A choice of getting better or getting out of beef finishing faced Lisbeg Farms in 2005. The Bourns family faced the challenge head on. Darren Carthy explains how they did it.
About 200 visitors attended a farm walk last Saturday on Lisbeg Farms, operated by father and son Richard and Chris Bourns and their family in Lisbeg, Eyrecourt, Co Galway. The visit was part of a Beef Finishing Masterclass organised by EASYFIX, Alltech, Zoetis and Board Bia.
Lisbeg Farms is a 1,400 acre multi-enterprise farm split roughly into 460 acres of tillage, 640 acres of grassland and 300 acres of managed forestry. Animal enterprises include a large- scale beef finishing unit producing 1,500 cattle annually, a 1,500 mid-season lambing ewe flock and a thriving equine business with 40 show jumpers in training and about 50 exported world-wide annually. The farm employs 15 full-time staff along with occasional employment of transport and construction operators.
The farm is performing at a high level, but, according to Richard, this has come about through overcoming a range of challenges over the last 10 years. “In 2005, we were at a stage where we had to get out or get better. Our son Chris was home from New Zealand and we had to decide what we were going to do to make beef finishing work. It has been a long process and we are still not where we want to get to but we are getting there.”
The following factors were highlighted by Richard as having the most profound impact on transforming Lisbeg Farms.
He said they were feeding a lot of by products such as citrus pulp at the time. He said these looked to be cheap on the face of it, but when you factored in the lack of consistency from one load to the next, it was impossible to have a satisfactory diet, which in turn affected animal performance.
The farm gradually progressed into a tillage enterprise that works in tandem with the animal enterprises, utilising grain and recycling nutrients back on to the land. The farm is now 100% self-sufficient in the main dietary components, growing barley, wheat, oats (for the sheep flock), maize, silage, fodder beet and also incorporating straw into the finishing diet.
Much of the housing was built in the 1970s and was not suitable in terms of ventilation. An ongoing plan is in place to rectify this. In the two main cattle sheds, an outlet of 18in has been expanded to an opening of over a metre by raising the roof canopy. Side sheeting has also been removed or altered to allow more air flow. “It didn’t cost a fortune but the rewards have been huge in terms of animal health and preventing issues,” said Richard.
There was a huge lameness issue on the farm. All animals with issues are recorded and Richard says year in, year out, there were up to 10% of cattle suffering from lameness. Bulls are the main animals finished which compounded issues. Richard puts the improvement in lameness to under 1% of all animals down to introducing EASYFIX rubber slat mats into all the sheds.
In 2009, an outbreak of pneumonia led to the loss of 25 cattle and over 200 cattle requiring treatment. A strict health protocol is now in place. All cattle coming on to the farm are now double-vaccinated and receive a booster six weeks later.
A new intake shed was built to manage purchased cattle. It majors on animal comfort with straw bedding and access to clean water and fresh forage. Animals are allowed settle for 24 to 48 hours before receiving health treatments.
Richard said many troughs on the farm were approaching 25 years of age. Despite putting new concrete in some, he said they were wearing away quickly and animals were not licking them clean, which was adding to labour in cleaning them but also resulting in intake being compromised and feed being wasted.
He is in the process of installing EasyLick a plastic sheeting manufactured by EASYFIX at the bottom of feed troughs in a curved shape that ensures animals have easy access to all feed and is also maximising feed usage.
“I fought hard against the next change. I had always seen slurry as a product with little value that had to be got rid of until my son Chris bought a trailing shoe. We have not had to spread P and K on grassland for the last five years. We can spread after grazing and can be back in again (grazing) 20 days later,” Richard said.
Water management has always presented problems on the farm. Initial troughs were large concrete ones that got dirty easily. With 68 troughs on the farm, this took up a lot of time in cleaning, but, more importantly, Bourns said dirty water greatly depressed appetite and intake.
The farm changed to a smaller trough where animals had to push in a cover to drink, which works well in preventing soiling but limits water intake. The farm is now in the process of replacing these with new troughs with double valves at the bottom that allow draining and cleaning in 30 seconds while animals in the pen are being herded.
Richard put huge emphasis on the farm’s computer programme. All animals are weighed in, performance is monitored and feed costs are calculated daily. “Sometimes I don’t like what I am reading but we know on the day cattle are killed how they did, not six months later when we talk to the accountant.”
He said a vital piece of equipment is the PACE system supplied by Keenans for mixing feed in the diet feeder. Diets can be formulated or changed at any stage and this will be transferred to the computer on the tractor allowing whoever is operating it to get directions on what diet to formulate and what animals to feed it to.
One of the strongest aspects for strong animal performance is access to top genetics. “I am lucky to be surrounded by excellent suckler farmers,” said Richard. “I try to buy direct off farm as much as possible, with 60% now coming from farmers. Mart cattle look a bit cheaper the day you buy but farm-to-farm cattle are a lot quicker to get going. I can afford to give a few extra cent to local farmers who are doing such a good job. It costs about 8c/kg in marts time [time spent], weight loss and commission. I am as happy as the next man to go to the mart but if I can give 10c/kg extra (buying farm-to-farm) the farmer will be happier and it will help develop a relationship that works better for us,” Richard said.
Bourns finishes up on the importance of a young, passionate team of people. He says this cannot be stressed enough as he says the farm simply would not work without them.