January 2014

January 13, 2014 Gearing up for VIA: the rearer finisher’s take

Focus on Eye Muscle Area and Retail Beef Yield EBV selection 

David Aglen

David Aglen

VIA (Video Image Analysis) is an automated method of objectively assessing visual carcase conformation and fat classes to comply with EU regulations on carcase classification. The new technology removes the subjectivity which allegedly accompanies the current manual grading system, between lines and between slaughter houses. What’s more VIA is able to improve the precision and accuracy of saleable meat yield, even for specific carcase joints.  

VIA has already been officially introduced to slaughter houses in Ireland, both the north and south.  The mechanism has also been installed for trial purposes in Scottish plants. It’s a question of time when VIA will be introduced on a commercial basis throughout Great Britain, and whether or not an accompanying new pricing system will be introduced.

Commercial producers are already starting to gear up for VIA to replace manual grading in Scotland. Balbirnie Home Farm’s David Aglen says: “By the time the new technology is officially introduced, I want a shed of animals ready finished that will be able to exploit the system. VIA is a definitive measurement of the higher value muscle, so we’re already changing our selection procedure and sifting out Charolais bulls we introduce to our suckler herd which are specifically within the breed’s top 10% for Eye Muscle Area and Retail Beef Yield EBVs.

“Processors have already indicated that they’re looking for carcases with more eye muscle and overall retail meat yield which in turn have a higher retail value, consequently we trust that they will eventually be prepared to pay dividends for these higher quality animals. Going forward, I believe that all of us beef producers will have to consider changing our selection criteria. I like to think that the days of going for big showy bulls are numbered.”

David is farms manager to Balbirnie’s 3,000 acre in hand mixed unit based at Freuchie, Fife. The unit carries a 230 cow suckler herd with all progeny taken through to finishing. Since taking up the position three years ago, David says he’s been turning the enterprise in to profit by maximising output per cow. “Together with cattleman David Douglas, I’ve introduced a new management strategy within a sustainable system. We’re attempting to produce better quality cattle at lower cost. That strategy includes developing a closed herd with sires selected for carcase quality as well as maternal traits.”

One element which remains is Charolais as the herd’s terminal sire, “The breed has already been tried and tested here for more than 20 years, and I personally believe that nothing can match Charolais cross cattle in terms of weight for age. Steers are finishing at an average 340kg deadweight in 14 months with similar trends being achieved among the unit’s same age heifers at 325kg deadweight. Furthermore, whilst David says he is dependent on the herd’s terminal sire to introduce better carcase traits, already 85% of Balbirnie’s Charolais sired calves are finishing to R4L target specification.

“While that performance is satisfactory, we’re bringing a new focus to Charolais. Our previous selection criteria was based on a bull within the breed’s top 35% for performance traits combined with Calving Ease Direct EBVs and that has achieved our targetted level of performance. Nowadays, bulls within the breed’s top 10% for Eye Muscle Area and Retail Beef Yield EBVs are top of our catalogue pick list, followed by calving ease and growth. When we arrive at a sale we go for visual appraisal and locomotion.

“So far progeny from one of these high genetic merit bulls are delivering: 14 month old steers are finishing at 355kg deadweight and 15 month old heifers 336kg with both grading within the –U, 3, 4L bracket.”

To the future, and David is currently expanding the suckler herd to 300 cows. “The plan will fit with labour and land availability, and quite simply, our cattle make money. Balbirnie is all about making more from our own available resources, efficiently.”

Bull finishing trialBalbirnie Home Farms has commenced its own finishing   trial to determine the performance efficincy and subsequent profitability of   bulls v steers. For the first time ever, a portion of the crop of male calves   have been left entire and their performance is being compared same age   steers.


The target is for the bulls to reach an average 380kg   to 400kg deadweight within 14 months. See table 1.


Six month old bulls weighed an average 360kg at weaning   and housing when they were wormed, vaccinated against pneumonia and introced   to a 16% CP homegrown barley grass silage mix. Three months later plans are   feed the diet ad lib for management reasons. Eventually the silage will be   removed and replaced with straw.


Weighing is being carried out on a six week basis, or   more frequently if necessary, says David. “We’re great believers in   measuring and monitoring to find out if our cattle are performing to target.   It’s easy to be disillusioned over what’s doing well and what isn’t.”   Weighing will be gradually stepped up to fortnightly in the final three   months of finishing.


Table 1: Balbirnie Charolais cross finishing   performance


Bulls     (Target)

Steers     (Actual)

6 months weaning (kg)



12 months (kg)


580     to 620

14 months (kg dwt)

380     – 400


Source: Balbirnie Home Farms


He adds: “The trial’s outcome will have a major   influence on helping to shape the future of Balbirnie’s beef enterprise.”








January 7, 2014 Charolais crosses reap enhanced finisher margins

HAU student placement study

Drew Patrick

Drew Patrick

Charolais sired steers reached 400kgs target deadweight one month earlier than other Continental crosses on a specialist finishing unit and thereby achieved a £54 a head profit margin over all others, according to findings from a large scale study. Furthermore, the trends persisted among the Charolais cross heifers which consistently finished to 365kg target deadweight 12 days faster than the remainder.

Those findings concluded a 12 month placement report by Harper Adams University BSc Hons Ag student, Drew Patrick on James Burnett’s Newark based finishing unit with 6,500 head annual turnover. Of that total, approximately 40% were Charolais crosses.

The study which was designed to investigate how the unit could improve its efficiency, took in 1,000 Continental cattle bought in the store ring throughout England and Wales at an average 450kg liveweight and introduced to a TMR diet including vegetable waste, brewer’s grains, pot ale syrup, forage maize and straw. Average time to finishing was 110 days.

Drew explains: “The Charolais cross steers were ready for slaughter at an average 395kg deadweight, 27 days sooner than any of the other cattle in the shed, demonstrating that they have greater genetic potential to grow faster on the same finishing diet and within the same system, and thereby reduce the number of days to slaughter.

“The one month differential has the potential for huge impact on a large unit like the Burnett’s. In fact, if this unit swapped all its Continental cattle for Charolais crosses, then it could improve profits by over £150,000 per annum, a figure that confirms faster growth rates and accompanying feed efficiency can reduce both variable and fixed costs. In addition, finishing Charolais crosses provides the opportunity to increase cattle turnover and subsequent cash turnover.”