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Efficient, Sustainable, Cost Competitive Beef Production is our best Strategy

Ireland is a major producer and exporter of beef with circa 900% self-sufficiency. It is inevitable that a large proportion of all cattle will be exported either live or as carcase beef. The expansion of dairying will put downward pressure on suckler cow numbers but total cow numbers may continue to grow for the next 5-10 years (depending on dairy returns).

The factors limiting dairy expansion are labour, land and capital. With low returns in tillage and beef, it is probable there will be a release of more land into dairying through conversion or lease.

There are a number of beef production systems in place with little focus on unit cost of production. An analysis of beef incomes demonstrate that without CAP supports, the majority of farmers would have negative returns but equally the most efficient operators are generating positive margins.

Future Challenges

There are major challenges ahead. The primary challenges are:

  • Efficiency (unit cost of production)
  • Sustainability (reducing the environmental impact of the production system).

Firstly, it is important to appreciate that the Brexit challenge still exists also but it is looking increasing more likely that our trading arrangements with the United Kingdom will be equal or similar to the status quo (tariff free).


There are currently major gaps in the production efficiency of cattle on different systems and standards of management. It is not untypical to find winter finishers with feed costs per kilogram of live weight gain in the range of €2.00-€2.40, whereas the best operators have a comparative cost of €1.40 / Kilogram of live weight gain. The main drivers are:

  1. Forage quality.
  2. Age, weight and quality of cattle.
  3. Poorly balanced diets.
  4. Poor management and resource management.

Efficiency can only be measured in terms of cost/kilogram of live weight gain or carcase gain rather than cost/head/day or cost per tonne of feed. Cattle will be sold in kilograms of live weight or kilograms of carcase beef.


As pressure mounts on Ireland to reduce our GHG impact from Agriculture, there are a number of aspects of the beef industry that will need attention. These include;

  1. Reducing the age at slaughter, currently running at circa 28 - 30 months. The average age of Dairy cross beef cattle was 29 months last year which means there is a substantial proportion over 30 months. Poor lifetime performance is partly responsible as well as trying to accumulate low cost live weight gain from grass.
  2. Due to the lack of intensity a very high proportion of overall intake is utilised for maintenance rather than live weight gain.
  3. Two rather than 3 year old calving will be essential in the suckler beef industry.
  4. A big reduction in the calving interval of the beef herd is required.

Some comparisons of efficiency with intensive finishing:

Breed Live weight DLWG (Cost/Kg) Feed DMI Kgs/Day Typical finishing period FCE Carcass Kgs
Continental Female480 - 5901.56 (€1.49)11.47 (71 days)7.35330
HEX & AAX Female480 - 5901.25 (€1.74)10.43 (88 days)8.34300
Continental Female550 - 7001.52 (€1.61)12.63 (99 days)8.31390
Friesian Steer550 - 7001.30 (€1.83)12.11 (115 days)9.32330
Friesian Bull500 - 6501.46 (€1.64)12.29 (103 days)8.36330
Continental Bull U=550 - 7001.92 (€1.29)12.95 (78 days)6.75400

Lower FCE (feed conversion efficiency) figures will also be reflected in lower Green House Gas Emissions.

Key Points on Finishing

Regardless of the cattle type being finished meeting market requirements is critical to obtaining the best price when slaughtering. It is not just about meeting the requirements of the various quality schemes. Conformation and appropriate fat cover are critically important to certain markets. Retail markets are the most discerning. Familiarise yourself with exactly what your processor will be looking for. It takes 4 times more energy to put a kilogram fat compared with lean muscle. Whilst there are substantial breed and gender variations, in general at condition score 2 the fat content of a kilogram of live weight gain will 10-20% but at condition score 4 it will be almost 4 times that. Therefore as you increase the fat cover, live weight gain slows down. Some feeds (especially those high in fat) contribute directly to fat deposition but growth stage, breed and gender are major drivers with well-shaped bulls (E &U grade continentals) the most challenging, especially at young slaughter age.

Dietary Balance

Based on many farm visits, the main factors limiting performance were:

  • Forage quality. See notes below.
  • Excess starch & sugar (cereals & beet crops), resulting in sub-clinical and clinical acidosis.
  • Protein deficiency (mainly where there are ample home grown starch & sugar sources such as grain & beet products). Energy must be balanced with protein to get efficient use of it.
  • Effective and digestible fibre (diets with high cereal & root content need long fibre).
  • Clean water access and availability (nose bowls are inadequate especially when shared between pens). Cattle need 5-6 litres of water per kilogram of concentrate consumed.
  • Animal health (metabolic issues as well as pathogenic challenges)
  • Comfort (including stock density).
  • Management of feeding (introduction, transition & change).

The impact of forage quality (Source: Teagasc Grange)

Silage Digestibility - What difference does it make?
Harvest DateMay 20thJune 2ndJune 15thJune 30th
Silage DMI Kg/DMI9.
Animal Gain Kgs/Day

First Published 11 January 2018

Tagged with: Beef


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