OBJECTIVES

The objective of this project proposal is to improve grazed grass utilisation in Northern Ireland beef production systems.  The project involves 4 work packages:

WP1.  Beef grassland survey

The majority of beef farmers in Northern Ireland have failed to uptake the advice from CAFRE on how to maximise performance from grazed grass.  It is proposed to undertake a detailed farmer survey to identify why this advice has not been adopted at a farm level and establish what future capital/research or advisory needs are required to deliver practical means for farmers to improve beef production from grazed grass.   

 

WP2. Quantification of beef production from grass

The quantity and quality of grass that can be grown and utilised on beef farms is largely unknown but it is estimated that on average only 4.1 t DM/ha is utilised on beef and sheep farms.  The monitoring of grass growth or the use of computer software programmes, such as Agrinet, to aid grassland management is almost negligible on beef farms.  It is proposed in this project to quantify grass production, its quality and its utilisation across a large range of land and soil types under various management strategies.  The impact of weather on grass growth, utilisation and animal performance will also be studied.

 

WP3.  Development of a blueprint for increasing grass production beyond 12 t DM/ha on a beef farm with maximum utilisation

The more progressive beef producers in Northern Ireland are growing high yields of grass (estimated up to 10 t DM/ha).  Novel research using precision technology tools is required to evaluate can this be expanded to 12 t DM/ha with maximal utilisation.  It is proposed in this project to demonstrate best management practises that can result in high utilisation of grass at a farm level and demonstrate the role that precision technology can offer for enhancing grass growth, maximising grass utilisation and animal performance and increasing environmental benefits.  

      

WP4.  Evaluation of trace element supplementation on animal performance

Reproductive performance and progeny growth are influenced by the nutrition and health of the animal.  Recent data from a DAFM project (joint Teagasc and AFBI) has identified trace element deficiencies within suckler cows, particularly for Iodine.  This could have a negative impact on reproductive performance of suckler cows and on the performance of the calves.  WP4 will address this issue by establishing the trace element levels within Northern Ireland grassland when managed under different grazing regimes. WP4 will align to WP2 and WP3.        

Collectively the findings from these WP’s will lead to a profitable and practical means of improving the physical performance of beef production from grassland in Northern Ireland.

 

Dr Francis Lively
Dr Francis Lively

Research Provider: AFBI

Project Lead: Francis Lively

Project Team: Denise Lowe, John Archer, Tianhai Yan, Alan Gordon, Anna Truesdale (AgriSearch), Elizabeth Earle (AgriSearch)

Start Date: 1st January 2017

End Date: 31st March 2020

Co-Funding: DAERA (Evidence & Innovation Strategy)

 

Background

This project proposal will address issues within the beef industry relating to this priority area as follows:

Low profitability in beef production enterprises is a real threat to the sustainability of the Northern Ireland beef industry.  This is a critical factor for the Northern Ireland GDP as livestock meat production is a major contributor, accounting for 19,511 farms, which is 78% of the total number of farms recorded in 2015 (DARD, 2015).  The key factors directly affecting the economic and biological efficiency of beef production are feed requirements, reproductive performance and   progeny growth rate.  Grazed grass is the cheapest form of feed currently available for ruminant livestock in Northern Ireland.  However it is often poorly utilised on many beef farms.  Northern Ireland beef has a green image and marketed worldwide as being grass-fed.  There is an increasing trend for concentrates supplementation to enhance animal performance.  Finding profitable and practical means of improving the physical performance of beef production from grassland is a critical research need to improve the financial performance and sustainability of the industry as well as its environmental footprint.  This project will involve 4 work packages (WP) to address the priority area “Increased Efficiency in Production Systems”.

 

WP1.  Beef grassland survey 

Previous research has identified optimal grassland management strategies for improving grass growth and utilisation for beef production systems, however despite years of knowledge exchange by CAFRE advisors this research has still not been widely adopted at a farm level. WP1 will involve a detailed farmer survey to establish the reasons why beef farmer have not adopted this knowledge and will quantify farmer decisions for current grassland management practise.  The findings will be instrumental for identifying the barriers to farmer adoption and will identify the research needs for systems that can be practically adopted at a farm level.     

