Fodder concerns put spotlight on contract-rearing

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A good grazing infrastructure and grassland management skills are key to contract-rearing

Tom Coll

Drystock farmers and dairy farmers are being urged to explore the possibility of entering into mutually beneficial contract-rearing agreements.

The fodder shortage in the south and east of the country in contrast to the relatively good grass-growing year experienced in the north-west could drive the demand for contract-rearing, either on a short-term over-winter basis or a long-term agreement.

A number of drystock farmers in the Sligo/Leitrim area have set up a discussion group, initially to investigate the potential of contract-rearing dairy heifers as a means of increasing stocking rate and increasing the profitability of their farms.

The group consists of 18 farmers, 15 of whom are currently rearing heifers, with the other three in the process of drawing up contracts.

In total they are rearing 1,500 heifers, with plans to increase to 2,300 in 2019.

One group member, Neill Boland, participates in the Aurivo Profitability Programme, and another, Michael Fitzgerald, runs the Teagasc Ballyhaise contract-rearing unit.

So, what are the key issues that facilitate a smooth-running, long-term heifer rearing arrangement between a dairy farmer and a contract-rearer?

The first, and most difficult, step is to find a suitable candidate, a person you can trust, and build a working relationship with.

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Working with someone you already know or a person recommended to you is a good starting point.

Initially the dairy farmer and the rearer should visit each other's farms: this will give both a good indication of how each farmer manages his enterprise and is also an opportunity to discuss the conditions of the contract-rearing agreement.

An intermediary should be approved by both parties when drawing up the agreement to ensure that the terms and targets are planned and every possible eventuality is addressed.

Responsibility plays a major role in a long-term contract-rearing arrangement.

The dairy farmer must ensure that the heifer leaving the farm has got the best possible start in life, having received adequate colostrum at birth and is healthy and on target weight for age when transferred to the rearer's farm.

Unrealistic expectations for heifers under target on arrival on the rearer's farm will significantly increase the rearing costs if targets are to be achieved.

The rearer in turn must take full responsibility to ensure the critical target weights are achieved at bulling and when the heifer is returned to the owner.

The rearer needs to be aware of the critical nature of reaching target weights and the subsequent effect on conception rate and the lifetime production performance of the heifer.

Regular communication between dairy farmer and contract-rearer is vital.

The contract-rearer needs to have the infrastructure in place and the skills to successfully rear heifers and return a reasonable farm income.

A good grazing infrastructure combined with good grassland management skills and a focus on making top-quality silage will ensure weight targets are met with relatively low variable costs.

An emphasis on animal husbandry skills and a close working relationship with vets from both farms regarding animal health planning is essential.

An increase in stocking rate generally takes place after the initial year; stocking rate will ultimately drive output and the overall profitability of the enterprise.

The discussion group format enables farmers to share experiences and knowledge; it also helps build confidence to initially take the first step and then develop the enterprise.

The Sligo/Leitrim group have taken a leap of faith and encouraged new members to become contract-rearers.

They are all focused on increasing the profitability of their farms and are keen on establishing long-term contract-rearing agreements.

Teagasc in the Sligo/Leitrim/Donegal area are organising an information meeting for farmers interested in becoming a contract rearer, in the Bush Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon on Thursday, September 27 at 8pm.

Tom Coll is a Teagasc advisor based in Mohill, Co Leitrim

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