World beef prices are at unprecedented levels and are forecast to remain strong for the foreseeable future, due mainly to short supplies in the main beef-producing regions.
Low global supplies present Irish beef farmers with the opportunity to rapidly increase herd numbers in order to avail of higher prices. The key to Ireland continuing to have a very strong hold in the British and European markets is to maintain and grow our national suckler herd. Ireland's good reputation in our established markets means that increasing our output will be met with increased demand for Irish beef.
The decline in the national suckler herd that had been evident in recent years seems to be going into reverse, going by the brisk trade for breeding heifers in recent months. Currently there are close to one million suckler cows in this country but there is great potential for these numbers to be increased dramatically, in line with the targeted production levels set out in Food Harvest 2020.
There is an air of optimism among beef farmers at this moment. However, if profitability is not maintained at all levels from suckler farms and right through to specialist finishers, then producers will be tempted by alternative enterprises -- particularly when milk quota regulations change in 2015.
Profit will always be the key driver in any successful beef enterprise, but producers must examine their production systems in depth and establish how efficient they are.
At the moment, poor suckler reproduction efficiency and the high cost of maintaining the cow is limiting profitability on suckler farms. Improving live weight gain, breeding performance and feed utilisation is therefore essential for the future. Optimum grass utilisation during an extended grazing season is essential both for the cows and calves. Minimising the cost associated with the cow during the dry period and maximising the weight at weaning of the offspring will deliver on this requirement.
Suckler production totally relies on high levels of reproductive efficiency. Whether a farmer produces animals for the live export market or for the home market, they need to focus on what aspect of their system may be restricting or limiting the cows' output. Irrespective of breed or breed cross, weaning weights has the greatest influence on profitability. One of the main factors contributing to weaning weight is cow fertility. Cow fertility can be improved in numerous ways, including greater focus on heat detection to control the calving interval. It is essential to ensure proper cow management and nutrition at calving in order to avoid health problems.
In previous articles, I outlined key nutrition management points for the dry cow period that will ensure cows calve down in the correct body condition and get the production cycle off on the correct footing. Cows should be selected for breeding based on health status, breeding history, production and conformation factors. By doing this, cattle can be bred to deliver better carcass classification and improved feed conversion efficiency.
Whether breeding heifers are reared on farm or purchased at weanling stage, it is crucial that they be grown at a rate of 0.8kg/head/day to have them calving as fully grown animals at 24-26 months old.
Breeding records of all cows should be maintained to help identify animals with breeding problems and to provide data for making future decisions.
When choosing a breeding bull, the first choice that most farmers will make is generally regarding easy calving. Again, managing the body condition of the cow during the dry period can be of greater influence than the calving ease traits of the terminal sire. Breeding bulls should be chosen for traits like growth rate and carcass quality to maximise the efficiency of the weanling for sale or rearing slaughter animals.
This has even greater importance since the introduction of the grid payment system.
Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org