Jimmy Madigan has more than doubled profits on his Kilkenny suckler farm over the past decade, focusing on soil fertility and genetics.
ao 100 sucklers, 150 store lambs, 60 store bulls, 10 acres of tillage and some forestry on his 235 acre property in Ballyhale, where he farms alongside his wife Annmarie and their four young children Hannah , Jim, Kate and Eddie.
A crowd of over 200 gathered on the grounds for the Irish Grassland Association beef event.
The farm is divided into three platforms and the overall stocking rate is 2.14 LU/ha. The average paddock size is 4.4 acres and the majority of the farm is serviced by a new road, water and electric fencing.
The suckler herd is evenly split between spring and fall, with 85 to 90 cows calving in total. These cows are largely based on the original Ballyhale block, along with bulls for the finish.
The second block contains the lambs and meat heifers from the store, and the third block is where you will find the breeding heifers.
The calving interval for the suckler herd is 369 days, compared to the national average of 395. The six-week spring calving rate is 86%.
The percentage of calves dead at birth was 2.6%, higher than the national average of 1.01%.
The number of calves dead at 28 days was 5.2pc, again above the national average of 2.36pc. Madigans calf rate per cow per year is 0.9, higher than the national average of 0.86.
Attendees praised Jimmy for his honesty with the calf mortality numbers.
“I’ve been to 200 cow farms in the past and they would try to tell you they have zero mortality,” said one farmer.
Jimmy explained, “We lost five calves to cryptosporidiosis last spring which left our numbers high. The mothers of these calves were slaughtered, with the exception of a purebred Charolais.
All cows are calved in the barn and kept for a week before being sent to grass. Calves are dehorned and vaccinated against Clostridians and IBR, and injected with Bovipast.
The calves are weaned from the fall herd, and Jimmy will give them teat sealant as the calves are removed.
Weaning performance figures for 2021 show bulls had an average daily gain of 1.32kg, while heifers gained 1.2kg. The average 200-day weight of bulls was 312 kg, with heifers weighing 284 kg.
Calves born in the fall of 2021 were weighed on June 12: the bulls weighed 428 kg on average while the heifers weighed 395 kg.
Home-bred bulls are finished alongside store bought. The average slaughter age for bulls is 15.9 months at 428 kg and 19 months for heifers at 345 kg. The live weight produced is 829 kg/ha or 452 kg/LU.
The bulls receive 900 kg of flour and two bales of silage during their stay on the farm.
A participant in the ABP Advantage Beef program, Jimmy is required to finish his bulls under 400kg carcass weight.
Replacement heifers for the suckler herd are home raised and purchased. Purchased heifers is an unusual but interesting system.
Every year Jimmy targets 6-10 black Limousin heifers from a local dairy farmer to replace his fall calving herd.
These heifers are then mated by AI to a range of sires, including the Bleu Belge Serpentin ZSD bull, the Limousin sire Jagerbomb and the Charolais sire Balthayock Musketeer.
“With these black Limousin cows, you can put any bull on them,” he said. “They are very practical and do not become too heavy, weighing between 600 and 650 kg.
“A lot of black Limousines from ZAG have been found to be light on milk but that’s not a problem for our heifers with their good British Friesian and Fleckvieh dams.”
Heifers from the fall herd then replace sucklers from the spring calving herd.
Jimmy also breeds his own replacement bulls and has a purebred Charolais bull that matures in the fall. Overall, AI makes up 20% of the farm’s breeding program in an average year.
With an infertile bull identified last year, the percentage of AI used the previous fall and spring increased.
Jimmy joined the BETTER Farm Beef program in 2012, which marked the start of transforming farm profits.
The farm’s gross margin was €540/ha in 2011. When Jimmy left the program in 2015, his gross margin was €1,080/ha.
In 2016, the farm switched from raising steers to raising bulls. Today, the gross yield from the farm is €2,069/ha, with a gross margin of €1,241/ha.
“The second winter with steers is a killer and we didn’t have enough shed space for them,” Jimmy said.
“We would end up with heavy oxen and then we would be cut on spec. Now we are watching the bulls heavily and can stay within spec.
“We were also able to add 20 additional cows to the suckler herd.
The main drivers of the strong increase in gross margin over the past 10 years have been soil testing and fertility improvement, attention to grassland management, production of premium silage , the emphasis on genetics and good health practices.
“It’s a series of simple things like giving the cattle new grass twice a week instead of once. I learned a lot talking with other farmers,” Jimmy said.
Teagasc councilor Terry Carroll pointed out that the first step in bringing the farm’s meadows up to specification was to examine the fertility of the soil.
“There is no point in starting with something else. It means looking at your lime usage and getting the right P and K into the soil,” Terry said.
“Once you get the right grass, you have to make sure your cattle groups are right. This farm has six groups. Too many groups can thwart your good paddock system.
The Madigans farm has 35 paddocks for grazing and over 80% of the farm has a pH above 6.2. 98% of the farm is in indexes three and four for potassium, and 40% is in indexes three and four for phosphorus.
The land before the connection receives 2,300 gallons/acre or 18:6:12 at 1.5 bags/acre. After grazing, 27 units of nitrogen are applied, which equals five bags per season or 125 units total.
Grass and silage represent 89 pc of the total feed used, and the total tonnage cultivated is 12 t DM/ha.
The first cut was on May 13 and the results of a silage test show 76pc DMD.
“Seeds with a high clover content are worth considering”
In late April, Jimmy re-seeded a paddock with a seed mix of 10 kg PRG, 2 kg white clover and 2 kg red clover per acre.
The soil was burned with glyphosate, two tons of lime was applied and the seed mix was sown with a single pass drill. Compound 13-6-20 with sulfur was then applied.
Grazing has recently started in the paddock, with heavy grass cover and clovers clearly visible throughout.
Teagasc Research Officer James Humphreys was on hand to explain to attendees the best practices for establishing clover and the potential savings when the legume is fully utilized.
“I’m impressed with the reseeding of the farm here, it’s fantastic. This field is expected to produce 150 kg of N bottoms/ha per year,” explained James.
“The idea is not to have to apply chemical nitrogen to this paddock for the life of the reseeded grass.
“At Solohead, we have found this practice to be beneficial because the application of chemical nitrogen can actually hold back the clover.
“We are four years into testing and our paddocks are getting better and better. With proper management I would be surprised if this paddock doesn’t do quite as well as any other paddock on the Madigans farm.
“White clover acts in the same way as ivy growing on a wall.
“Red clover growth is completely different, with a good initial spurt then a tendency to die out over the following years.
“Clover fixes nitrogen about six weeks after reseeding.
“It is important to control weeds immediately after the establishment phase. Getting the docks under control early can solve the problem for the life of the turf.
“We envision fertilizer prices remaining at current levels for at least another year, so high clover reseeding is worth considering.”
When developing highly productive clover grasses, farmers are advised to have high availability of P and K in the soil; maintain the pH between 6.5 and 7; keep the covers low during the winter, graze up to 4 cm; and ensure that the distribution of the legume is maintained in 70 to 100 pc of the grass.