Healthy Cattle, Healthy Profits Beef Conference a successful day of learning for beef farmers

Friday, 23 November, 2018

Commodity Watch by Beef & Lamb and Hill Farming Policy Officer: Daryl McLaughlin

Industry representatives have come together to arrange a very successful conference, ‘Healthy Cattle, Healthy Profits’ looking for ways to improve profitability in the beef sector.

Chairman Paul McHenry Head of CAFRE Beef & Sheep opened the conference to inform delegates that the last three years has seen an increase in fallen stock numbers in Northern Ireland. UFU President, Ivor Ferguson, then addressed the conference to stress the importance of knowing the costs within your beef production system.  Farmers in NI are over 80% dependent on CAP (Direct Support) to make up their profitability and a large number of farmers have had huge losses in recent years. Ivor stressed the importance of the safe, secure, traceable beef product that Northern Ireland farmers produce for consumers.

Sean Fee Veterinary Pathologist AFBI, was the first speaker to explain the benefits to farmers by submitting clinical samples and carcases for post-mortem examination. By doing this, it can give farmers the ability to act on the results. There are then a number of options; treatment choice, vaccination, housing, colostrum feeding, nutrition and hygiene to act upon results.  The main cause of death in calves less than 1 month old, was enteric infections with and with respiratory infections being the second most common. In calves 1 to 5 months old over 50% affected with respiratory infections. Similar results found in calves 6-12 months but it was also noted that clostridial diseases were the second most common cause of death and Blackleg being the main killer. In relation to scour cryptosporidium is still being recorded as the largest killer followed by rotavirus, coronavirus, salmonella and E.coli K99.

Dr Barry McInerney, Head of Disease Surveillance Investigation Branch AFBI informed the conference that in NI approx. 3.4% of calves died up to 1 month of age and approx. 6.5% of calves died up to 5 months of age. The three main pillars to combat this are health, nutrition and environment additionally genetics are now playing a greater role in this. Barry emphasized the need for proper herd health plans and having a close relationship with your vet and advisor is key. Colostrum management is critical and is the key foundation for healthy calves. In dairy farms in NI, 67% of colostrum samples have low levels of immunoglobulins. Recommended feeding is 10% of the calves body weight which is on average about 4 litres.

Jamie Robertson, buildings and ventilation specialist, focused on housing design and the relationship between environment, animal health and animal production. Jamie discussed his 5 key points; hygiene, moisture, fresh air, air speed, LCTemperature. Jamie emphasis the need to get the urine out of the bedding. Drainage in the house is key to keeping the moisture low. Absence of fresh air is an issue in a lot of housing and is essential within a cattle house. In relation to ventilation it must be in the context of investment for the farm and clear benefits can be measured and financially benefit the farm business.     

Welsh farmer John Yeomans farms 80 Limousin and Belgian Blue cross cows selling calves all calves as weanlings. John has a huge focus on calf health and welfare. John works hard on tackling trace elements, lepto, BVD, rotavirus and pneumonia. Johns calves are all sold weaned off their mothers and go with a full clean health status, he even prints this and attaches this to each calves passport, which goes along with the calf when sold. John does full benchmarking and knows exactly how much his costs are. His herd has a calving index of 388 days and welsh average is 426.  When any stock enters the farm they undergo a strict quarantine period before entering the herd.

Doug Dear farms in North Yorkshire slaughtering about 1500 cattle per year all under a farmer owned contract. Once the cattle come through the farm gates they will only end up in slaughter. The herd is in a licensed finishing unit and the diet is 80% self-sufficient. Farmer retained cattle, strict intake protocol, fixed overhead cost, as fed cost (Keenan Intouch), Live & Dead Outlets, Premium Product Outlets, Option for drawing cattle are all factors in his system.

Francis Breen, CAFRE Senior Beef & Sheep Advisor gave an overview of the Better Farm Beef Challenge NI, which is a collaborative initiative between CAFRE, ABP and Irish Farmers Journal. Francis discussed how some of the Better Farmers have increased their gross margin from under £400/Ha to over £900/Ha over a 7/8 year period. Francis emphasised that improving profitability is a combination of compact calving, 2yr old herd calving, maximizing hybrid vigour, making best use of EBV’s, closed herd policy (where possible), stocking rate, grass growth, grass utilization, animal health and putting all this into a system. In relation to health Francis outlined that health planning is one of the most important issues. Good health planning can, reduce veterinary call outs, have a similar overall veterinary cost, more targeted use of vaccines and reduced antibiotic usage, reduced mortality which means better animal health, better animal performance and better mental health for  the farmer.

Castlewellan Farmer Joe Milligan farms in a partnership with his father John. Joe started off by comparing their farm operation in the past to the current farming system. Today they are killing cattle much younger, doubled their stocking rate and are reaching grass utilisation potential. Joe outline his key priorities for his suckler herd; having a system, breeding, focus on grass (output/ha), management practices and herd health being the most important. Joe outlined that their cows must be; docile, calve at 24 months, calve every 365 days (2017 CI 373 days), durable and easily fleshed, Wean 50% of live weight (2018 = 47%). Joe discussed in detail his farm management practices and herd health and encouraged all farmers to have SOP’s (standard operating practices) drawn up and written down. Joe encouraged all farmers to have simple plans but to have them effective. Knowing your costs is a key element to make farm improvements and increase overall herd health. Joe encouraged beef farmers to look forward and always seek to make improvements. His take home message was to keep improving the business to withstand volatility but to reap the benefits in good times.

Conall Donnelly, CEO NIMEA, focused on the implications of Brexit for beef farmers in NI. NIMEA member’s turn over £1.3 billion annually and employ over 5,000 staff and their businesses cannot operate without the throughput that the NI beef and sheep farmers supply. Conall explained that uncertainty is at its highest for processors and businesses but that the deal on the table could provide some certainty. NIMEA would have liked unfettered access to the single market and remain within the customs union but this is draft deal is probably as close as it may get. The risk of leaving the EU with No Deal is higher than ever and this is not acceptable for farmers and businesses. Tariffs to the EU range from 40-90% and this would have a huge effect to NI export market both live and in carcass. Conall finished by encouraging the Government and parties to seriously consider this draft agreement to allow business to continue and be vibrant. The last thing that farmers or business want is a cheap food policy and then allowing product to enter the country from all around the world with little or no standards and tariff free.