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Mother Nature's warmth makes it all easier

What a difference the weather makes to the running of a farm.

After last year's late spring and poor thrive, it would be fair for me to say that normal service has been resumed on my farm and it's all thanks to the benevolence of Mother Nature.

My cattle got off to a great start with this year's early growth and I hope to finish them all on grass. In addition, my first cut of silage came in about three weeks earlier than last year during a couple of fine days around May 20, which allowed me to get the all important 24-hour wilt.

It wasn't as heavy as I would have liked but it was great to get it into the pit dry and in good condition. However, the real bonus is having after-grass available at a much earlier stage, especially as grass growth appears to have slowed down at the moment. When you are trying to finish big Friesian cattle you can never have too much grass. Their appetites really are insatiable.

While my Friesians are doing well it's the three Angus cattle that are leading the way this year. They were bought last August weighing 405kg when prices were well below their current elevated levels. I felt at the time that they looked a bit small but their growth and development since then has been very impressive.

After being fed just silage for the winter and going out to grass in late March, they now look to be not far off 600kg and should grade at least an O+ if not an R. This should see them kill-out very well, which will leave a very high target for my Friesian bullocks to achieve.

While some may feel that this raises a serious question mark in relation to my preference for dairy type stores, to me it highlights the critical importance of the buying-in price of store cattle. As any beef farmer will tell you, it's only when you have your beef cattle replaced that you know what your profit is.

For years now, we have been told that the great majority of beef farm enterprises are loss making. However, these official reports consistently ignore the fact that there are many beef finishers up and down the country surviving and making a living from fattening cattle, principally off grass.

Curiously, this sector appears to be hidden somewhere deep in 'Cattle Other' statistics. While they may never become very wealthy or feature in 'Beef Farmer of the Year' competitions, their beef enterprises tend to have a much more sustained shelf-life than some other more glamorous farm enterprises. As graphically shown this spring, they perform a crucial role in providing a valuable outlet for both beef and dairy type stores and also make a huge contribution to the value of our multi-billion euro beef exports, a factor which by and large goes totally unrecognised.

I was interested recently to read of a novel process developed by Prof Frank Monahan from UCD's Institute for Food and Health which may contain very good news for finishers everywhere. Apparently by chemically analysing the tail hair from cattle, it is now possible to determine if cattle have been grass-fed or not and also if a grass diet had been substituted with other types of feed over the past 12 months.

Already in the US, it appears that meat from grass-fed animals can be labelled as such and a premium price can be charged. Not alone can grass-fed beef have a superior flavour, but it is also known to be significantly richer in omega 3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), both known to have health benefits, compared with cereal fed beef.

This report reminds me of a radio discussion I heard many years ago in which the late Justin Keating -- the former Minister for Agriculture -- and some other food experts discussed how the flavour of the beef is affected, not alone by a grass diet but also by the many herbs contained in the sward. The 'Species Rich Grassland' measures contained in the recently established but increasingly hallucinatory AEOS scheme will, if successful, put a new focus on the importance of biodiversity in the grass swards on our farms.

Could traditional Irish beef producers, with their competitive advantage of growing great grass on mostly old natural pastures, be entering a new era where discerning European consumers will be prepared to pay a premium for beef produced on their species rich grassland?

John Heney farms at Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

Indo Farming