals are performing. First and foremost is the type of ration and amount of feed that animals are consuming.

If forage quality is good, animals are eating all that is offered with no rejections then feed intakes are obviously at their optimum.

The manure consistency in a pen of cattle is also a great indicator to animal performance.

A stiff manure can indicate a deficiency in energy or protein, usually resulting from the overuse of straw or insufficient amounts of concentrate. Loose dung or scouring classically points to poor rumen health which can result from a range of issues.

Lack of fibre, rapid concentrate introduction, low dry matter poorly fermented silage, soil contaminated root crops, too finely ground concentrates and gorging animals can all contribute to visibly loose manure or scouring.

If a TMR is being used, the ration can be easily adjusted for fibre content but this is obviously more difficult in a non TMR situation.

Using yeasts and rumen buffers are essential in these scenarios. This year particular caution should be taken to look out for straw quality as there is a lot of mouldy straw being fed which will greatly inhibit performance due to mycotoxins.

At this point in the winter, animals half way through their feeding period should be 'cleaning up' by shedding their hair. This coat shine is another great animal performance indicator.

Animals still retaining hair and that store type look well into their finishing period, despite been well fed, are clearly lacking the correct mineral and vitamin supplementation.

It is also at this stage that the incidences of cattle lameness can start to increase. Identifying the cause of the lameness is crucial.

Is it due to the environment, nutrition or cattle comfort?

The six main causes of lameness in beef animals are digital dermatitis (mortellaro), foot rot, toe abscesses, septic joints, laminitis or muscular injuries. From what I can observe, our greatest problem is caused by digital dermatitis.

Not all animals infected with digital dermatitis display signs of the infection but can spread it throughout a pen.

Regular footbathing the herd is an effective and relatively cheap way of controlling this issue. Granted, yard layout, shed design and footbath location will all determine how stress-free this operation is on both animal and farmer.

Gerry Giggins is an independent animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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