Where have all the hairy outliers gone? I am not referring to some sort of deviant caterpillars. Rather I'm talking about cattle which have spent the winter outdoors and on scarce rations.
When introduced to a 'full Irish' of good grass, these cattle with bony frames and full coats of hair, are ready to steam ahead. There is no issue of adjusting to the outdoors. From day one on grass the hairy outliers will start laying down flesh.
In the spring marts, the hairy outliers attracted premium prices on the basis of their potential for massive compensatory growth. It was this growth potential which gave Irish store bullocks such a good reputation over the years and attracted the English and Scottish buyers to come over in their droves.
Contrast this with the cattle coming through the marts this spring. Quite apart from the exorbitant prices, almost to a beast these cattle are coming directly from sheds. Most have been getting lashings of meal. I would regard them almost as hothouse plants.
When they are put out to grass, these hothouse plants will actually lose weight as they shed gutfill and adjust to the outdoor conditions. It will take weeks at grass before they will even get back up to their turnout weight.
Another major change in the current mart scene is the number of young bulls coming through the rings. These bulls are selling at a discount to steers and heifers presumably because of the difficulty of handling them at pasture.
Some may be even castrated by the new owners but I imagine that the bulk of them will be put to grass for the summer.
When you sit down and do the sums for summer grazing at the current price of stores, young bulls with their slightly lower cost and higher growth potential actually offer the best prospect for leaving a profit.
But managing bulls at pasture, especially dairy bulls, is not for everyone.
Don't even think of grazing young bulls without a network of electrically fenced paddocks. Think of the neighbours across the hedge who may be trying to graze bulling heifers.
Some farmers will dilute the bull threat at grass by mixing them with steers. Others try to manage bulls at grass by confining group size. Apparently young bulls will establish a group pecking order which can bring a modicum of peace and stability in groups of up to 25. In groups of 50, 60, 70, etc, there will be constant jousting for leadership and general instability. Then again when the groups get very big at 150+ there are so many animals around that a pecking order is not a runner. The bulls just get on with the business of grazing and living.
After a winter in the shed all cattle go a bit mad when first turned out. You can only cringe to see them trampling and cutting up the lovely spring grass. Some people leave the shed cattle in an open yard for a few hours so that they run off their energy on concrete first.
When they reach the grass the cattle should be hungry enough that they will graze rather than do 20 laps of the paddock. In the early days at grass the best time to herd these cattle is when they are lying down after their first morning grazing. Herding them in the late evening just gets them running again.
For the very early grazing, farmers try to overcome the poaching threat by keeping group size very small. This certainly helps, but how then do we organise rotational grazing?
In the annals of grazing years, spring 2012 has been freakishly good so far. "We'll pay for this later," I constantly hear. If we do get downpours throughout the summer I'd prefer not to be grazing big groups of young bulls.
Talking of paying, how come Irish farmers are now paying the highest prices in the EU for store cattle? Just because we have more grass than other countries does not mean that we can pay more for feeder animals. Live shippers tell me that they can deliver 500-600kg purebred Charolais and Limousin heifers from France at lower prices than similar weight stores are making in Irish marts. Indeed, some French store cattle have already arrived on Irish farms, alongside the calves from the UK and Romania.
Reports suggest the banks, in contrast to their behaviour elsewhere in the economy, are freely lending for livestock purchase. Is this leading to a bubble in cattle price?
When I challenged a bank person about giving out money so freely for cattle purchase, I was told that in the event of a repayment problem it's easier for the bank to liquidate cattle than the family home.
Much will depend on how the beef prices fares for the rest of the year. Nobody can predict this but a factory boss asked if I could make money based on an autumn beef price of €3.60/kg carcaseweight.
I tried this exercise on a bunch of steers weighing 560kg to be landed in the field at €1,350 a head.
To achieve this would need an average liveweight gain of 1.26 kg/day for the next six months.
This might be achievable with hairy outliers but not with hothouse plants.
So did I leave the cattle behind?
No, I bought them anyway. I like looking at them. I hope to keep you posted as to the profit/loss situation.
I wonder would the Farming Independent be interested in subsidising the experiment?