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Beef farmers - concluding stages of 2013

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Michael Fitzgerald,
Teagasc Drystock Advisor

Every year brings its own story and 2013 has been no exception with the problems of poor silage over last winter and the late spring now almost forgotten thanks to the sun-drenched summer that has been experienced. Farmers have an opportunity now to operate in a lower gear before winter commences and to assess their situation. Here are 10 issues that are worth considering at this stage.
Winter Fodder
The Teagasc fodder survey, undertaken in early July, indicated that there was a fodder deficit on many farms. A more recent survey indicates that the country is in surplus overall, but that one in five is short of fodder, and many of these deficit farms are located in the south-east where drought has been an issue. Fodder quality is expected to be very good and this should lead to savings in terms of meal usage. Silage analysis will be worthwhile.
Cow Condition and Stock Performance
Suckler cows are in good condition and can face the winter with confidence. Early weanling weights on farms are showing good performance but nothing exceptional with the delayed grass growth in spring having some impact.

Meal Prices
The reduction in the price paid for cereals at harvest will reduce the cost of finishing cattle over the winter. It should be borne in mind that the reduced price of cereals has an impact on the value of feeds such as fodder beet and maize. Many farms in the south-east will be relying on straw as a source of forage and will be feeding meal with it. The price of straw has decreased as the harvest progressed and, with the reduced cost of meal, this feed combination is an attractive option in this part of the country.

Parasite Levels
This time last year, there was a lot of concern about high levels of liver fluke present in animals and there was undoubtedly a large carry over into the early part of 2013. The dry summer of 2013 will reduce the levels of infestation as the numbers of mud snails (the intermediary in the life-cycle of the liver fluke) will have been affected. However, it is very difficult to break the liver fluke cycle and cattle that are exposed to even a small wet area will be infected. Reports from meat factories indicate that there has been virtually no change in the incidence of liver fluke. Treatment will still be required on many farms. One area where improvement is needed is in the area of product selection, matching the dose with the stage in the liver fluke cycle. In terms of worm control it has been a year of low levels of infestation associated with the dry weather but vigilance will be needed for lungworm prior to housing in weanlings especially.

Grass Situation
Grass swards on most farms are in an ideal state when planning for 2014. It has been possible to graze out swards very well throughout the year and this will allow farmers to start closing down fields and paddocks in rotation from the middle of October onwards. It is essential to avoid the temptation to open the gates and allow cattle to roam freely over the whole farm. Closing the driest fields by mid October will allow early grazing in late February or early March, depending on location and the amount of ryegrass in the sward. One of the improvements noticeable from those participating in the Beef Technology Adoption Programme (BTAP) has been the increase in the number of paddocks installed on these farms. Those who have done this are reporting the benefits in terms of growing extra grass, maintaining grass quality and indeed the ease with which cattle are handled once they become accustomed to the regular changes.

Re-Seeds
Many farmers availed of the favourable weather to re-seed ground. Figures from industry sources, indicate that the autumn of 2013 is likely to be one of the best in recent years for the sale of grass seeds but this has to be offset against very low sales earlier in the year. October is the month for treating newly-sown leys for weeds. If there is any evidence of the presence of seedling docks (very hard to avoid them) it is essential to avail of this opportunity to treat them. Chickweed may also be a problem.

Bull Production
Finding the balance nationally between the number of steers and bulls produced is a key issue. Three out of 10 male animals slaughtered at present are bulls but it is likely that farmers will respond to market signals and that this will decrease in the future. Regarding bull beef production, the main message from the factories has been to avoid heavy carcasses (> 420kg) with under-finished animals also high on the agenda. Farmers need to meet market specification and to target cattle for certain times of the year when production from other sources is limited e.g. under 16-month production in May-July period and 18 month Friesian bulls at non-peak periods. Store bulls are being severely discounted in marts. Farmers carrying weanlings over the winter with the intention of selling them as store cattle next year should consider castrating them at this stage.

Prices
Although beef prices are considerably reduced from the highs of May/June, they are hovering around the same levels as this time last year as I write this article. Most of the year has been characterised by the unusual phenomenon of store prices lagging behind those of beef cattle. This has been mainly attributable to the adverse weather conditions in spring.
The indications from industry sources are that the fundamentals remain solid for the foreseeable future in terms of the demand for beef but changes in supply and demand will lead to price fluctuations on an ongoing basis.

Culling Breeding Stock
Throughout 2013, it has been noticeable that there has been a poor trade for breeding stock, mainly attributable to the hardship experienced on wetter farms in 2012 and the prolonged winter. The trade for replacements, in-calf cows and indeed cows with calves at foot has been moderate to say the least. It is a good time to cull old and inferior stock and to replace them. Scanning is a very useful tool in this regard and will assist in identifying cows not in calf and if done at the correct stage will establish calving dates and allow cows to be housed in groups based on their expected calving dates.

Financial Planning
At this time of the year, many farmers will be meeting their accountants to discuss the payment of income tax. It also offers an opportunity to discuss how your farm is performing relative to your peers and to discuss making changes. As part of its service, Teagasc offers assistance in the preparation of cash flows etc. and this is a good time of the year to approach your advisor in this regard.

An overall assessment at this stage would indicate that most cattle farmers are well set-up for the winter. There is no reason why cattle should not perform well this winter and with a bit of preparation in the area of grassland management then your farm will be well set-up for 2014.