10 Low-cost Investments to Improve Farm Productivity
-Beef farmer Ciaran Lenehan, Co Meath
Relative to our milk-producing neighbours, the level of investment on suckler farms is decidedly low.
It is hard to justify substantial spending in an industry where margins can be feeble and return on investment is not readily evident. However, outlined below are 10 low-cost investments that will act to improve farm productivity without breaking the bank.
1. ICBF HerdPlus
For a mere €60, we receive a full breakdown on herd-performance. Every necessary detail is at our fingertips. It can be the foundation for any productive herd as a helpful measure of herd fertility and output per cow. In addition, the service is a guide for culling decisions, sire selection and a medium for record keeping.
2. Silage sampling
Knowing what’s in the clamp can help hugely with feed-budgeting. For example, where weanlings are to return to spring grass, 72% DMD silage plus 1kg of meal will suffice. At 65% DMD, we need to feed 2kg of meal daily. Fifty calves on the poorer quality silage will need an extra 7.5t of meal over a five-month winter. Expect to pay €30 per sample.
3. Weight recording service
Though pricey at €100 per 30 animals in finishing situations, accurate drafting of animals adds value in itself. As well as incurring pricing penalties, over-finished animals are inefficient. Though there are excellent stock judges out there, being ‘‘off’’ by 20kg can be the equivalent of almost €50 worth of carcase weight. We know what growth rates to expect from certain breeds and genders. Hence, we can draft or adjust groups accordingly. When adjusting groups, avoid re-mixing bulls.
4. Calving cameras
Possibly the most worthwhile investment of the 10; with cameras in place we assume complete control of the calving process. A farmer knows exactly when to intervene or, perhaps more importantly, when to leave things alone. Constant checking disturbs both man and beast – cameras are a no-brainer where even a moderate number are due to calve. At home, our calving cameras have been the best investment in memory. Prices vary hugely, but a fit-for-purpose device can be obtained for less than €100.
Empty cows are but expensive slurry producers. Unless they can provide external income via flushing or showing, or carry genetics that we need to keep in the herd, they should be aimed for a lairage. If numbers are small, we can pay up to €5 per head. Prices will decrease as more animals are scanned.
6. Soil sampling
Farms should be soil-tested every five years. Staggeringly, data suggests that over 90% of holdings are deficient in at least one nutrient, which will negatively affect growth even if all of the others are at optimum levels. Aim for index 3 for both P and k, adjusting fertiliser mixes accordingly. Also, if pH is too low (<6.0), we are effectively wasting fertiliser regardless of nutrient index.
7. Heat detection
In AI-based breeding regimes, rigid heat detection practices are crucial. All else being equal, a missed heat translates to 20kg less potential weaning weight, provided she conceives on her next ovulation. For AI to be worthwhile, our ability to detect must be as good as the bull’s. Cows should be fitted with a detection-aid 40 days post-calving. Also, carry out pre-breeding in the weeks leading up to breeding and estimate potential bulling dates. Our detection aid of choice is a scratch card-based sticker. Strength of the adhesive is the draw here – I often find myself pulling them off at housing in November. The said patches are €1.50 a pop. Choose emulsion-based tail paint if this proves too expensive.
8. Grazing infrastructure
Investments eight and nine go hand-in-hand. Grass is the unavoidable buzzword and the cornerstone of Irish livestock production. Yet, beef producers waste nearly half of what they grow. Operating a paddock system will ramp up utilisation, while grazing tight early in the season will ensure that subsequent grass quality is excellent. Splitting a 50m-wide field will cost €25, provided an electric perimeter fence is already in place. Good quality wire can be bought at €0.07/m with posts costing €2.75. In theory, we should never need more than two splitting wires per grazing group.
9. Water troughs/extension pipe
Water points are the limiting factor for many when paddock systems are suggested. Heavy-duty, portable troughs can be purchased for €80. Also, appropriate piping is €1/m if we wish to move current troughs to more practical locations. Piping can run over ground should the intention be to move drinkers with cattle. Our temporary fences are already in place. Hence, a paddock system can now be operated quite easily. Overnight, we can drastically improve utilisation and increase our stock carrying ability.
Farm walks, seminars and open days are invaluable sources of research. In what other industry do those at the proverbial ‘‘top’’ open their doors and allow potential competitors unrestricted access to the complete workings of their enterprise? Little tweaks and tricks learned from these days are often more helpful than the subject matter itself. Tom might produce a 400kg carcase at 15 months, but the most valuable message taken from the day could be the layout of his crush. These events are often free too.