 

WP2. Quantification of beef production from grass

The quantity of grass produced on beef farms is very low as indicated within the DAERA Land Use Strategy (average of 5 t DM/ha for beef farms).  The quality of grass and performance of cattle from grass is largely unknown and the usage of grassland software tools, such as Agrinet, is minimal in comparison to dairy farms.  However, some beef producers (for example Northern Ireland Suckler Beef Program participants) have already demonstrated significant financial improvements through improved grassland management.  WP2 will involve an on-farm study to establish the quantity and quality of grass that can be grown on Northern Ireland’s beef farms, taking account of land and soil types, soil fertility, weather conditions, grazing strategy etc.  This data coupled with animal performance monitoring, will establish the baseline utilisation of grass grown on beef farms throughout Northern Ireland under differing management regimes and will establish the quantity of beef that can be produced from grass.  This project will supplement an AHDB funded PhD studentship (with co-funding from AgriSearch) which aims to improve the prediction of beef cattle performance from grass based production systems.

 

WP3.  Development of a blueprint for increasing grass production beyond 12 t DM/ha on a beef farm with maximum utilisation

Despite low uptake of high grass production and utilisation on many beef farms throughout  Northern Ireland the top 10% of beef producers that have adopted the science and followed the advice require further research on how to further increase grass production and utilisation to enhance animal performance and increase farm profitability.  This work package will utilise the AFBI suckler herd to evaluate and demonstrate methods for increasing grass production with the target set at 12 t grass DM per ha, with maximal utilisation of this grass.  This systems approach study will encompass best practise management including matching nutrients to soil requirements, extending grazing, grass growth monitoring, matching grass supply to animal requirement etc.  Animal resilience to changes in weather throughout the year will be evaluated.  The study will evaluate precision technology for monitoring grass growth, animal performance                  and animal behaviour, whilst labour requirements will also be recorded. 

       

WP4.  Evaluation of trace element supplementation on animal performance

Reproductive performance and progeny growth are influenced by the nutrition and health of the animal.  Recent data from a DAFM project (joint Teagasc and AFBI) has identified trace element deficiencies within suckler cows, particularly for Iodine.  This could have a negative impact on reproductive performance of suckler cows and on the performance of the calves.  WP4 will address this issue by establishing the trace element levels within Northern Ireland grassland when managed under different grazing regimes. WP4 will supplement WP2 and WP3.

 

Collectively, this research project should lead to improved grassland management on beef farms in Northern Ireland, which will address the priority area “Increased efficiency in production systems”.          

 

Existing Scientific Knowledge

In a review of over 500 experiments of beef and sheep production, Steen 2004 reported grazed grass as the cheapest source of feed for beef production in Northern Ireland. However, the review stressed the fact that inefficient utilization of grazed grass can greatly reduce the cost benefits of grass as a cheap source of feed for beef cattle.  More recently, Teagasc research has indicated the ability to increase farm output and profitability by maximising the proportion of grazed grass in an animal’s lifetime diet (Lawrence, 2014). The main objectives of grazing management are to produce high yields of grass and to manage the grass and livestock to ensure the livestock have an adequate intake and a high level of animal performance, while at the same time avoiding under-utilization of the sward and wastage of grass.  Early turnout of beef cattle, grazing management during the main grazing season, grazing system and concentrate supplementation at pasture have all been shown to influence cattle performance in terms of live weight gain (examples include Steen, 2002, Keady et al., 2006, Peck, 2000, O’Neill, Dreenan and Caffrey, 2000 and 2001, Steen, 1994 and Steen and Kilpatrick 1998, O’Riordian et al., 1995,1996, 1997)). 

AFBI research has been instrumental in the development of beef nutritional models for predicting livestock performance, for example the Hillsborough Feeding Information System.  AFBI research findings and expertise has also been critical in the development of NIRS technologies for predicting the quality of forage, which has been vitally important for the rapid determination of forage quality Steen et al, 1998). This research has been adopted and highly valued by ruminant nutritionists throughout the UK and Ireland.

