Farm Ireland

Friday 15 December 2017

The grazing game changer that can beef up your profits

The average beef farmer can double grass growth and add thousands to the bottom line by changing stocking systems

A change in stock systems can help double grass growth.
A change in stock systems can help double grass growth.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

One of the key messages from Teagasc's Beef open day today is that implementing a simple paddock system has the potential to add thousands to the bottom line in even a modest sized 20 cow suckler herd.

While turbo-charged grass output has traditionally been the preserve of the dairy sector, beef men are waking up to the fact that the average beef farm has the potential to double its grass output by moving away from the set-stocking system that still dominates.

"The typical set-stocked beef farm is producing 6t of grass drymatter (DM) per hectare - half of the target on good dairy farms," says Teagasc adviser Ned Heffernan.

"The fact is that most farms have fields that will produce at this higher level, but only if they are set up to do so."

The prize is tempting - an extra €500/ha of feed for a fraction of the cost. Translated into bottom line profits, you're looking at an extra €340/ha.

How is it done? Let's take a simple scenario - an 8ha (20ac) field that is being set-stocked with 20 cows and their calves, or the equivalent to one livestock unit per acre (600kg cow plus 150kg calf).

This field is coasting, producing 6tDM/ha, with the cow and calf requiring 0.5t/hd of meal at €270/t annually, along with 1.2tDM/hd of silage, harvested from another 4ha (10ac). Both fields get a few blasts of fertiliser annually, normally 200kg/ha. This makes the cost of silage, meal and grass for the cow and calf €339.

The big game-changer in grass output per hectare according Heffernan is getting paddock system established.

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"This doesn't need to be a massive investment, and some of the elements can be worked on over a number of years," he says.


He believes that the first step is to assess soil fertility. The shocking statistic that 90pc of Ireland's pasture is at sub-optimal fertility levels means that most results will show a requirement for additional phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), along with additional lime to raise pH. Soil sampling every three to five years will establish soil fertility levels and lime requirements.

Correcting the pH will improve the response to any extra P and K that you are applying. Most soils will be around index 1 or 2 for these elements, so you're looking at a programme to try to build that up," maintains Heffernan.

Decide which fields or areas have the highest P and K requirements and spread slurry on these fields.The cheapest way for farmers to increase soil fertility is by using maximum rates of slurry and farmyard manure, but compound fertilisers costing €300-400/t may also need to be part of the plan.

Once you hit indexes of 3, higher grass output has the ability to drive higher stocking rates and, generally, higher margins.


Six grazing divisions per grazing group should be the minimum so in a 8ha field you're looking at paddocks of 1.33Ha in size. More would be better, but that comes with extra cost. They should be similar in size, and not too narrow if at all possible.

Ned maintains that a single-strand fence may be adequate, which would cost approximately €2/m erected by a contractor. But for those on a tight budget and time to spare, Heffernan suggests the option of starting with a portable strip-grazing wire fence.

"This allows the grazing area to be adjusted throughout the year and easier harvesting of surplus grass for silage. It's also a fraction of the cost, and allows the farmer to figure out what size paddocks work best before putting in a permanent fence. But it does take more time at each grazing to move the temporary fence, a higher level of grassland management, and more hassle when moving stock," he warns.


Drinkers are the next essential, with forward stores needing up to 30 litres daily, and suckler cows requiring at least 50 litres of water per day, and double this on a hot day. At any one time, there should be a reserve of six litres on offer per cow and calf.

"The more troughs, the more options you have in terms of dividing your field. There should always be a reserve of water in the paddocks, especially for suckler cows with calves at foot. This is normally six litres per suckler cow and calf, equivalent to 120 litres for a 20 cow suckler herd," says Heffernan.

A 30 gallon (136 litre) plastic trough from JFC costs €55, with a minimum of three required for six grazing divisions. These should be located midway along the dividing wire with adjoining paddock so that a temporary subdivision is still an option. Plastic troughs require a more level and firm base than concrete troughs as they are less rigid but are equally as effective.

But the trough is just one part of the water system. The water system in place must be sufficient to deliver this quantity of water to the paddocks. Just remember that a cow can consume 14 litres per minute!


While you might be able to wing it for a season or two without roadways, ease of access between paddocks optimises grass utilisation and stock management.

"The ultimate aim of a roadway system should be to allow access to all of the grazing area," says Heffernan.

"When designing lanes, avoid sharp turns that will slow both stock and machinery. Outlay on the road can be minimised if it only needs to be used by stock. In this case, you can halve the width to 2m, bringing the cost to €10-15/m.

"Removing topsoil will add to the cost of the roadway as more filling material is required, but it is the most reliable construction method to avoid sinking. A geotextile membrane can be laid on topsoil or where ground is soft to give added protection.

"Generally, a graded mixture of different sized stones from 75mm or 100mm down to dust is used to a depth of 200-250mm.

"To remove water quickly from roadways they should slope to one or both sides, but a single slope is easier to construct and machinery runs better on it. A fall of between 1:15 to 1:20 is ideal.

"Avoid finishing up with rough surfaces since protruding stones, gravel or pebbles lying on the surface are a major lameness factor," says Heffernan.

The Teagasc man also advises farmers to be flexible in terms of rehousing during inclement weather to avoid excessive poaching and soil damage.

But the sums are clear. Despite the outlay, farmers should still be up by nearly €136 per cow, which in this scenario for a 20 cow herd, results in a €2,700 boost to the bottom line.

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