Farm Ireland

Friday 19 January 2018

Problems of Derrypatrick Herd serve to give project a purpose

John Shirley

Managing an intensive high-quality suckling herd is a greater challenge than managing a dairy herd but without the same profit. I am even more convinced of this after attending last week's open day for the Derrypatrick Herd at Teagasc Grange.

Teagasc established this 120-cow demo herd in 2009 in response to industry demand for a blueprint of best practice in breeding, grassland management and technical efficiency for suckling. The venture took on a gross margin target of €1,000/ha (€405/ac).

From the start, the Derrypatrick Herd has been under the public microscope. Quite serious teething problems have highlighted the critical challenges of top drawer suckling, especially in relation to getting cows in calf and getting top-quality calves born alive. In the first year an infertile bull led to a high empty rate in one section of the herd. In spring, there was a spate of caesarean sections in the herd.

But it is better that the lessons from these teething problems are learned from the publicly-funded Teagasc research herd rather than from losses in a farmer's herd. The essence of this project is to identify and solve possible roadblocks of which suckling has many.

Compared with her suckler counterpart, the dairy cow has a simple life. Dairy cows, after a short gestation, deliver a plain calf which is immediately whipped away leaving the dairy cow to concentrate on milking. This breaking the cow/calf bond enables the dairy cow to quickly return to heat cycling.

In contrast, the suckler cow, after a long gestation, is expected to deliver a beefy offspring and quickly go back in calf despite her natural suckling hormones telling her not to.

When it comes to efficient grass management, the Derrypatrick project is in reality rotating up to six herds. The individual rotations include cows with bull calves, cows with heifer calves, yearling heifers, two groups of yearling bulls and replacement heifers.

A dairy farm has the one rotation of dairy cows plus replacements as a minor consideration. Hence my contention that life is simpler on a dairy unit.

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Stocking rate in the Derrypatrick herd at 2.9LU/ha (1.17 units/ac) contrasts with the more relaxed 2.1LU/ha (0.85/ac) for the Grange suckler herd previously under Dr Michael Drennan. A drought which had cut grass growth in the early part of this month to about one quarter of normal will further test management of this high stocking rate.

As well as aiming for the €1,000/ha gross margin, the Grange project set out to examine cow breed type, and to evaluate grass management techniques that are in vogue on dairy farms.

Grass is prioritised. The herd is spring calving. Bulls are left entire, put to grass again for about three months in the second season, housed in June, given about three months of ad lib meal and slaughtered at 18 months when they should be close to 400kg carcass weight. Heifers are targeted to hit 310kg carcass weight at about 20 months.

Cow breeds being assessed include 30 each of Limousin x Holstein/Friesian (LF), Limousin x Simmental (LS), Charolais x Limousin (CL) and Charolais x Simmental (CS).

It will be another three months before the first progeny from the Derrypatrick herd will be slaughtered but at this stage the LF dam is a clear leader. The table (below) shows that at housing the LF weanling progeny were the heaviest and the CS the lightest. After a winter on high-quality silage + 2kg meal for bulls and 1kg for heifers, followed by a couple of months at grass, this weight gap was still there.

This LF advantage is attributed to the extra milk yield. If the LF is identified as the optimum suckler dam, this will greatly simplify life for the lowland suckler farmer. A ready supply of replacements can be organised from dairy farms. The challenge will be to identify the best type Limousin bull for crossing on the Holstein Friesian. Maybe a well muscled bull with a large pelvis?

Another early indication from this unit is that 'golf ball' grazing, down to 4cm, is not the best option for suckler cows. Results were better from a post grazing sward height of 5.5cm.

The open day also featured relevant material from outside the direct Derrypatrick results. Dr Padraig O'Kiely told visitors that Ireland's beef production was fifth best in Europe, for its low carbon footprint. Dairy beef was better than suckling. More importantly we have only 25pc of the South American carbon footprint.

Specialist beef adviser Aidan Murray, speaking on the BETTER Farm project, said that there's more to increasing beef profits than slashing costs. "Increasing output and stocking rate was the first priority if you want to make a better farm gross margin," Mr Murray told the crowd.

Overall, the Derrypatrick project has sparked a new interest in beef research at Grange. Last week's open day drew a large crowd that were hungry for information and facts and engaged fully with Grange scientists. The comments on the quality of stock in the Derrypatrick Herd were positive. One seasoned observer from Clare with an eye for quality beef described the Derrypatrick cattle as "the best I've seen at Grange over a 30-year period".

Yet I found the Grange staff were very defensive about the herd. There were even rumours of a proposal to disband the herd and replace it with an experiment on high-versus-low-merit herds as assessed by ICBF index.

Such a move would be a major step backward. We accept that intensive suckling is complex and challenging and even the best of farms have setbacks. Neither do bulling and calving cows adhere to a five-day week. Possibly the system should be simplified by not putting bulls back to grass and instead finish them at 15-16 months when market prices are usually higher.

Teagasc should have the resources, skills and know-how to meet the Derrypatrick challenge of creating a profitable suckling blueprint for farmer.

If anything the Derrypatrick Herd has assumed even more relevance after the initial teething problems. I would have liked to see more financial results at the open day but did somebody once say there's no such thing as bad publicity?

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