Trace minerals are essential components of many biochemical pathways, enzymes and hormone systems necessary to support normal growth, reproduction and lactation (Olson, 2007). Deficiencies of trace minerals, particularly copper, selenium and iodine, have frequently been implicated as a cause of poor reproductive performance in cattle (Wilde,2006; Olson, 2007) and in particular in beef cow herds in Ireland. A current DAFM funded project has identified particularly low blood iodine concentrations in suckler cows throughout the Island of Ireland (Parr, personal communication).   Further studies are investigating the links with these blood concentration levels and cow fertility.

Advances in precision technology for grassland management has had limited research in dairy systems but to date has had minimal usage in beef farms.  In pen behaviour monitoring or live weight monitoring has been demonstrated within feedlots to be beneficial for early identification of animal disease or identification of cattle that have are becoming less efficient (Sunstrum, personal communication).  

 

Additional information to be provided by the project

 

WP1.  Beef grassland survey 

A detailed survey regarding grassland management has not been undertaken for beef farmers to date.  The survey will include a number of sections including:

1)    Farm details (i.e. location, land status, land ownership)

2)    Farmer details (i.e. age, education, hours worked on farm/off farm)

3)    Identify the grazing system currently practised on the farm and why it has been adopted.

4)    Identify barriers for not adopted “industry best practise”, including education, capital investment requirements etc. 

5)    Evaluate farmers knowledge on grass quality

The detailed survey will be undertaken by a face-to-face interview with the farmer with the objective of having 200 farmers interviewed.

 

WP2. Quantification of beef production from grass

The quantity and quality of grass that can be grown and utilised on beef farms is largely unknown. The monitoring of grass growth or the use of computer software programmes, such as Agrinet, to aid grassland management is almost negligible on beef farms.  The utilisation of NIRS technologies to predict grass quality has previously been established at AFBI, however, the expected performance of beef cattle has not been established.  It is proposed in this project to quantify grass production, its quality and its utilisation across a large range of land and soil types under various management strategies.  The impact of weather on grass growth, utilisation and animal performance will also be studied.  Animal performance from a range of animal types (native, continental, suckler beef/dairy beef) will be monitored.  The study will involve 18 farms from across Northern Ireland (3 per county), representing both upland and lowland farms.  Farmers will be provided with a plate meter and will monitor grass growth on the farm on a weekly basis and will record it using a computer packages (such as Agrinet).  Farmers will post a grass sample to AFBI for NIRS analysis to determine quality.  The farmer will record temperature and rainfall on a daily basis.  AFBI staff will visit the farm on a monthly basis to weigh the cattle.  Animal performance and forage quality will enable a prediction of animal intake, which will be used as an indication of grass utilisation.    This monitoring will be replicated over 2 years.  The collected data will be modelled and prediction equations will be developed. These will be validated using data collected within AFBI and/or CAFRE.   

 

WP3.  Development of a blueprint for increasing grass production beyond 12 t DM/ha on a beef farm with maximum grass utilisation

Previous research at Hillsborough has shown that grass production in excess of 12 t DM/ha is achievable under dairy herd management.  The farmers involved with the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm Beef programme produced on average 10.3 t grass DM/ha in 2015.  Similar production has been achieved by the top beef producers in Northern Ireland.  These progressive farmers are eager for more knowledge as how to  increase this yield and more importantly how to increase the utilisation of this grass.  It is proposed to use the AFBI suckler herd, including their progeny, to demonstrate how best practise grassland management practises (extended grazing, high stocking rates, matching soil nutrients to grass requirements, matching grass to livestock nutrient requirement, grass monitoring etc.) can be adopted to achieve high levels of performance.  Precision technology items being purchased via CIEL investment may be utilised and evaluated during this study.  This may include C-Dax Pasturemeter (trailed behind RTV), grass-o-meter (ultrasound measurement of yield) and/or Grasshopper (GPS  tagging platemeter) to monitor grass growth and quality.  The use of in- field concentrate feed stations may be utilised to test the resilience of growing and finishing cattle to changes in weather conditions relative to a control group on offered forage only.  In field weighing systems, behaviour monitoring systems, bite meters fitted with GPS collars may be utilised to monitor animal behaviour and performance and assist to identify the boundaries for changing field/paddocks etc.  A behaviour monitoring system will be used to identify heats within the herd and enable the full use of artificial insemination for improving the genetic merit of the herd.    

