Red clover silage is the driver of profitability on Oliver and Anna Dixon’s certified organic 15-cow suckler-beef farm in Claremorris, Co. Mayo, writes farming journalist, Catherina Cunnane.
The duo firmly believe that “without red clover silage, it would add €400-€500/head in variable costs, eroding any profit present”.
“Grass red clover silage is the meal; the profit,” they told attendees of a Teagasc Growing Organics open day on Wednesday, July 12th, 2023.
“If the crop was not grown, the farm would be entirely dependent on direct payments to generate an income,” they added.
Red clover silage
The Dixons established a red clover grass sward in 2013 and on a second field seven years later.
They took four cuts from red clover fields in 2022, starting on May 10th, followed by July 7th, August 12th and September 16th, with a bale count ranging from as high as 9 bales/acre to 1 bale/acre in the latter cut.
The enterprise spanning 43.69ha with a stocking rate of 0.87 LU/ha, is generating a net margin excluding direct payments of €130.
Its gross output per ha stands at €688/ha, while the Claremorris, Co Mayo-based farm has a net margin including direct payments of €952/ha.
The farm comprises 15 suckler cows of mixed breeds, mainly Simmental-cross-Angus, bred to a Simmental bull, with 15 0–1-year-olds and 25 1-2 years (10 weanlings purchased annually).
Simmental is the primary breed of choice for two reasons – to increase the carcass weight of finished stock and to breed their own replacements to maintain a closed herd.
Replacements are bred on-farm and calve down at 24-26 months to an Aberdeen Angus bull, chosen for ease of calving.
Oliver and Anna feed progeny primarily on red clover silage and concentrates throughout animals’ lives, but not in the finishing phase and sell to the factory from 24 to 32 months from March to July each.
Calving, breeding and slaughtering
Calving is planned to start on April 1st, as “the weather is improving, cows can calve outdoors or can be moved out quickly with their calves and the timing reduces the chances of scour and other associated diseases at calving time”.
The breeding season takes place in July and August and weaning follows in November.
Cows are fed on grass silage, while weanlings are fed ad-lib red clover silage. The pair aim for the earliest possible turnout, which usually sees weanlings return to the pastures, which is later taken for silage, in mid-February, depending on weather conditions.
Grassland management revolves are rotational grazing, paddock systems, topping and finishing cattle in their second summer by enabling them to forage ahead of young stock to “avail of the best grass and gain more weight faster to finish more quickly”.
Cattle are slaughtered in Slaney Meats in two batches: April and September. Last year, they finished 12 bullocks: 5 in April and 7 in September, while they slaughtered eight heifers in total: 5 in April and the remainder in September.
Heifers kill out at 318kgs, on average, and bullocks had an average cold carcass weight of 351kgs last year.
Aged from 24.6 months to 32.4 months, the majority graded Rs and were 4+ and 4- in fat class, with a base price of €5.60/kg for both lots of cattle.
The Mayo farmers began their journey to organics in 2010, as the high costs of conventional farming “had become prohibitive”.
They achieved full organic status two years later and unlike many conventional drystock finishers, “the big difference is that when paid for stock, large amounts of the payment is not taken out to pay for feed and fertiliser – the two biggest variable costs on drystock farms”.
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