Anthony Mooney switched from silage to hay 10 years ago, and says the benefits can be seen throughout the 200ac farm, not just in his stock
It’s been 10 years since Kildare beef farmer Anthony Mooney last made silage on his 200ac farm, where he keeps his herd of 115 cattle. Instead, he makes round bales of hay on his Maynooth farm, even though it means his fodder-making “is very weather dependent”.
“I’ve no doubt, hay wouldn’t have the same nutritional value as silage, but I find if I’m calving cows here, it’s better than any silage, it leaves the cows leaner and fitter,” says Anthony.
“You won’t get a dairy farmer anywhere in Ireland that will agree with me though. They’re all feeding silage and they’re all calving cows as well, but I would rarely ever have a vet assisting at a calving.
“There’s also a school of thought around here that if you’re finishing your cattle on hay, they will weigh lighter at the end of the winter but they will adjust much better to eating on grassland when they go out, and they’ll catch up with the others.”
The Farming For Nature ambassador made the switch from his long-standing practice of making silage when he “just couldn’t see the value in using nitrogen” to grow his meadow anymore.
“I had been using nitrogen here every spring on the farm and one year I just decided that was it, I wasn’t going to use it anymore, and I saved myself a lot.
“I remember putting out nitrogen and within a short space of time, getting a huge amount of rain. Nitrogen is water-soluble and I know where the bulk of it ended up; it didn’t end up in grass on my farm, it would have ended up in the watercourse.
“I’ve seen that happen and it got me looking at chemical fertiliser use in a different light.”
He says while “there was a little delay in the grass coming in the springtime” when he stopped using fertiliser, when the grass did come, “it came just as well.”
“Clover can make up for a lot. I’ve never sown it into the ground but I’ve found the grassland here will grow clover very well, without having to introduce it.”
Anthony puts cow manure where he’s making hay “to keep the balance right,” and mows all the grass himself, before getting a contractor in to bale it. “There’s not a huge emphasis here on farm machinery.”
He says the benefits of making hay over silage can be seen throughout the farm, not just in his stock.
“There are lots of advantages to making hay, and it starts in the field. Firstly, a bale of hay is about half the weight of a bale of silage and that’s a lot less compaction on the field. Compaction can be a big issue around here.
“The next thing I find about the hay is, it’s a lot easier on your tractor as it’s much easier to move around and it’s much easier on your yard surface too. I just noticed the last time we were making silage, it’s hard on your farmyard. Contractors have huge machinery and that’s hard on concrete.
“By making hay, I think I can reduce my fuel costs and reduce wear and tear on the yard, and personally, I love the smell of good hay. It’s much easier to get my son and wife out to help me.”
While Anthony now runs a beef enterprise, he says he’s tried his hand at almost every cereal crop over the last 40 years.
“We’ve tried all the grains – wheat, oats, barley, we’ve tried legumes – beans and peas, but we’ve found that over time, given the heavy nature of the soil, it just didn’t work. It can hold on to moisture unless your drainage system is very good and we’ve found the land is much better suited to grassland production than to anything else.
“It’s very flat land around here and the lay of the land is reflected in agricultural practice. In other words, it’s all grass around here.”
Anthony runs a dozen suckler cows with an Aberdeen Angus bull and buys in young cattle “to finish within the year.”
“We have around 115 cattle in total at the minute, 80 of these will be sold to the factory. It’s good finishing land here, the soil is high alkaline and it’s perfect for drystock farming.”
He typically buys in his stock when they’re between 12 and 18 months and weighing between 450-500kg. He then aims to get them “to as close to 700kg as possible before they reach 30 months of age”.
“The problem with this though is, cattle often don’t mature fully until they’re heading for three years of age, but then you don’t get the same price in the factory for them if they’re over 30 months.”
He keeps a mixture of traditional and continental breeds of cattle which mature at different rates, allowing him to spread the sale of his stock more evenly throughout the year.
“Most of what I keep are traditional breeds like Angus and Hereford and the rest are continental cross animals such as Charolais or Limousins, they’d be the heavier type cattle.
“The traditional breeds finish quicker so we sell them earlier in the summer, we get a better price then. The continental breeds take longer to finish, they’re much bigger and we sell those at the end of the summer, usually around September.
“The factory price is good at the minute, I sold a cow the other day and she came in at €5/kg whereas last year, cows were only making €3.60/3.70/kg.
“I sold heifers last week too and got a base price of €5.30/kg, last year they were making €1.20/kg less than that.
“Generally I’d get 370/kg for bullocks and heifers. Some people might look at that and say it’s a low weight but I feed them little or no concentrates, they’re finished as affordably as possible.”
Anthony says he feels beef farming gets a bad rap as a sector but he finds he can get by comfortably if he does things right.
“If you look at the Department of Agriculture figures for the different farm enterprises, beef production is one of the lowest income returning ones, but it just depends on how the person manages it, that’s what I find.
“I’m at it as long as I’m farming and I’m still keeping the place afloat. If you keep your costs relative to what you’re doing, you’ll manage.”
Last year, in the name of nature, Anthony did something most beef farmers would never dream of doing and flooded one of his large fields.
“I took a bold step and flooded the main drainage system in one of my fields,” he says. “We got a great fall of rain and I ended up with 2-4ac of water and soft marshy ground. The water stayed there until the end of March and it produced results.
“I saw species of birds I hadn’t seen before and didn’t even know would come to the area. We had coastal birds and birds that may have been on wetlands and on the Liffey previously.
“When I started farming here in the 1980s there were aquatic features all around here.
“Water would gather up on some land and stay there for 10-12 weeks and it would be gone again in the springtime. Since that stopped, we’ve lost a lot of wildlife and I’ve been trying to combat this.”
Anthony has always been interested in nature and became a Farming For Nature (FFN) Ambassador last year after being nominated. FFN is a not-for-profit initiative which aims to highlight farmers who are farming or want to farm in a way that benefits nature.
“I was already implementing practices linked to Farming for Nature such as not spreading chemical fertiliser, being mindful of the wildlife that should inhabit the farm and making hay, which means the meadow is left untouched until later in the year when animals and ground-nesting birds have had the chance to raise their young in their natural habitat.
“I get a great kick out of nature, and I think a lot of other people do too. I’m trying to help attract and preserve the wildlife that would once have been here.
“Stocking levels would be high around here, there’s very good grassland and management of it is intensive. I really think extinction happens because people just don’t consider the birds or wildlife. We tend to take it for granted that nature is OK, but that’s not the case.”
Anthony says that while he essentially farms organically, the only reason he isn’t listed as an organic farmer is because he doesn’t want to be.
“I did an organic course four or five years ago and I met farmers who were involved in organics and straight up, I didn’t think it was that well organised.
“An example would be, if I wanted to sell beef organically to the factory, there is a very limited time to do so. There is only a couple of days in the month where they [the factory] will take organic cattle from you, whereas with non-organic cattle they’ll take them from you almost any day of the week.
"And a lot of the continental breeds need meal to finish them so you’d have to buy organic meal.
“The majority of meat being sold here in Ireland is not organic, it’s standard beef, so there was a big marketing draw-back to it for me.”