 

WP4.  Evaluation of trace element supplementation on animal performance

Reproductive performance and progeny growth are influenced by the nutrition and health of the animal.  Recent data from a DAFM project (joint Teagasc and AFBI) has identified trace element deficiencies within suckler cows, particularly for Iodine.  This could have a negative impact on reproductive performance of suckler cows and on the performance of the calves.  A detailed review of the scientific literature will be undertaken.  This WP will overlap with WP2 and WP3.  A representative sample of animals per group (from WP2 & WP3) will be blood sampled to establish base line trace element levels within the bloods prior to turnout.  Based on these levels a proportion of animals may receive trace element supplementation (method to be defined based on veterinary advice).  Animal performance (weight and condition score) will be monitored monthly with additional blood sampling taking place during the grazing season.  Additionally, coat/hair condition and visual appearance will be recorded on a monthly basis.   Soil and forage samples will be analysed for trace elements during the grazing season from the various farms.  This data will establish the baseline forage trace element levels across a range of sites in Northern Ireland managed in different ways and how these relate to animal performance.  Additionally, it will enable an evaluation of the effectiveness of trace element supplementation on animal performance.     

 

Scientific Objective and Tasks

Objective Tasks required to achieve objective Milestones (target date of achievement)
Quantify farmer decisions for grassland management within beef systems throughout Northern Ireland A detailed survey will be undertaken to establish the reasons why beef farmers adopt various grassland management practises. It is anticipated that the survey will be drawn up in conjunction with CAFRE to establish why beef farmers have not adopted best practise guidelines as advised by the industry for many decades. Sections within the survey will include land ownership, land distribution, soil fertility and fertiliser application, reseeding policy, labour availability, pre/post grazing heights, use of computer software programmes etc. An evaluation of farmers knowledge of the quality of grass and ideal pre/post grazing heights will be also be undertaken. The survey will involve a face-to-face interview with the farmer. The survey will aim to involve 200 farmers representative of the geographical spread of beef cattle throughout Northern Ireland. A student will be recruited via AgriSearch for a 6 month placement to undertake this survey. The collected data will be analysed and a report produced March 2018
Prepare and submit 1 scientific paper for peer reviewed Journal. Sept 2018
 
Quantify the yield and quality of grass produced on Northern Ireland’s beef farms, and establish management strategies that maximise output. An on farm study will be conducted to monitor the quantity, nutritional quality and utilisation of grass within various beef production systems; and their effect on animal performance.  Beef producers will be recruited via AgriSearch (n=18, with 3 per county, including at least 1 from an LFA area and 1 farm with dairy-origin beef) to act as co-researchers for this study.  A selection criteria will be developed to recruit the co-researchers and the final evaluation panel shall include at least one representative from AgriSearch, AFBI and CAFRE. The co-researchers will be responsible for measuring grass growth on a weekly basis and recording it on a software package such as AgriNet.  They will forward a fresh sample of forage being consumed by animals to AFBI for NIRS analysis to predict nutritional quality.  They will record daily temperature, rainfall and ground conditions on a daily basis. Animal performance will be monitored at monthly intervals by AFBI staff. Animal performance and feedstuff quality will be used to back calculate intake.  Predicted intake will be uses as an assessment of grass utilisation.   Farm concentrate usage, fertiliser and slurry application rates will be recorded for the complete duration of the study.  This study will be replicated over 2 grazing seasons (2017 and 2018)      

Jan 2018,

Jan 2019

Collate and statistically analyse experimental data.

March 2018

March 2019

Develop equations for predicting animal performance from grass quality and utilisation. Quantify the kg of beef produced from forage and kg of beef from concentrate on each farm. Adopt equations to develop an on-line calculator linked to the BovIS growth monitoring tool that can quantify kg of beef from forgae or concentrate. Oct 2019
  Prepare and submit 1 scientific paper for peer reviewed Journal. Dec2019
 
Development of a blueprint for high output grass based beef production Review the scientific literature to identify i) realistic targets for sustainable lowland beef grazing, in terms of grass production, grass utilisation and associated animal production parameters such as kg of beef produced per ha and ii) technologies and management decisions that can be used to achieve these targets. March 2017

Based on the literature review, develop an experimental protocol which utilises a range of technologies to achieve a high beef output production system (with the aim of growing in excess of 12 t grass DM per hectare).  This study will be undertaken using the AFBI 100 cow suckler herd and their progeny. CAFRE livestock may be utilised if required.   Detailed assessment and measurement of grass growth, grass quality, grass utilisation and animal performance will be linked to a series of investigative    studies eg effect of poaching damage on subsequent grass growth, effect of stage of grass growth on animal performance, effect of weather conditions on animal performance etc.

