Beef Challenge

The Better Farm Beef Challenge

Using innovation to deliver more sustainable and profitable beef production.

Running since 2011, the Better Farm Beef Challenge is developing a roadmap for better, more profitable beef production, increasing gross margin for participating farmers by improving technical efficiency within the farmgate.

The Better Farm Beef Challenge: Delivering a programme of sustainable beef production through improved efficiency.

  • An initiative delivered by the Irish Farmers Journal and the College of Agriculture, Food & Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in Northern Ireland; supported by ABP
  • Its aim is deliver sustainable beef production from the NI suckler beef herd through innovation within the farmgate
  • The stated objective of the programme: increase gross margin on participating farmers to over £750/ha by improving technical efficiency within the farmgate
  • Context: “If suckler beef production is to have a viable future the industry must work together to ensure that maximum levels of efficiency are being achieved at all stages of the production system,” Irish Farmers Journal

Further background on the programme

The Better Farm Beef Challenge has been running since 2011. Initially called the Northern Ireland Suckler Beef Programme, eight suckler beef farmers were selected from across Northern Ireland plus CAFRE farms. It was so successful that in 2013 funding was agreed for a further ten to take part and, in 2017, even more farmers are taking up the challenge, under a new brand called ‘the Northern Ireland Better Farm Beef Challenge’. A sister programme runs in the Republic of Ireland also sponsored by ABP.

The principles of the programme are:

  • Breeding / fertility  – for suckler beef production to be viable the herd must be productive. Review breeding performance. Focus on culling, calving spread, calving rates and calving intervals to develop a breeding programme for your farm.
  • Herd health – health issues drive up costs and reduce farm output. Suckler farmers who establish a herd health plan and focus on management practices (e.g. shed ventilations, dosing regimes) have a positive impact on herd health calving.
  • Grassland management – suckler farms that become more focused on grass are able to achieve high levels of liveweight gain. This gives a competitive edge over EU counterparts who rely on costly feedlot systems.
  • Cost control – benchmarking to identify areas of cost saving and to assess level of farm output relative to costs.
  • Increasing output per hectare – one of the key drivers of profitability. Achieving a high level of physical and financial output per hectare is critical to achieving an adequate margin over production costs.

Exemplar Farmers

John and Joe Milligan, Castlewellan

Father and son, John and Joe Milligan operate a mixed beef and sheep farm outside Castlewellan in County Down.  Wife Kathleen and daughter Carmel also play an active role on the farm.

They joined the programme in 2011 and, at the time, ran a suckler herd of 45 cows alongside a calf-rearing enterprise and 220 breeding ewes.  Their 73 hectares of owned land was stocked at 1.3 cow equivalents per hectare.

In 2010 their benchmarking results indicated a gross margin per hectare of £509.

With the aim to maximise output per hectare, rather than selling some calves as stores the decision was made to take all stock, except replacement heifers, through to beef.  There was also scope on the farm to increase cow numbers.

The progress made has been significant, and gross margin per hectare has more than doubled over the period, to stand at £1,173/ha in 2016, the highest of all the programme farms.

That has mainly come about by an increase in stocking rate, which by 2014 had moved to over 2.5 cow equivalents per hectare.  Cow numbers in 2016 stood at 67, split between spring and autumn calving.

By focussing on replacement breeding the Milligans have also been able to sell some surplus in-calf heifers to other farmers, which has added to output.

Despite operating at a high stocking rate, John and Joe have managed to keep variable costs under control by making the most of grass.  All cattle are rotationally grazed, with calves creep grazing ahead of cows.  There is also a clear focus on identifying and removing under-performing animals, and on animal disease, with cattle routinely vaccinated against various production diseases on advice from their local vet.

John Egerton, Roslea

The Egerton farm outside Roslea in Co Fermanagh extends to 73 hectares, with a mix of land type ranging from free draining land to heavier and wetter soil.

When John joined the programme in 2011 he was running a herd of 55 suckler cows, taking all calves through to beef, alongside a flock of 135 ewes.

Among the main issues to be addressed at the start of the programme was to grow and utilise more grass, tighten the calving spread of the spring herd, as well as increasing numbers of autumn calving cows.  With these autumn calvers dry during the summer months, they are able to make good use of some of the more marginal land on the farm.

At the start of the programme John had a gross margin per hectare of £265.

The progress made since then has been exceptional, and in 2016 John had a gross margin of £911/ha.  The number of suckler cows has increased to 74, with plans to get to 100 cows, split evenly between autumn and spring calving, over the next few years.

Autumn born male calves are now finished as bulls, with the maximum possible taken from grass, followed by an intensive finishing period, with all bulls sold under 16 months. Spring born steers are finished at around 20 months at an average of 350kg carcase weight.

John has also focused on breeding specialist heifer replacements using AI, and now has a regular customer base built up for his surplus in-calf heifers.

Stephen Maguire, Co. Fermanagh

Stephen Maguire, Maguiresbridge

Farming outside Maguiresbridge in Co Fermanagh, Stephen Maguire is predominantly a weanling producer, and traditionally concentrated on producing high quality Charolais calves from his Simmental and Limousin cross cows.

However, his system has changed slightly over the six years he has been involved in the programme, and he now sells some of his heaviest calves in the autumn, with the remainder kept over and sold as a batch to a finisher in Co Down in the spring.

Difficult calvings, and associated high costs, also forced Stephen to start using easier calving bulls, with only one stock bull now kept, with the remainder of the herd in-calf to AI.  That has also allowed him to breed his own replacements.

When Stephen started in the programme in 2011 he was running 54 sucklers across 51 hectares, which included 25 hectares of rented land. However, the majority of this rented land was lost due to CAP changes in 2015. But by concentrating on making improvements to the land that he owns (reseeding and improved grassland management by paddock grazing), Stephen has been able to keep the same number of stock, but now on 32 hectares, rather than 51.

In 2010 his farm was stocked at 1.41 cow equivalents per hectare, and by 2016 the stocking rate had moved to 2.22 cow equivalents per hectare.  Over the same period gross margin per hectare has moved from £409 to £1,012 per hectare.

Key to success on Stephen’s farm is flexibility, and if the weather turns wet he will re-house cattle.  But equally he will have some stock out grazing in the early spring if ground conditions are suitable.

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