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Grass usage key to realising good on-farm profits

A silver tongue on a golden spring were words I remember an elderly uncle of mine use when I was a child to describe the polished rhetoric of people with vested interests. These people usually turned out to be 'experts' or salespeople.

Down through the years, farmers have become well used to being bombarded by these well-paid individuals telling us how things should be done and how their particular product or policy will transform our enterprises into virtual goldmines.

For instance, there was a time when we couldn't put out enough fertiliser -- of course, that was before environmental pollution became a hot issue. I can also remember being advised to remove ditches and hedges to free up more land for production. In our current era of enlightenment, doing something like that could well see you ending up in jail.

Well, every cloud has a silver lining and, because of the historically low margins in the cattle sector, there has been very little incentive over the years to pay much attention to these silver-tongued salespeople with their expensive ideas and more expensive inputs.

I believe the secret of survival in cattle farming is to keep inputs to a bare minimum while managing our farms as best as possible to maximising output. Put simply, it's all about achieving the highest weight gains at the least possible cost.

Personally, I find the main factor which affects weight gain is how well I use the chief natural advantage of my farm -- grass.

I also feel it's very important to work in unison with nature rather than trying to dominate it. The recent phenomenal growth which nature has provided has meant that I got the last of my cattle out to grass on April 18. It's amazing when you see how well the cattle that went out a month earlier have done. What difference an extra few weeks of grass can make at this time of the year.

Overall, the Friesian cattle bought for this year's grazing season appear much better than last year's stock. However, old habits die hard and it's very difficult to resist a bit of 'value', so I must confess that I did buy some plainer cattle simply because of their price. It will be very interesting to see how they fare in comparison with their higher priced companions at the end of the year.

Speaking of using nature, I was lucky enough to get nitrogen out for silage during a very mild and moist spell at the end of March.

Other than using them as a remedial bay for a few cattle that had to be taken out of the shed during the winter, these fields were not grazed. The mild weather has seen a nice cover of grass develop and, with a little luck, this should provide a good first cut of silage.

I also had to spray one of these fields for ragwort because of concerns for my cattle next winter. But to be brutally frank, the fact that it was a roadside field was probably an extra incentive. At the moment, I am also beginning to spot-spray clumps of nettles under the electric fence in order to avoid the system shorting out later in the year. I find that it doesn't take cattle very long to figure out if the current in the fence is weak.

This spring, thankfully, I didn't have to buy many cattle. Although the price of Friesian stores hasn't risen as much as continental stock, they are probably still costing way too much. One can only hope that the optimistic forecasts for the beef trade that we hear about do come true; otherwise there will be a lot of sad faces and empty pockets around next back-end.

Whatever the rest of the year holds in store, it has turned out to be a really remarkable spring for growth and if you excuse my adaptation of the words in my opening sentence, one could be forgiven for actually calling it a 'golden spring' -- and without a silver tongue in sight entitled to claim the credit.

John Heney is a beef farmer from Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

Indo Farming