Host farmer Thomas Moorhead speaks about his farming operation
Host farmer Thomas Moorhead speaks about his farming operation

Around 70 farmers attended the AgriSearch / AFBI / CAFRE farm walk on the farm of Thomas Moorhead.

Thomas farms 450 acres (150 acres each of grazing, silage and mountain) close to Slemish .  The farm consists of a 130 cow suckler unit and 220 ewes.

Animal Health is high on Thomas’s priority list with the herd being screened for both BVD and Johnes as part of the respective AHWNI control programs.  Jason Barley highlighted the importance of the timely use of anthelmintics for gut worms and liver fluke and vaccination to aid control of BVD, IBI, leptosprosis, calf pneumonia and scours. Other animal health topics included advice on the control of BVD and leptospirois in beef herds and the importance of copper, cobalt and selenium status monitoring and correction of deficiencies to improve fertility and performance at grass.

Francis Lively spoke on the importance of herd fertility in maximising performance from suckler cows.  The average Northern Ireland suckler cow calving index is around 400 days which is considerably longer than the target 365 days.  This leads to prolonged calving periods which in addition to increasing labour input, also reduces the opportunity to utilise grazed grass which is the cheapest feed source for suckler production.

Synchronisation of suckler cows and replacement heifers can be used to improve fertility performance.  It also enables farmers to use proven sires with high Estimated Breeding Values.  A pilot study carried out on 140 beef heifers across 5 Northern Ireland farms compared two different synchronisation programmes, one using heat detection and the other using fixed time AI.  Both programmes had very similar results with 58% and 57% conception rates respectively.  The key guidelines to success are:
• To have heifers at 60%+ of mature weight at 14 months
• To have vaccinations completed well in advance of synchronisation
• To follow the synchronisation protocol in a timely manner and plan ahead in conjunction with your vet and AI technician and to use the correct needle size.

Denise Lowe from AFBI, Hillsborough encouraged farmers to use all information available to them when choosing sires for their suckler herd.  In addition to visual assessment of soundness and temperament of the bull, make use of Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) as a tool to assessing the genetic potential of the sire. EBVs are published for a range of traits including calving ease, milking ability, growth traits and carcase traits.  Decide what traits are important for your cow type in your herd, your system and marketing: are you looking for a terminal sire or will you be breeding your own replacements? How important is easy calving? Do your homework and study EBVs and their accuracies before purchasing a stock bull. EBVs can be visualised in a graph; in general bars that go to the right of the central line indicate that the EBV of that trait is above the breed average.  The further to the right, the better. Bars to the left of the central line indicate that the EBV of that trait is above the breed average.

Norman Weatherup from CAFRE encouraged farmers to soil test as grass will not grow to its potential if soil is too acidic or does not have adequate nutrients.  In addition, a significant proportion of the nutrients in artificial fertiliser is not available if the pH is too low. 

Having taken any remedial action with soil nutrients it is important to grow as much grass as possible.  The most productive grass swards are those based on the best perennial ryegrasses and clover.  Swards containing a significant amount of weed grasses will benefit from reseeding.

Grass grown but not utilised will be wasted and a paddock grazing system is the best way to maximise animal performance and sward utilisation.  This is achieved by closely matching grass supply with animal demand.