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The cost of keeping suckler cows in Ireland

That’s Farming speaks to Alan Dillon, Teagasc Beef Specialist, who outlines the cost of keeping suckler cows in Ireland and provides tips for farmers to reduce costs.

TF: How much does it cost to keep a suckler cow annually up to weaning?

AD: It dramatically varies depending on the grazing season’s length, but if we can graze a cow and calf for 240 days, this will cost in the region of €200.

A winter period of 125 days will cost in the region of €150 between silage and minerals, vaccines and doses will cost around €50 typically, add in €30 for sundry costs such as straw, tags, herd test etc. and you are at approximately €430 variable costs.

Fixed costs would typically be around €500/ha, so at two LU/Ha, this is €250/LU. This would total €680 per cow, but costs can be significantly higher or lower depending on the length of winter, stocking rate and issues such as health, mortality and culling rate.

What are the cost differences for a typical cow in a spring VS autumn-calving system?

If silage quality is in the 70-75% DMD range, then there is no major difference in the cost of keeping an autumn calving cow versus a spring cow.

Extra infrastructure on the farm may be required for a lie back for calves, etc. But, in reality, when we look at some of the top autumn suckler farmers, they do not have a much higher cost than spring herds.

1-2 kg of meal may be needed until breeding ceases to ensure cows are back in-calf, but one advantage of autumn calving is increased opportunity for use of AI on the herd.

Also, the calves can achieve most of their weight gain from grass once turned out the following spring. Some farmers may even allow the calves out to graze paddocks around the sheds for the winter/early spring period.

Alan Dillon, Teagasc, suckler farming, suckler cows

What are the most important items to account for when budgeting?

It all depends on the stocking rate for a lot of input costs.  All costs are justified if they leave a greater amount in your pocket.

What are some key targets that suckler farmers should strive for? 

Weight gain under the cow is the most important factor. The majority should be achieved with milk and grass.

Meal is expensive, and if weanlings need a large amount of meal to achieve target weight, then chances are the cow lacks milk.

Bulls should achieve 1.3-1.4 kg per day up to weaning, so should be around 350kg at that stage with heifers around 320-330kg.

The thing farmers need to remember is this should be the average of the herd. Most have a few weanlings at these weights, but not many can average it.

Prices depend on the breed and often colour in the ring. Good continental weanlings in that weight bracket were making €800-900 in the ring last autumn, with very fancy ones achieving even more.

Define what you would regard as an ideal suckler cow.

Everyone has their own idea of what the ideal cow is, and it is the subject of much debate.

Once the cow has milk, good carcass characteristics will calve every 365 days and is docile it does not matter what breed she is.

Some argue that suckler cows with 50% dairy genetics bring the wrong colour of a calf for the weanling ring but for those interested in finishing cattle, colour does not matter; weight gain and confirmation is what you are paid on.

How can farmers reduce costs?

Good quality silage to reduce wintering costs, virtually no meal fed to a spring-calving cow, good grassland management, a focus on herd health, which includes a health plan and educating themselves on improving the herd’s genetics.

It is of little use improving one area without the other. All changes are small and interlinked on farms.

Age of first calving – what do you recommend?

Two years of age is when farmers need to calve their cows.

Again, some do not agree with this, and we see some extreme prices paid in marts for maiden heifers that are three years of age and some are factory fit.

Colour seems to bring a lot of the big prices for these heifers, with the roan colour hitting the headlines in 2020. But in reality, when cattle are taken to slaughter, its carcass weight and conformation that matter, not the colour of the coat.

All the research Teagasc has carried out and the information being generated in the BDGP scheme points to the fact that heifers calved at two years of age have greater herd longevity and are more efficient than heifers calved at three-year-old.

An easy calved bull used on a heifer to calve at three-year-old is a better option than a heifer standing on a farm being unproductive for a year. Farmers need to adopt this practice and accept the science is there to back it up.

If heifers are deemed too light to breed at 15-16 months, then farmers need to look at other factors that lead to the heifers being too light in the first place

At what point does a suckler cow cost a farmer too much?

When the farm is not making a net profit.

If we take a net profit target on a suckler to weanling farm at €500/ha, and your weanlings average €850, then at two LU/ha, your cow can cost you a total of around €600 to keep for the year.

Every farm is different, and the length of winter can have one of the biggest bearings on the cow’s cost.

Completing a Profit Monitor annually will tell where the farm stands regarding current performance and can show where farmers need to improve.

I see a lot of Profit Monitors showing very low profits, and invariably when. I look at the figures, the weanlings are light when sold, and the stocking rate is just too low, often under 1 LU/ha, to even cover the variable and fixed costs. You need a certain level of output to cover costs on-farm.

Outline a good culling regime that farmers should have. 

Use the BEEP-S report that the majority of suckler farmers have. Weigh cows and calves mid-season and see what cows are not putting up enough weight on their calves.

If a calf is putting on less than 1 kg per day, then that cow may need to be replaced. Aim for 1.2-1.4kg per day weight gain in 200 days under the cow.

Fertility, lameness, mastitis cases and, of course, docility, needs to be factored into the decisions also.

Do you feel every farmer should have a budget for the year?

Yes, and farmers from the outset need to understand that budgets change.

Late spring or poor summer can add to costs on-farm significantly no matter what system you are in.

Planning in advance takes some of the stress out of the uncontrollable unknowns on-farm.

The biggest lesson we all got in 2018 was when extreme weather comes; you can never have enough silage in the yard.

Farmers who had extra supplies that year were not under major stress; farmers who did not have enough had many a sleepless night. Budgeting for the worst-case scenario can help with issues like this in the long run

Further information

For more farming tips and advice, click here. Alternatively, you can visit Teagasc’s website here.

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