Kieran Kielty switched from dairying to contract rearing in 2012 with the belief that grassland management and target weight are the key to optimal success.
He contract rears Jersey-cross dairy replacement heifers part-time across 20 hectares in south Sligo alongside his wife, Sandy and their two children, Samuel (11) and Arwen (9).
“We thought it would suit where we were. We were used to paddocks from milking and also used to a dairy animal,” Kieran told Catherine Egan on Teagasc’s Beef Edge podcast.
“I would class it as a simple system; it is not always easy, but I try to keep the system as simple as possible.”
They initially began with 24 heifers and are currently rearing up to 65 within the last number of years.
Amid their ninth season, Kieran outlined that “the key point is the weight”.
“If you can have the heifers at the target weight, which for us is 300 kilos at the beginning of May, that decreases the workload. There is a good chance they are cycling naturally, and they are in good condition at breeding.”
The Kieltys milked a small number of cows until a dairy farmer approached them to contract rear some of his heifers.
“It was profitable, but at the time the children were younger and working off-farm, it became harder and harder to maintain the work-life balance.”
The Sligo native decided this type of enterprise suited his land best, considering the “heavy” soil type and labour requirements.
They avail of land beside them, and they also bought additional acres, which avoids travelling and is a major bonus.
“Luckily enough, it coincided with the expansion of the dairy farmer as well. The children love the farm too, which helps. Knowing that there is support is a big help when you are at something part-time.”
Kieran takes in February-born Jersey-cross calves in September at six to eight months old.
“After October 31st is a bonus here. They are on grass; at that point, then they are turned into winter housing.”
“They are lying on slats, so they are batched into four sections based on their weight, and that will determine whether they need to get meal or not.”
If heifers do not reach their target weight, they are fed meal whereas the other batches are not, depending on silage quality.
The herd test and vaccinations such as BVD and Lepto occur in January when the heifers are in housing. They are then weighed before being turned out to pasture.
Turnout and breeding
Kieran aims to release the heifers from housing by the end of February or the start of March.
“Once they are turned out to grass, there is no more meal in the diet, and it is during the spring we try to graze off the silage ground.”
Breeding takes place around the first week of May. They put on scratch cards the day before they start breeding, and they scan around the first week of September.
“Usually, we watch for the first eight days and serve naturally. Anything that does not call at the end of that period, we give 2 ml of Prostaglandin, and everything is picked up by then from 12 to 14 days. At this point, a team of bulls come in to mop up for maybe ten weeks.”
Rotational grazing commences at the beginning of March into the summer months across the “naturally set up two-acre paddocks”.
“Usually, they are only in a paddock one to two days, and they are moved on.”
“It is trying to get the cleanouts early, and depending on the time of year; we try to stick to the rotation planner.”
“It can be difficult to expect your contractor to come in to pick up a few bales given the scale, so we try to avoid that and let it bulk up if there is surplus.”
Kieran admitted rotational grazing can prove challenging with heifers. “People that are milking can bring them in an hour or two before milking and give them meal in the parlour or silage at the barrier.”
“It is more difficult with heifers. When they are out; they are out.”
From that perspective, they aim to have the heifers out grazing as early as possible. “It is not out of the question that they could be out for a few days and then be pulled back in again.”
“From September on, we watch the ground conditions and try to manage that they are in the drier covers for the wetter periods, which isn’t always easy, but we try.”
“From our perspective internally, it is about getting as much grass into the diet as possible as we know it is three times cheaper than silage and five times cheaper than meal.”
In the beginning, the Kielty’s fed meal to every animal regardless of their weight.
Over the last number of years, they are finding their feet as they have dramatically reduced their meal bill.
“We have over halved it in the space of 12 months due to silage quality and trusting the results by taking samples from the different bale silage and working from this which makes the decision easier whether to feed meal or not.”
The Kieltys pay for the dosing, the silage, the herd test, vet call outs and scanning, while the dairy farmer pays for all vaccines and AI. The meal bill is split between the Kielty’s and the dairy farmer.
“Some dairy farmers pay for everything, and then the daily rate is less, so it all depends. There are many different options as it depends on the system, which varies.”
Kieran felt that there was a lack of support and awareness when he established this enterprise nine years ago.
The discussion group allows farmers in the North West to discuss many topics such as silage quality and soil type, which is impacted by similar soil types and weather demographics they experience.
“It is nice meeting up with people in the same situation as yourself.. It is also a good resource to reach out and ask questions, particularly if there are newer people in the group.”
There is also some ongoing work with Ballyhaise. “It is always great to get their insight in what is going on in terms of driving performance and what can and cannot be achieved.”
Kieran advises anyone considering contract rearing to use all the information available to them from sources such as Teagasc.
“As always, if you have the opportunity to talk to people if you are not doing it already, it is great to get insight, as well as talk to some dairy farmers that are sending on their heifers, get it from their side what they are expecting.”
“It’s important to have your grassland management up to scratch because that’s key.”
Kieran believes keeping heifers moving results in successful weight gain. In his opinion, knowledge of costs is vital.
“Knowing where you can cut your costs and where things are expensive is important no matter what system you are on. I think it is a rewarding venture to get into in terms of cash flow which is important because you know what you are getting each month, and it arrives on time.
“This is a factor which helps pay the bills and run the enterprise, which is a plus on the system,” Kieran concluded.
You can listen to this episode (about contract rearing) of the Beef Edge podcast.
Are you involved in contract rearing? To share your story, email – [email protected]