29 May 1998

Why Irish saw grazed grass as salvation…

Extending the grazing

season coupled with better

grass management has

improved profits for Irish

beef producers.

Emma Penny reports

LIKE all beef producers, reducing the cost of producing beef was vital for Irish producers as prices collapsed in 1996.

Exploiting grazed grass – the cheapest feed – was seen as the only way forward, and so commercial demonstration farms were set up, explains Matt Barlow, chief beef adviser for advisory service Teagasc.

"Prices fell substantially in 1996 as a result of BSE, so lowering cost of production was imperative. Feed is the largest single cost, so it is essential that this is reduced to the lowest levels practicable – hence the increased exploitation of grazed grass.

"We can grow a lot of grass, but few producers utilise it to its full potential. Extending the grazing season in spring and autumn, coupled with maintaining good animal performance throughout the entire season is the most effective and quickest way to cutting costs."

But providing accurate advice on grass use and its potential to reduce costs can be difficult, so last year Teagasc set up a series of tightly monitored demonstration farms throughout Ireland. The aim of these farms was to show producers how production from grass could be increased and costs saved.

While on some units the demonstration area was the whole farm, on others it was a part of the farm, but average grass demo area across all farms was 31ha (77 acres).

About half the farms had suckler cows, with an average herd size of 47 cows, while producers were also involved in various production systems – selling as suckled calves, stores, forward stores and finished cattle.

"On average, there were 12 fields in the permanent grazing area, but some farms had seven paddocks while others had 17. Average nitrogen use on the grazing area was 120kgN/ha. Most producers grazed silage ground in the spring, and about a third had a ewe flock, and so mixed grazing was practiced on these units," explains Dr Barlow.

Cattle were turned out to graze silage ground between Mar 15 and 20, and moved onto permanent grazing areas in late March and early April. Average stocking density at turnout was 1966kg/ha, falling to about 1500kg/ha in autumn. Cattle were weighed at turnout, while grass growth was also recorded throughout the season.

"Daily liveweight gain of store cattle at grass was 0.91kg – a total of 196kg gained over 213 days grazing. Suckled calves gained 1.06kg from birth to autumn weighing, gaining 237kg over their 224 days at grass," he says.

Sward quality

Maintaining liveweight gain and quality of swards depends on tight grazing in the first half of the season, he explains. "We measured post-grazing stubble heights, which averaged 5.1cm in April, May and June and 5.4cm for the rest of the season."

Daily herd demand from April to June was 42kg DM/ha, and as grass growth was well ahead of this, big bale silage was taken, producing an average of 68t silage/farm.

Farms were fully costed (see table), and feed cost at grass – 11p/kg gain – was found to be nine times cheaper than winter feed costs at 103p/kg gain. "This surely makes a compelling case for maximising production from grass," says Dr Barlow.

Adding common costs – vet and med, transport, marketing, etc – to feed costs brings grass and winter cost/kg gain to 24p/kg and 116p/kg respectively.

Taking total annual farm production into account brings total variable costs to 50p/kg production, while adding fixed costs of 42p/kg brings the total cost of beef production 92p/kg.

For suckler producers finishing progeny this leaves a margin of 8p/kg or £53/ha after an average beef price of 100p/kg and excluding any premiums or headage payments.

Top and bottom

"We broke costs down further, looking at the top and bottom third. For every item, the top third of demonstration farms had lower costs than the bottom third. The cumulative difference between the two comes to 38p/kg or £254/ha, and poses a major challenge to producers in the bottom group.

"Its worth noting that the producers in the bottom third were already regarded as good producers anyway – the differences are likely to be much greater with a wider spread of producers," says Dr Barlow.

The main differences between the top and bottom third were that production was 50kg/ha (20kg/acre) better on top farms, and coupled with lower costs, income/ha was obviously much better.

"All producers running demonstration farms last year are repeating it this year. They are all enthusiastic about increasing production from grass and driving costs down," adds Dr Barlow.

CASH IN ON GRASS

&#8226 Earlier turnout.

&#8226 Later housing.

&#8226 Measuring grass.

&#8226 Reacting to change.

COST/KG LIVEWEIGHT PRODUCED ON DEMO FARMS (p/kg) – 1997

Av. all Top 1/3 Bottom 1/3 Diff. top

farms farms farms v bottom

Tot farm output (kg/ha) 659 668 618 +50

VARIABLE COSTS AT GRASS

Feed costs 11 9 14 -5

Common costs 13 11 16 -5

Total 24 20 30 -10

VARIABLE COSTS IN WINTER

Feed costs 103 84 89 -5

Common costs 13 11 16 -5

Total 116 95 105 -10

TOTAL VARIABLE COSTS 50 39 62 -23

FIXED COSTS 42 35 50 -15

TOTAL FIXED + VAR COSTS 92 74 112 -38

CASH IN ON GRASS

&#8226 Earlier turnout.

&#8226 Later housing.

&#8226 Measuring grass.

&#8226 Reacting to change.

Increasing production from grazed grass – including use of paddocks – is reducing costs by £254/ha on the top third of farms in an Irish study.

Cost/kg liveweight produced on demo farms (p/kg) 1997

Cost/kg liveweight produced on demo farms (p/kg) 1997


Av. all Top 1/3 Bottom 1/3 Diff. top

farms farms farms v bottom

Tot farm output (kg/ha) 659 668 618 +50

VARIABLE COSTS AT GRASS

Feed costs 11 9 14 -5

Common costs 13 11 16 -5

Total 24 20 30 -10

VARIABLE COSTS IN WINTER

Feed costs 103 84 89 -5

Common costs 13 11 16 -5

Total 116 95 105 -10

TOTAL VARIABLE COSTS 50 39 62 -23

FIXED COSTS 42 35 50 -15

TOTAL FIXED + VAR COSTS 92 74 112 -38