How to switch from suckling to a dairy calf to beef system

Over 300 farmers travelled to Co Laois last week to hear how one farmer has moved from suckling to a dairy calf to beef system

John Lalor with his sons Matthew (left) and John Clyde on the family farm at Ballyfin Co. Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey
John Lalor with his sons Matthew (left) and John Clyde on the family farm at Ballyfin Co. Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey
John Lalor with Teagasc Green Acres advisor Gordon Peppard
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

The dairy calf to beef system operates to tight margins, but Laois farmer John Lalor believes it is already better for his finances than suckling.

John and his family farm a mix of beef and tillage on 100ha in Ballyfin, where throughout the 2000s they ran around 100 sucklers.

However, Mr Lalor reached a crossroads when he realised that significant personal investment would be required to bring his animal housing up to the required standard.

He started rearing dairy crossbred heifer calves, sold off the last of the suckler cows in 2014 and has just completed his first year in the Teagasc Green Acres programme. The 300 farmers who attended the farm walk on his land heard he has been buying in 100 Angus/Hereford crossbred heifer calves to finish at 22-24 month.

However, this year, due to the high cost of the Angus heifer and the lighter carcase at slaughter, he is going to reduce these slightly and is instead going to buy 25-30 Friesian bull calves that will be castrated and slaughtered off grass at 26-28 months.

After a farmer asked why he does not switch totally to bullocks, Mr Lalor explained while the output from the heifers is lower, they are a more marketable animal and having different types of stock improves your cash-flow situation as well as spreading the risk.

The heifers he has been selling to the factory this year have just been reaching €1,000 whereas he recently sold some in the mart for €1,100, to go for further finishing in a factory feedlot.

Mr Lalor's plan for the course of the programme is to improve income by increasing output.

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At the start, his gross margin was €713/ha and the target is to increase this by 2018 to €1,035/ha.

Output is the main driver of profitability, according to Pearse Kelly, Teagasc's head of drystock knowledge transfer.

It is envisaged that John's gross output will increase by over a third, from 848kg/ha to 1,154kg/ha.

Along with some changes in his grassland management in terms of establishing a paddock system, getting cattle out earlier and reseeding some old pastures, Mr Lalor will increase his stocking rate from just under 2LU/ha up to 2.58LU/ha.

When the system is in full production, the plan is that he will be buying in 52 Friesian bull calves at €125/head and 52 Angus/Hereford heifers calves at €250/head.

He will also aim to sell 50 bullocks at 330kg carcase weight at an anticipated €3.70/kg, 25 heifers at 260kg carcass weight and €4.10/kg, with the remaining 25 heifers at 250kg carcass weight and €4/kg.

Production targets

The importance of meeting production targets in a tight margin system and the lack of room for error were the recurrent themes of the farm walk, which attracted around 300 farmers, a very respectable figure given the rare fine weather.

Mr Lalor's calves are reared on milk replacer plus concentrate for the first 10 weeks and he explained how he had previously skimped on milk replacer in a bid to keep costs down but had then failed to reach his production targets.

So he now intends moving from one bag to "at least 1.5 bags" and is also introducing a vaccination programme.

He has only bought his Angus/Hereford heifer calves in the past couple of weeks. He would like to buy them earlier so they are stronger going to grass in the first season, as per the Teagasc recommendations. However, he said that they were just not available.

Green Acres programme co-ordinator Gordon Peppard said there is no room for error in the system.

For example, an Angus heifer coming in at 40-45kg needs to be doing 0.7kg/day up to weaning, and continue this at grass, so they are 200kg coming back in.

The target weight gain for the 120 days indoors is 0.5kg/day so they are 260kg going back out.

"The performance targets need to be precise and they need to be met," he said.

"Central to meeting them is weighing, which needs to be done a couple of times a year."

In response to a timely question about when is too late to spread urea, Dr Stan Lalor of GrasslandAgro replied "never," adding "the key is not the date but rather the prevailing weather."

There is an assumption that it will never work in summer but that is not necessarily true, he said.

There is a risk compared to CAN in hot dry weather but once there is rain within 48-72 hours afterwards, it can be just as good. However, he did point out that morning dew or a light mist will not suffice, it needs to be at least 7mm.

For someone who is sceptical about using urea, he suggests getting a pallet of both urea and CAN this year, use according to the conditions and compare the results afterwards.

"Urea has lot more potential for use than its currently getting. From a cost point of view, it's a no-brainer," he said.

Budget for more bad weather

Farmers need to budget on the current poor weather continuing on for another few weeks so those starting to running low on silage need to consider stretching it out by feeding some meal.

That is the advice of James Keane, Teagasc beef specialist in the west and midlands.

For suckler farmers, the priority has to be the care of the suckler cow, to keep up the milk for the calf and also to ensure she is in a good position to go back in calf.

There is a 10-15pc drop in conception rates when cows drop 0.5 in condition score from calving to mating, he said, adding that supplementation of around 2kg/head was required.

Ground conditions

Most people got some stock, definitely lighter stock, out in the two weeks after St Patrick's Day, said Mr Keane.

But some of these had to be brought back in, as ground conditions, especially in wetter areas, are horrendous.

Grass growth rates have also been very low so, when ground does dry out, farmers without nitrogen out should spread half a bag urea to kick off grass growth followed by another half bag in early May.

Current ground conditions are also pushing out closing dates for silage. But the priority for now is to look after stock.

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