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Suckler Beef Production In Ireland: Grassland Management

28 May 2011

Research by Paul Crosson and Mark McGee, at Teagasc Animal & Grassland Research and Innovation Centre focuses on profitability for suckler beef production. This section looks at the importance of grassland management.

Grassland Management

Irish grassland has the potential to produce high yields of highly digestible herbage due to favourable climate and soil types. Thus, Irish livestock farmers have a competitive advantage when compared to pigs, poultry and cattle feedlot systems, which require high quantities of concentrate feeding. Irish suckler beef production systems must exploit this opportunity to grow and utilise grass efficiently.

The technical aspects of growing and utilising grass efficiently are described in the paper by O’Donovan, Hennessey and O’Riordan (this proceedings). A key objective must be to maximise the proportion of grazed grass in the annual feed budget of suckler beef systems. Turnout date of suckler cows and progeny is a critical element influencing composition of the annual feed budget. Where grass is available and where grazing conditions are appropriate, earlier turnout increases the proportion of grazed grass in the total farm feed budget and hence, improves profitability (Table 1).

Advancing turnout date by one day increases net margin by €1.54 per cow. Similar to the calving date analysis, effects are due to differences in feed and slurry handling costs. Earlier turnout has also been shown to result in improved animal performance (Kyne et al., 2001; Gould et al., 2010; O’Riordan et al., 2011), although in these studies this advantage is largely diminished by the end of the grazing season due to the effects of compensatory growth.

Table 1. Impact of turnout date of suckler cows on the total farm feed budget and financial performance

  Turnout date of suckler cows
  Start of grazing season (Feb 23) Plus 3 weeks Plus 6 weeks
Annual feed budget (% of total DM fed)
Grazed grass 65 62 58
Grass silage 27 30 33
Grass silage 27 30 33
Concentrates 8 8 9
Financial results (€/ha)
Gross output 1,671 1,672 1,674
Variable costs 927 960 1,015
Gross margin 743 712 660
Fixed costs 432 433 435
Net margin 311 279 225

The start of the grass growing season differs from location to location and therefore, turnout date will also vary. Whilst grazing conditions are largely dependent on soil, climatic and weather conditions and is therefore, largely outside the farmer’s control, farmers can have an influence on pasture availability by appropriate autumn grassland management and judicious application of nitrogen (N) fertiliser.

Spring response to N is dependent on soil temperature (Black, 2009) and therefore, varies greatly among years and locations. O’Donovan et al. (2004) found pasture response rates ranging from 5.6 to 15.6 kg pasture per kg N applied on free-draining soils in the south of Ireland. Using this range in N response rates, the impact of turnout date and pasture N response rate on net farm margin were investigated for suckler beef production systems and indicated that where N response is lower (i.e. in a later growing location) later turnout results in greater profitability (Figure 1). In other words, on farms where the grazing season begins later, turnout date (and calving date) should also be matched to this date to optimise profitability.

Figure 1. Impact of turnout date and pasture response to N fertiliser on net farm margin for suckler calf-to-beef production systems (Source: Crosson et al, 2009a)

Currently it is estimated that, on average, grazed grass constitutes 49 per cent of the total feed budget on Irish suckler beef farms (Table 2). Total herbage utilised is less than 5 t DM/ha. It is anticipated that the proportion of grazed grass in the annual feed budget could increase modestly and herbage utilised increase substantially (when stocking rate increases are also taken into consideration) by 2018.

The modest increase in grazed grass proportion in the annual feed budget is a reflection of a change in finishing systems from a grass-based extensive production system finishing steers at grass at 28 months to a more intensive system finishing steers indoors at 26 months of age. These targets are considerably lower than those set for the Derrypatrick Herd in Grange, where grazed grass and herbage utilised is estimated to account for 60 per cent of the total feed budget and over 10 t DM/ha, respectively.

Table 2. Sectoral averages and Grange target production feed budgets

  Sectoral average Grange
  Current 2018 Standard Derrypatrick
Grazed grass (% of total DM fed) 49 51 51 60
Silage (% of total DM fed) 38 38 31 29
Concentrates (% of total DM fed) 13 11 8 11
Herbage utilised (kg DM/ha) 4,760 5,997 10,048 10,250


May 2011

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