Sam Chesney, Cool Brae Farm, Kircubbin, Northern Ireland

By focusing on high herd health, good genetics and good grassland management, DARD Focus Farmer, Sam Chesney is driving to get maximum production from every suckler cow and acre on his farm, in Kircubbin, Northern Ireland.

“Because we don’t have a control over the price of beef, it’s important to be as efficient as we can,” says Sam, who runs 120 sucklers over 61 ha.

And Sam knows exactly where he is in terms of costs, calculating actual figures and benchmarking every six months. “In Northern Ireland, on average, beef producers are losing £400/cow, but savings can be made and we have reduced meal feeding by improving forage quality, which has saved a significant amount alone,” he adds.

Sam is always looking for ways to cut fixed and variable costs, and for a couple of years used woodchip corrals in covered housing instead of straw. However, with the price of woodchip and straw going up, Sam has invested money in rubber slating in some of his housing at a cost of £40 sq m, which he believes will pay off. “We got 15kg extra gain over a six-month period by housing on rubber slats, so they do well off it and it will pay off.”

Being a member and director of Strangford Down co-operative has also helped keep costs on his unit down, by making sure the lorry is full every time it is loaded and by buying some inputs as a group.

Sam’s breeding policy has also been driven some way by market demands, developing flexible beef production systems in order to allow for various market options depending on trends. “If the market wanted a cow with one black ear and one white ear we would produce it,” he says.

His 120-Limousin cross herd are served to Limousin and British Blue bulls, giving him an option of finishing animals for beef or selling them as stores and replacement suckler heifers. Sam has also incorporated Aberdeen Angus in to his herd as there is a “buzz” for Aberdeen Angus crosses in Northern Ireland, he says. Docility and fertility are two things he also looks for when breeding.

The herd is spring calving and the aim is a growth rate of 1kg a day for heifers and 1.4kg for bulls. Heifers are calved at 24 months, something Sam has been doing for a long time. He is also working with Agri Food and Biosciences Institute to draw up a blueprint for this.

His estimated breeding weight is 385kg at 13 months, with a calving index of 353 days for heifers and 338 days for second calvers – far above the 400-day average in Northern Ireland. “It costs £1.50 not getting a cow in calf every 350 days, which equates to £75 a cow over 50 days. Savings can be made by being more efficient and this also reduces our carbon footprint – something we are monitoring.”

Helping keep Sam on track of animal performance is his Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) device, which is crucial when selecting replacements.

“I also use it for recording drugs and fertiliser inputs, as well as animal production. It helps makes things easier and is also good for farm assurance. I also weigh heifers every six weeks and record weights on the PDA. Calving is also recorded, and any not fitting into the calving period or that have major problems are culled.”

Sam’s rationale is to run his beef enterprise like a dairy unit. His grassland management is also like that of a dairyman, with strip grazing broken up by 48 miles of electric fences and a computer package used to indicate how many grazing days he can get from each specific paddock.

“The drive is to get the maximum from every acre. By investing in electric fencing I have got more from every acre by controlled grazing compared to when I set stocked. It only costs 16p/kg liveweight to finish an animal off grass, there’s no room for poor grassland management here,” he says. All swards have been reseeded within the past five years with all fields soil sampled.

Health is also a top priority for this high health herd, with cows vaccinated for leptospirosis, blood profiled eight weeks prior to calving and then fed diets to suit mineral deficiencies. “Doing this has enabled us to stop annual vitamin E injections and inclusion of iodine in the water.”

Each calf is also bolussed with probiotics and given one tablet for scours. This has almost eliminated scours and pneumonia is rarely a problem either, due to having a vaccination programme in place and good ventilation.

Farm facts

• 120 Limousin sucklers mated to British Blue and Aberdeen Angus

• Heifers breed at 24 months

• Member of Strangford Down co-operative

What the judges liked

• A good understanding of costs and ways to reduce them

• Good grassland management

• Positive for the future



2011 Farmers Weekly Awards