However, this did not happen last year: this goal will not be achieved in 2022 either.
Alastair explains: “Last year, drought conditions impacted grass growth rates for most of July.
“In fact, forage availability became so tight that I had to house some of the yearling oxen early, offering them silage and meal in the sheds.”
But this year it was the price of fertilizers that “conspired” to reduce grass production levels.
“I looked at the numbers in the spring and decided that continuing with our normal fertilization schedule couldn’t be justified,” he said.
“It was then a matter of making the best possible use of the slurry.
“So far, we’ve done pretty well on the pasture. But we are still looking at a fodder deficit for the whole year.
Alistair calved 11 more cows earlier this year. This will give him the opportunity to sell a selection of surplus cows with calves on foot.
He has also purchased a large stock of straw, which will provide him with bedding and a fodder pad, if needed, next winter.
The McNeilly family recently hosted members of the British Grassland Society (BGS). The event included a company overview as well as a long farm walk.
BGS is a membership organization that acts as a communication forum, through events and publications, for the profitable and sustainable use of grass and fodder.
It brings together all who are actively interested in the science and practice of the production and use of grass and forage; researchers, farmers, advisers, teachers and technical members of the agricultural industry.
BGS connects with farmers through its local grassland management affiliates across the UK. These include the Ulster Grassland Society.
BGS has many active members abroad. The organization is also a member of the European Grassland Federation.
The objectives of BGS are:
– The improvement of economic methods of production and use of herbaceous and fodder crops for the promotion of profitable agriculture.
– The advancement of education and research in the production and use of herbaceous and forage crops. Publication of relevant research results to an international audience through a quarterly journal and academic colloquia.
– Interpretation of research and active communication of improved methods of production and use to the agricultural community.
– The promotion of grassland agriculture as an example of sustainable, environmentally friendly and visually attractive agriculture, of public interest.
– Represent members’ interests to government by responding to consultations and identifying research priorities.
Alastair McNeilly manages a herd of 85 spring calving suckler cows on 145 acres with all males finished as steers.
He keeps his own replacements and aims for them to calve at 24 months.
All females unsuitable for breeding are also finished. His cattle are a mix of Limousin, Angus, Shorthorn and Simmental genetics.
Alastair operates a rotational paddock grazing system with weekly grass measurements taken using a plate meter. Adding more paddocks allowed Alastair to increase his charge rate.
The males are sold, for the most part, at dead weight. Heifers not used for breeding are also sold finished.
Two broiler units, housing 60,000 chickens, are also part of the business. All chicken litter is exported off the farm.
Making the best use of weed has been a key driver for Alistair over the past five years. And the company’s benchmark figures confirm this point.
The fodder area of the farm was maintained at just under 60 ha. However, between 2017 and 2021, Alastair managed to improve its stocking rate from 2.0 to 2.78 cow equivalents/ha.
Over the same period the number of cows increased from 67 to 89 with an increase in gross margin/ha from £905 to £1,232.
“A combination of growing and using more grass made it all possible,” Alastair commented.
He credits the development of a pen-based grazing system as being of fundamental importance in this context.
The paddocks were designed to provide cattle with 3 days of grazing, followed by an average recovery period of 21 days.
Alastair uses a plate meter, in tandem with the Agribusiness and Biosciences (AFBI) GrassCheck service to assess current and future grass availability on the farm throughout the grazing season.
He also tested pre-mowing paddocks as a way to encourage better use of grass by livestock.
“It’s a promising approach to grassland management. I only have one clipper on the farm, so the option was always going to be to pre-clip and not clip after the cattle left a particular paddock,” he explained.
Heavy Clay: Loamy soils predominate on the McNeilly Farm.
Their potential to grow large quantities of high quality weed is significant.
However, during a wet spring or fall, grazing opportunities may be limited due to unsuitable soil conditions.
Alastair further explained, “It’s about matching weed supply and demand. Our objective is to place the cattle in pens with a grass cover of 2,800 to 3,000 kg of dry matter/ha.
“Post-grazing coverages are in the range of 1,600 to 1,800 kg.”
He added: “Grass growth rates change throughout the year, so we adjust paddock management accordingly.
“There was a bit of work needed to set up the paddocks in the first place.
“Installing the right number of drinkers was important. But once we got past that, it wasn’t that difficult from an overall farm management perspective.
A path has been laid through the farm over the years. And, again, it helped Alastair manage his overall grazing area more effectively.
Moving livestock in the most efficient way possible is very important. But after three to four days in a pen, the animals will want access to fresh pasture anyway.
No meal is given to the cows of the McNeilly farm when they are on grass. However, they have access to additional dry cows and breeding minerals, if needed.
Currently, Alastair uses a mix of Limousin and Angus bulls on his cows.
Angus crossbred heifers are selected to replace the herd.
Previously, he had used synchronization and fixed-time AI on the herd as a way to tighten the calving window across the herd. And it had worked for him.
It is an approach to breeding that is gaining ground in suckler farms across Northern Ireland today.
The technology makes it possible to ensure up to 70% conception rate at first service with cows: the equivalent figure for heifers is between 70 and 80%.
Starting is simply a matter of waiting six to seven weeks after the last cow calves and then starting the timing clock.
All cows of a selected batch can then be inseminated on the same day. Those who conceive should calve in a very short time around 40 weeks later.
Obviously, different bulls will have slightly different gestation periods.
Alastair is very aware that he is the main source of labor within the beef business. It is therefore crucial to make the most of your time.
To that end, he recently invested in a state-of-the-art pen, channel and crushing complex in a farmyard shed.
This allows him to carry out all the main handling work all year round, in comfort, all by himself.
The cage contains a load cell, which Alastair considers an extremely important management tool.
All cows are vaccinated against BVD and Leptospirosis, as part of a herd management plan.
Participation normally begins in early March with the lightest heifers placed first in the paddocks.
If necessary, Alastair will remove some of the land set aside for first-cut silage for grazing purposes, if spring growth rates are not reaching target levels.
Daily grass growth rates will normally exceed 60 kg DM/ha/day by the second week of May.
As far as forage conservation is concerned, Alastair has been testing the feasibility of red clover in combination with a hybrid ryegrass for two years.
And he is extremely excited about the results achieved so far.
“Grassland generates an average yield of 13 t of DM/ha. Last year it was a clover area that was cut four times and then grazed afterwards.
“We didn’t come home with a tedder after mowing,” Alastair pointed out.
“The cut fodder was left to wither for 24 hours and then baled.
“I tried to ensure that the clover could bloom at least once, both in 2021 and again this year.
“Without a doubt, the clover will start to die off within the next year. But the possibility of using more on this farm is obvious.
“I also found that a clover and ryegrass mix is very sensitive to the addition of slurry.”
But the proof of the pudding is still in the eating.
“In the midst of last year’s drought, I had no choice but to feed the clover bales to the oxen that had been housed due to a shortage of grazed grass on the farm at that time. there,” Alastair said.
“It was rocket fuel. The cattle were fed mixed clover: grass silage plus 2kg flour per head per day.
“They managed to gain 1.2 kg of live weight per day.”
Looking ahead, Alastair is keenly aware of the rapidly rising costs affecting every agricultural business today.
He concluded: “The possibilities for more efficient use of slurry are considerable. Using red clover more is an option I want to explore in the future.
“But the main thing will always be to make the most of the grass that grows on the farm: it will always be our cheapest and most valuable asset.”