This article will outline the key factors that influence the profitability of suckler beef systems in Ireland. It has been adapted from a reproduced report courtesy of Teagasc.
The 3 main variables to increase profitability of suckler beef systems are:
- Increase utilisation of grass by maintaining good soil fertility, looking at perennial ryegrass dominant swards and the appropriate use of grass management tools.
- Maximise animal performance. Good fertility and reproductive performance are fundamental to a profitable system with the objective being to produce one calf per cow per year. The breeding and management policy must also aim to maximise liveweight gain.
- Optimise stocking rates. Where individual animal performance is high; stocking rate is a key driver of profitability.
Production efficiency improvements are possible for ‘average’ suckler farming systems and can lead to substantial increases in profitability.
Irish Suckler Production
Ireland exported 90% of the total 520,000 tonnes of carcass weight produced in 2014; making it the fifth largest net exporter of beef in the world. Beef production is the most common farm enterprise activity in Ireland, with the beef sector accounting for 34% of the total gross output value to the Irish agri-food industry in 2014. Ireland is home to 139,000 farms nationally and beef production activities occur on almost 80% with these, largely accounted for by suckler beef producers. Despite the significance of the beef sector to the national economy, incomes are low, with many operating at a loss when support payments are not taken into account. Improving profitability, particularly on suckler beef farms, remains the main adversity for those in association with the industry.
The level of grass, both grazed and conserved, utilised on beef farms across the country is largely determined by the yield of grass grown, which in turn depends on soil fertility. Soil testing to establish current levels of soil fertility is the initial step to increasing the level of grass utilisation on beef farms.
Where it is possible to correct soil fertility, farmers can grow up to 15 t DM/ha of grass. In order to obtain maximum growth rates within your herd, this grass has to be utilised efficiently; making paddock-based grazing system and facilitating rotational grazing management key components of good grassland management. Good rotational grazing infrastructure, including a network of farm roadways and paddocks, gives farmers the flexibility to manage grassland and identify deficits and surpluses as they arise. Practices such as using bales and restricted grazing in difficult weather conditions are more feasible where there is good grazing infrastructure.
The confidence to make decisions, such as the removal of paddocks from the grazing rotation is critical. Such decisions become based on quality information such as the number of grazing days ahead and the ‘grass wedge’ on the farm. The use of an easily accessible computer programme is a useful aid to grassland management.
Reseeding also has an important role to play in maximising growth and in turn utilisation. Perennial rye-grass swards have shown to be up to 25% more responsive to available nutrients such as nitrogen when compared to old permanent pasture. Reseeding increases stock carrying capacity as well as the proportion of the overall feed budget that is comprised of grazed grass, this in turn will improve the overall productivity of the farm.
One of the most important objectives on suckler beef farms is maximising the value of the animals sold, live or dead weight, per suckler cow on the farm. The amount of beef that a suckler farm can depend on a variety of factors such as live weight gain, mortality and fertility. Only 83% of cows produce a calf every year according to data from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF), the data also shows that calf mortality in 2015 was 6% at 28 days.
In order for each cow to be able to produce one calf per year, good cow fertility and reproductive performance is key to profitability. With huge potential to increase the fertility and performance of Ireland’s national suckler cow base, we have a real opportunity to increase productivity and profitability at farm-gate. The possibility of genomic selection will allow farmers to identify the most productive and fertile heifers for breeding at a very young age on the farm, and to select bulls accordingly. Genomic selection will help to give farmers the knowledge and confidence to make informed breeding decisions.
The general breeding policy on all suckler beef farms should be to maximise live weight gain through exploiting breed differences and hybrid vigour. Research shows that using a crossbred cow can increase calf weaning weights by up to 13% per cow. Herd health planning is an essential aspect of good animal performance and should focus on preventative strategies as opposed to curative. Health plans should be drawn up by your vet or agricultural consultant and are specific to each farm, they should be adhered to where possible.
Husbandry practices shouldn’t be ignored when maximising animal performance. In terms of animal health – disbudding, castration, dosing and parasite control are all important to have a healthy, stress free animal. When housed, animals must have fresh feed and water, shelter and adequate space to maximise live weight gain.
Economic analysis of suckler calf to beef systems has shown that stocking rate is the main driver of profitability where individual animal performance is high. An increased stocking rate must be supported by higher levels of grass grown on the farm. In addition to the aforementioned grazing principles, soil type and location also has an impact on stock carrying capacity.
Handling and labour availability are factors which can influence the optimal stocking rate for beef farms. If appropriate animal housing and handling facilities are not in place when increasing stocking rates, this will exert extra stress and pressure at key points in the production cycle. Stress can impact on live weight gain and reproduction, as well as the productivity of your enterprise. It is important to note that there is a close relationship between facilities and labour; improving farm facilities, handling units and also the farm business system will all improve the efficiency of labour use.
Environmental sustainability of production is important, particularly given that greenhouse gas emissions are becoming an area of interest to consumers. The carbon footprint of suckler beef is influenced by the reproductive efficiency of the herd e.g. age at first calving. Factors also include daily live weight gain of progeny to weaning or to slaughter. The pasture-based nature of Irish systems also has a role in the management of the enormous reserves of carbon stores in permanent pasture soils.
Research has shown that the carbon footprint of suckler systems operating at national average levels of efficiency is much higher than on research farm systems. Typically, the scale of difference is in the order of 20%. Together with the aforementioned economic impact, this highlights the dual benefits of improving the efficiency of suckler beef production.
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Original report available here.