Earning a bonus from beef

Producing quality beef heifers with a high meat to bone ratio has enabled Padraig and Margaret Doyle to tap into a lucrative contract and achieve bonuses of up to 54 (80) a head.

The couple who run a 100-head spring-calving suckler herd on 91ha (225 acres) in County Wexford, are contracted to supply Southern Ireland’s Pettitt supermarket group.

All Limousins reared on their farm at Coolteigue, Bree, Enniscorthy, are sold to the group before 24 months of age.

The Doyles’ contract earns them a base price at the point of sale, equivalent to 3.5p/kg (5c) above the factory price.

Bonus payments are then offered depending on saleable meat yield and they consistently achieve the top bonus — 18p/kg (27c) for a meat yield of 66.5%.

They know the contract is a valuable one, but feel it benefits the buyer as well as the farmer.

“The incentive for the farmer is to produce top end beef which means the processor has a guaranteed supply of high quality meat for its customers,” says Mr Doyle.

His most recent sale of seven heifers earned 54/head (80) above the base price.

Limousins are chosen because they are light in bone and careful selection has produced a uniform, high quality herd.

“We prefer half-bred Limousins crossed with a Friesian as they produce a good amount of milk.

But it’s virtually impossible to get them now because most dairy farmers are breeding Holsteins which are unsuitable for suckler purposes,” says Mr Doyle.

In a bid to ensure better quality replacements, three-quarter bred Limousins have been kept from the herd for the last five years.

But lack of milk can be a problem with this type of heifer in the first lactation, although they generally improve in subsequent lactations.

With the focus on maximising production from grass, the target is to keep cows at grass for 270 days.

This year cows started calving at the beginning of February and were turned out to grass on 20 February.

To maximise growth as grass quality declines weanling bulls are creep fed from mid-September onwards, with a mix of 80% home-produced rolled barley and 20% crude protein balancer.

At housing they have access by day to a grass paddock beside the shed.

The paddock has a cover of grass built up over a number of weeks which is then available for grazing at housing.

The Doyles believe this has been crucial in preventing pneumonia over the years.

When housed by day and night in mid-November bulls are moved onto a high fodder beet diet.

The finishing diet from early-March is mostly home-grown fodder beet, barley and balancer, with a small amount of silage to maintain proper rumen function.

Bulls are always finished in a straw-bedded shed because the couple feel this is necessary with fast growing bulls on a high energy diet.

Average carcass weight is 349kg.

On the heifer front, the best are retained for breeding, while those earmarked for slaughter are finished off grass in summer and autumn.

A high carcass weight, averaging 283kg, is achieved through a combination of early turnout and a paddock grazing system with heifers moved every five days onto new pasture with high leaf content.

Most are then finished off grass alone with the remainder fed 2kg a head a day of rolled barley and balancer to finish from August onwards.

A profit monitor for the beef enterprise calculates it is producing 800kg meat/ha.

The gross output for the business is 1250/ha (1845) with both variable and fixed costs at 390/ha (570).

This leaves the Doyles with a net profit of 480/ha (700).

Direct payments account for 95% of that profit.

“If our single farm payment disappeared we would only just be making money,” reckons Mr Doyle.

Fortunately for them they were heavily stocked in the reference years of 2000-2002, giving them a SFP of 340/ha (500).

However, they invested heavily in suckler quota during that period and this was lost without any compensation.