The appliance of precision technologies for grass growth, animal behaviour, animal health and animal performance will be utilised and their effectiveness evaluated within this study.  Grass growth and quality monitored using Agrinet software, coupled with grass samples analysed through the AFBI laboratory using NIRS technology.  

Measurements to be taken include:

Animal performance (changes in cow body condition score and cow & calf live weight) will be recorded at least fortnightly via a cattle crush and weighbridge.  In addition, live weight will be monitored in situ at the water troughs via equipment funded through CIEL.  Weather will be monitored on a daily basis throughout the grazing season.  Maximising forage input within the diet of the finishing animals will also be evaluated.       

April 2017

April 2018

Collate and statistically analyse experimental data.

March 2018

March 2019

Prepare and submit 2 scientific papers for peer reviewed Journal. Use the information above to define a blueprint for a high beef output grass based system.

March 2020

 
Evaluation of natural trace element levels within pasture and the impact of supplementation on animal performance Undertake a review of the scientific literature to evaluate the optimal trace elements supplementation requirements for grazing beef cattle

Oct 2017

Establish the trace element levels within a range of Northern Ireland grassland when managed under different grazing regimes  and monitor changes during the grazing season

Jan 2019

Based on literature review and initial blood samples establish the impact of trace element supplementation on animal health, reproductive performance and live weight gain during the grazing season.
Prepare and submit 2 scientific papers for peer reviewed Journal. 

June 2019

 

BENEFITS / OUTCOMES

Any economic benefits provided by this project to the beef sector will be through better health and improved efficiency, with an expectation for increased output (increased fertility, livestock growth and reduced mortality) and reduced treatment costs (through improved treatments and prevention).  Based on the results from previous research and consultations with beef producers and their CAFRE advisors, there is general agreement that among those factors, increasing the number of calves produced per cow per year will have the greatest effect on profitability.  Additionally, increasing the stocking rate and output per hectare will have a very significant impact on profitability.  

Monetary benefits for the beef industry

Based on CAFRE benchmarked data the average suckler to beef unit in Northern Ireland had a stocking rate of 1.6 cow equivalents per hectare (ce/ha) in 2014/15 and produced 498 kg live weight per hectare, with an average concentrate input of 925 kg per cow (Hamill, personal communication).  This compares with a stocking rate of 1.7 ce/ha and an output of 598 kg/live weight/ha for the top 25% of producers, with a similar concentrate input.  This additional 100 kg live weight per hectare leads to a significantly higher gross margin for those farmers in the top 25% of producers (+£245/cow or +£237/ha).  A significant amount of this improvement was achieved through improved grassland management and better utilisation of the grass produced.  This has been a key finding from the Northern Ireland Suckler Farm Programme (Breen, personal communication).  Based on the current suckler cow numbers in Northern Ireland 260,300 (June 2015), assuming a nominal 50% of this improvement was through better grassland management and that 20% of the industry uptake the new research, the total financial benefit resulting from this project could be worth  £6,377,350 per annum ((£245*0.50)*(260,300*20%)).  This amounts to a Discounted Net Present Value (NPV) of £11,479,230.

Assumptions

The monetary benefits outlined above are calculated for the entire Northern Ireland suckler cow herd of 260,300 cows (DARD, 2015).  This calculation assumes there will be no immediate benefits from the research in Year 1.  With press releases and farm walks providing opportunities to present preliminary findings, some benefits can be expected in Year 2 (30% of maximum).  After completion of the study when press articles will be produced, additional benefits can be expected in Year 3 (50% of max).  The full benefits of the programme will be realised in Year 4 and subsequent years following further dissemination and uptake by the industry.  Benefits predicted beyond year 5 have not been included.