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Driving Excellence in Irish Beef Production
A passion for livestock inspired Thomas Halpin to follow his father into farming. And it’s a passion that has served the County Meath farmer well, as he’s transformed his farm by introducing efficiencies and increasing output. From improving grass management to introducing a closed herd system, Thomas shares his insights into driving efficiencies with the help of AIB Farm Finance and reflects on The Big Picture for beef farming in Ireland today.
Read on to see how Thomas makes the most of his farm.
Planning for the Future
“I took over the family farm in the mid ‘90s and was fortunate that my dad gave me the opportunity to do so. And it’s evolved since then,” Thomas explains. “Originally it was sheep and store to beef and as circumstances changed, we started developing a suckler herd here bringing all the progeny to beef.”
“We felt we needed to drive the farm on. We had a young family coming through. We had to maximise what we had,” he adds. “The idea behind it was to raise output - particularly through grass - and there was a lot of work to be done to get us into a situation to achieve that.”
As part of the transformation, Thomas took part in the Teagasc Better Farm Programme and brought in new processes. And with the farm continuing to develop, he is optimistic about the unique appeal Irish beef has to offer consumers.
“The big picture for Irish beef farming over the next few years is that I think there is a great story to be told,” he notes. “It’s a very challenging business, the beef business, there’s no doubt about it. Markets can vary and prices are a constant source of battle.”
“But I think if we produce beef as efficiently as we can and markets can provide a positive return for us, there is a future there. We produce a great product, it’s fully traceable and it’s grass based. I think there is a great selling point there. Hopefully those markets can be found to pay a premium price for a premium product.”
Expanding the Herd
Passionate about livestock since his initial introduction to farming, Thomas has focused on efficiently developing the herd over the past number of years - a process that has included the adoption of a closed herd system.
“When we started, we had approximately 60 suckler cows,” he explains. “We now have 100 on the farm. We’d hope to increase that a little bit if we can. It’s a closed herd here - by that I mean we breed our own replacements. We only use limited AI. We use stock bulls running with the herd. It’s probably slower in so far as you’re breeding from within. But we feel long-term, we have better control over the genetics.”
With three stock bulls, each offers unique traits to the herd and its development. “We use three different stock bulls,” Thomas explains. “We have a Charlie bull, predominantly for beef production. We use a Simmental bull with high maternal traits and his progeny is used for breeding. Then we use a Limousin bull for easy calving for first time heifers.”
“There is split calving here on the farm, we calve in February and March, we also calve in June and July. That increases the groups of stock on the farm but is easier to manage. We chose to have two separate calving dates from a labour point of view and from a health point of view, so we’ve not calving all at one time and we’re reducing the risk of an outbreak of disease.”
Introducing Efficient Grass Management
Along with a closed herd, Thomas has concentrated on ensuring the grass management system is as efficient as possible by introducing a paddock and roadway system to the farm.
“Grass is the most important thing to get right on the farm. It’s the cheapest most natural source of feed that we have, so we have to utilise it properly,” he says.
“We work on the basis that the cattle have 2-3 days grass ahead of them and no more. The idea is that you would grow it in three weeks and eat it in three days. 10 cm is the ideal height to let the cattle in and then the grass goes down to about 4 cm. We take the cattle out after 2-3 days and it encourages regrowth and grass will come back more quickly.”
Along with measuring the grass, ensuring that the optimum minerals are present is key to regrowth.
“The indexes of the soils and fertility levels have to be right. The pH has to be right so lime has to applied and the correct fertilisers to get the right levels of P and K. Nitrogen is the normal way of producing grass but the best results are achieved if the other elements are there as well. That’s how we increase grass growth,” Thomas adds.
A Family Enterprise
Joined by his son, Matthew, in testing out new methods of creating even more efficient ways of farming, Thomas is optimistic about the future. And with all of the family keenly involved, he describes the farm as a pleasant place to live and work.
“Decisions you make on the farm have a bearing on everyone else in the farm,” he explains. “So everything is generally chatted about around the table here - there’s usually pots of tea involved. And it is nice, particularly in the summer time. We have two teenage girls here and they both help out on the farm. It’s a good place to bring up the family and spend time.”
In Thomas’s eyes, involving the next generation in the running of the farm and planning for the future is key. “It’s important that we have young people coming into farming, like any business or any team, and that it’s driven by the young people bringing in those fresh ideas,” he says. “But you need a passion for it, first and foremost. While it’s a business, it’s also a lifestyle. I think you have to have a real interest in it.”
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