Prospects for beef finishing in Ireland at the start of the autumn looked grim.

Weanling sales had opened at about 200 cents/kg (71p/lb), while finished prices were languishing at around 240 cents/kg (86p/lb), leaving little scope for a margin.

Since then, however, things have improved and by the time Ed Jagoe went into the market to buy 50 weanling bulls, to supplement the 90 steers he already had on the farm, the cost had dropped to 160 cents/kg (57p/lb).

More encouragingly, since early December the finished price has firmed strongly, with R grades now worth around 294 cents/kg (105p/lb) and Os at 288 cents/kg (103p/lb).

“The absence of Brazil from the market due to foot-and-mouth problems is probably the biggest factor,” says Mr Jagoe.

“The volume isn’t there at the moment.”

Like most Irish farmers, Mr Jagoe says he would prefer to see a total ban on all imports from Brazil rather than just the regional approach the EU currently takes.

“They just don’t have the same traceability in Brazil that we have in Ireland. It’s not a level playing pitch,” he says.

Beef prices have also benefited from strong demand in the all-important UK and continental markets, while domestic supplies have tightened.

Figures from Bord Bia put Irish cattle supplies down 7% in 2005.

Whether the improved market is maintained by the time Mr Jagoe sells the first of his drystock in mid-February is debatable, however.

One crucial factor will be the impact of the end of the over-30-months scheme in the UK as of today (Friday).

Already there is evidence of abattoirs attempting to pull prices in the UK, while there is still no sign of a proposal in Brussels to wind up the date-based export scheme.

Live exports

The loss of live export subsidies, imposed by the EU Commission just before Christmas, could also impact on Irish values, effectively wiping out the country’s established trade to the Lebanon.

“Live exports have been crucial in the past as they have provided us with another outlet at times when numbers have been increasing,” says Mr Jagoe.

The loss of the trade for Ireland will only result in cattle from more distant countries with lower welfare standards moving in to take their place, he argues.

The first finished cattle to go from Ballindeasig will be some of the 90 steers, which will reach 24 months in mid-February.

These will be “quality-assured”, following a satisfactory farm inspection by Bord Bia in the autumn.

The animals have been housed since the end of October and are on a daily ration made up of 13kg of maize silage, 13kg of grass silage, 0.5kg of straw, 1.5kg of a 30% protein mix (soya, maize distillers and citrus pulp) and 7kg of crimped wheat.

“We aim to have them finished after 100 days of feeding.”

Since the end of production-linked subsidies, Mr Jagoe has been paying closer attention to feed cost and daily weight gain, to ensure that the enterprise is economically justified net of single farm payment.

All the cattle were weighed at the end of October and again at the end of December.

This exercise, which took about three hours to complete, has revealed that the steers have put on a very satisfactory 1.5kg/day over 65 days.

At current prices, and anticipating that most will make R grade, that equates to a daily increase in meat value of 251 cents/animal.

Mr Jagoe estimates the daily feed cost at around 130-140 cents/animal, giving a margin over total feed cost of over 1/animal/day.

Meanwhile, the young bulls – mostly Charolais, but also a few Simmentals and Limousins – have been thriving.

Mr Jagoe says they were putting on about 1.2kg/day between purchase and the end of December from a daily ration of 7kg of maize silage, 7kg of grass silage, 7kg of sugar beet pulp, 2kg of crimped wheat and 2kg of concentrates.

Since then they have moved onto their finishing ration, with crimped wheat going up to 4kg/day, then 8kg/day, and concentrate reduced to 1kg/day.

Mr Jagoe is aiming for a liveweight gain of 1.5kg-1.7kg/day.

These younger animals are being kept in two pens of 25, which have recently been covered with EasyFix rubber matting for a total cost 3950 (2717) plus VAT.

“That’s a substantial investment, but we are already seeing the benefits in terms of lower lameness, cleaner cattle and faster growth rates,” says Mr Jagoe.

“We hope the mats will last at least 10 years.”

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk