January 2016

January 14, 2016 Maximising output on a low input system

Charolais’ ease of calving and superior growth rates are enabling Edward Hull’s 750 cow suckler beef enterprise to minimise both fixed and variable inputs, whilst maximising kilogram output per acre. Indeed, he has found the Charolais performance so dependable that his five year plan features expanding the herd to 1,000 cows, and all put to poll Charolais.

Edward Hull

Edward Hull

Edward and his wife Ann, who farm in partnership with his parents in rural Essex, are third generation farmers and have expanded the farm to 6,000 acres and using poll Charolais for eight years after buying one with a batch of cows and being impressed by his progeny. He said: “Performance is measured by realising maximum output per acre from minimal inputs, which is essential on such an extensive system. The market pay cheque from repeat buyers at Rugby and Thame markets, who know our Charolais cross calves respond to low input practices and perform very well on all systems, is one of the most important indicators of our profitability.”

The herd is averaging 95% calves reared from birth with the 2015 crop of six to eight month old Charolais cross steers delivering an average of £800 – consistently within the top 5% of the day’s trade, whilst the majority of heifers have been kept to finish next year. “We are fortunate that on such an extensive system we have the grassland to be able to keep stock until the price is right, and that includes finishing some of the heifers. In 2015 heifers were slaughtered at 14 to 19 months weighing 300kg to 360kg, with 92% grading R and U and returning £1,000 to £1,200 per head.

“Every part of the enterprise has to pay its own way; we don’t rely on the arable side to support the beef, or the sheep, or vice versa, and each part of the business is regularly checked for cost of production vs profitability. That’s why Charolais genetics of exceptional growth for age and ease of calving are so important to us. The latest crop of calves saw the steers DLWG to weaning 1.48kg and 1.35kg to slaughter on the heifers.” All arable crops are sold and do not subsidise the beef or sheep enterprises, whilst 1,000 acres of straw is evenly split between export to Holland and used in the cattle enterprise.

       Hull Farms, Turncole Farm, Southminster, Essex

·        750 cows and 200 heifers

·        26 bulls

·        Over 1,200 head of cattle at any time

·        6,000 acre mixed farm – 5,000 grazing and 1,000 arable

·        All grassland within HLS scheme

·        75% of land designated Site of Special Scientific Interest

·        2,000 breeding ewes for finished lamb production

·        Six full time staff including Edward and his father

“We can’t afford to have poor performance, at birth the poll Charolais always deliver sensibly sized calves that more often than not we find up and suckling with no intervention at birth; it’s one aspect that enables us to keep labour inputs low at three full time men at calving. All cows are freeze marked so that we can quickly identify cows for easy management, enabling us to keep up to date computer records, particularly at calving. Any underperforming cows are easily identified and finished and slaughtered locally.

“The entire herd of cows and heifers, predominantly Hereford cross, is calved at the main farm and turned away to grazing as soon as possible, normally stocking at one cow/ha. Furthermore, we’re in a very dry part of the country with 19 inches of rain a year, with the easy calving traits of the Charolais we are able to take advantage of this with up to 75% of cows calving out at grass, which is great for minimising inputs as well as being healthier for the cattle.

“Very little of the grassland receives fertilizer as we like to keep inputs to a minimum but this also has the added benefit of the increased growth of naturally occurring legumes which in turn benefit the cattle and sheep performance.”

Hull Farms relies upon the careful selection of poll Charolais bulls for its profitability. Edward explained: “When it comes to replacing one of our 26 bulls we look to EBVs as an essential guide to future performance, selecting bulls within the top 10% for 200 and 400 day weights, as well as all important calving ease. However, I still have to like the look of a bull.” He continued: “As well as the Hereford cross cows which we find to be very docile, we also favour Charolais bulls for their temperament. With our numbers we can’t afford for any animal to so much as look at me the wrong way.” Each bull is fertility tested every spring.

Dam condition and health is recognised as an equally important part of the low input, maximum output system. “We target condition score 3 to 3.5 at bulling and 2.5 by calving.” Spring 2016 will see 75% of the spring calving block due to calve within the first four weeks of the 10 week period. Edward continued: “We split the herd into sub-groups of 60 or 90 cows with calves at foot, with one bull per 30 cows to maximise fertility.” A further 100 cows calve in an eight week autumn calving period.

Heifers are bulled at 18 to 24 months and then wintered outside on hay and straw, as we have so many cows on the farm we currently have a policy of culling cows over 10 years old. Cows are housed in open roofed corrals, bedded on woodchip and chopped straw, and fed 15kg/day/head of chopped straw, citrus pulp, molasses and meal. Approximately 200 replacement Hereford cross heifers are sourced each year and reared as bucket calves. “We pay particular attention to health and vaccinate them against pneumonia and keeping them in small batches so we can isolate and treat any health issues effectively.”

Weaned Charolais cross suckled calves are marketed through markets in the midlands, and transported weekly in batches of 75 throughout September and October in the farm’s own lorry. “It makes sense for us to take our cattle to the Midlands, where the buyers are, and transporting them ourselves means we can manage travel costs and also reduce stress.”

To further reduce stress and maximise growth at weaning Edward also feeds 2kg/day of a blended mix creep feed, 13ME kg/DM and 17% crude protein, in the last six weeks before sale.

Confidence in Charolais genetics and the future of the beef sector are integral to the enterprise’s growth, Edward explains: “We would love to have a farm business that our sons and daughter could be involved in 15 years’ time, if they wanted to, and we are not scared of change or challenges, embracing new ideas and technology including EID in the near future.

“In the meantime, our grazing land enables us to farm competitively and keep costs low, and as conservation grazing becomes increasingly available we can step up our acreage and further expand cow numbers by up to 33%, solely put to Charolais sires. This will mean we can offer a higher volume of uniform calves and achieve greater economies of scale without excessive labour or feed requirements due to the Charolais sires’ ease of calving and fast growing traits.”

Winter houses cows

Winter houses cows

Some of the bull team

Some of the bull team


January 13, 2016 Managine Charolais crosses to meet the new abattoir spec

Processors’ failure to notify producers in advance of the changes to their new 400kg to 420kg upper weight limit has left finishers in a quandary, particularly those who have bought in heavy stores. However, they have huge scope to avoid the penalties and to compensate for the potential output loss arising from lighter steer carcasses by adopting new management and feed strategies and focussing on improving the heifer output, says Harbro’s David MacKenzie.


The Watson Family

Continental sires, and in particular Charolais noted for its weight for age, have an important role to play in efficient beef production; they are able to finish to heavier weights in a shorter period of time and thereby demonstrate improved efficiency. Consequently, now is the time to be increasing output if farmers wish to maintain a profitable and sustainable system.

Data from 96,000 cattle slaughtered in 2014 highlights the crux of the current issue – that Continental sires are associated with improved output, both from steers and heifers. See table 1. Finishers’ immediate challenge is to manage these Continental cross progeny to fit market specifications.

Table 1: Comparison of finished Continental v native sired steers and heifers

table 1_001
Source: Harbro Q Box

To successfully meet the challenge, finishers should consider the following blueprint strategy focused on

1, Management: rethink your current strategy to achieve the new specification – plan from birth

2, Nutrition: split steers and heifers from the creep stage and feed specific gender formulated diets through to finishing. Work closely with your nutritionist.

3, Measure and monitor: weigh the total group of animals at regular intervals; benchmark both within and outwith the herd.

4, Health: introduce a herd health management plan.

5, Assess individual animal health by monitoring slaughter house health reports.

Continental cross steers: reduce the store / growing stage. Higher energy diets introduced earlier will reduce the frame size whilst a balanced diet will provide adequate fat cover at optimal weight. Benchmark target weights per age and stage towards the end goal.

Target: 390kgs deadweight, 705kgs liveweight by 610 days; aim for 1.1kgs DLG or better from birth.

Continental cross heifers: one of the greatest inefficiencies within the UK beef industry is our sub-optimal output from heifers, and any move away from Continental sires threatens to exacerbate this trend. There are real opportunities here for producers to improve heifer output by using Charolais genetics.

Quality protein is key through the first year of life starting at 18% CP and keeping that CP level at an average 2% higher than the steers throughout the finisher period; do not introduce the same high energy and starch levels formulated for feeding to the steers. Your aim is to encourage heifer frame size without laying down excess fat.

Target: 360kgs deadweight 650kgs liveweight by 550 days; aim for 1.1kgs DLG or better from birth.


16Darnford 2

14 Month old Charolais cross Salers Steers

16Darnford 3

14 month old Charolais cross Salers heifers

Case study

The Watson family of Darnford, Durris, Banchory have proved that introducing fast finishing Charolais cross steers and heifers in to a planned management and nutrition strategy is resulting in adequate finish and an average 380kg deadweight within 20 months. Their success contributed towards them last month being awarded the Scotch Beef Farm of the Year 2015.


Peter Watson farming with sons, David and Adam and daughters-in-law, Aynsley and Lynne

426 cow Salers closed suckler herd, split calving

274 spring calving cows put to Charolais, all progeny finished

152 autumn calving cows bred pure for replacement purposes

1,350 acre tenanted unit, including 700 acres spring barley

Majority of unit within SDA

“Achieving an average 380kg deadweight is not new for us,” says Peter Watson. “Our objective has always been to maximise the number of kilos produced per cow and to realise that weight gain as early as possible. The quicker these beasts finish, the quicker they’re off the farm.

“Darnford is an extensive unit providing for three families, the complementary arable and livestock enterprises are run as separate, efficient businesses and as far as the herd is concerned, then each suckler cow has to justify her existence. Everything has to work and make money. We produce high quality finished cattle sold deadweight whilst we trade the pick of the crop through the Thainstone store ring and they invariably end up within the day’s top 10% of prices.

“We have in the herd the genetics to achieve that fast weight gain, and Charolais is the breed to do the job, however from our experience, we are aware that it’s the nutrition and management that really makes the difference. In fact, fast weight gain is essential whatever the system and it can be adjusted to suit the new grid.”

Table 2. Darnford herd performance 2014/15

table 2_001
Source: Darnford

The Darnford system: key features


Charolais has been the preferred terminal sire for 25 years. Bulls are selected initially on visual appraisal for feet and mobility, and then from the breed’s top 10% and in particular for weight EBVs.

A Continental cross herd has recently been replaced by Salers. Heifer replacements are selected for size, feet, temperament and maternal qualities.


A 12 week calving period is maintained in the spring calving herd, and over nine weeks in autumn, to help simplify management.

Steers and heifers are separated at eight month weaning enabling a tailored nutrition programme which takes in to account their very different requirements.

All animals are allowed to grow to achieve adequate frame size before being intensively finished.

David Mackenzie

David Mackenzie


Diets are all home mixed using the same basic ingredients – homegrown forage and cereals combined with cost effective bought in by-products. The key is formulating diets specific to age, weight and gender, consequently they offer flexibility to vary starch and protein levels at key stages of development. See Table 3. The unit’s nutritionist, Harbro’s David MacKenzie offers the following pointers.

Calves: low-starch creep feed to avoid early fat deposition.
Yearlings: reasonably high protein diet, 15% to 17% CP, with limited starch, to encourage lean growth and frame development.
Cattle are turned out for a limited three month grazing period and set stocked, followed by housing in early August. They are introduced to full finishing rations after they reach 500kg liveweight.
Steers: low protein, high starch finisher.
Heifers: higher protein, lower starch finisher
Both steer and heifer diets are formulated with limited forage and balanced with cereal and dark grains in order to achieve the correct fat cover and meat yield.
Table 3: Darnford herd diets

table 3_001
Source:  Darnford/Harbro

Measuring and monitoring

All cattle are weighed and benchmarked – at birth, at eight month weaning and thereafter at six weekly intervals until reaching target finishing weight. “If you don’t measure, you can’t monitor and if necessary, fix an issue,” says Peter.

“We have a new handling system within the main accommodation and an accompanying hand held EID reader enabling us to weigh an average 80 beasts per hour. It’s a job that’s frequently linked to something else, for example vaccination.

“We rate weighing a great management tool and time well spent. Whilst good stockmen have a fair idea of how the beasts are performing, sometimes you get a surprise. For example last autumn we found a batch were failing to meet our target 1.6kg/day liveweight so we wormed them and tweaked the diet. We reckon we caught the issue two months earlier than we would have visually done.”


The closed herd is a member of the SRUC Premium Cattle Health Scheme and its own herd health plan is reviewed annually with the farm vet.

Peter Watson adds: “We believe we have a successful blueprint – we have a finely tuned system in which Charolais is demonstrating its ability to produce excellent carcass weights within specification in both steers and heifers, however there’s always room for further progress. We are considering introducing creep from day one in order to optimise FCE, whilst we can certainly improve our grassland management.”

16Darnford 5 bulls

16Darnford 4 bull team

The Charolais Bulls


January 13, 2016 Charolais crosses achieve better performance and higher financial returns over Continental crosses

Bulls finish one month earlier, £45/head feed cost savings

Heifers finish almost three months earlier, £120/head feed costs savings 


Tom Davies and stockman, Phil Price



Will, Carol, Tom and Julie Davies, Upper Court Farm, Clifford, Hay on Wye

Stockman, Phil Price

220 cow split calving suckler herd

1,300 acre mixed unit


 Making a simple change of terminal sire and introducing Charolais is making a significant contribution towards improving output from a portion of the Davies family’s suckler herd.

Charolais cross bulls compared with the unit’s other Continental cross bulls finished one month earlier making feed cost savings of £45 a head; they weighing an average 8% heavier consequently their sale value was £110 a head higher.

The Charolais cross heifers achieved target finishing weights 2.76 months earlier than the remainder and subsequently achieved feed cost savings of approximately £120 a head. These heifers also killed out in a higher specification.

The bulls were group housed and fed the same diet – see figure 2, similarly the crop of heifers was run as one group.

“Our objective is to maximise output per cow and produce the best possible finished animal in the easiest to manage system,” Phil explains. “We thought we could push the herd a bit more and aware of Charolais and its ability to leave animals with better weight for age, in 2012 we decided to invest in a bull. He was fresh blood and we thought he would suit our Continental cross cows – those we didn’t need for breeding replacements.

“This bull soon proved his worth, so the following year we secured a second Charolais bull. Both were selected for shape, they were not too heavily boned and most importantly they hadn’t been stuffed, they were naturally reared.”

Beef rearing and finishing is complementary to Upper Court’s arable enterprise. “We have a certain amount of land which we cannot use for anything but grazing, we are not fans of sheep, the beef muck is complimentary and we are prepared to take the volatile beef market in our stride,” Tom explains. “We are resigned to living with TB, consequently we run a closed herd and finish the entire crop of calves. We achieve a huge degree of self-sufficiency using home grown cereals, forage and straw.

“We are focused on getting the most out of each animal, and are also keen to implement the latest tools, information and advice along with better genetics, nutrition and management. For example, we are improving our grazing by introducing a reseeding programme with modern varieties in a seven to 10 year rotation.”

The Davies introduced independent nutritionist, David Hendy to formulate new diets which have helped to considerably step up performance – a home mix creep fed to the spring born calves from 16 weeks of age through to housing in early November; a bull finishing diet and a third diet fed in the final 10 to 12 weeks of finishing to the heifers.

Figure 1: Upper Court Farm herd diets

  DM % ME/kgDM CP%/kgDM FCR Main diet components
Creep 85.30 12.50 16% 3.75:1 Rolled barley, whole oats, wheat distillers dark grains
Bull finishing diet  



12.85 14% 6.5:1 Rolled barley and wheat, biscuit meal, chopped straw, molasses and protein
Heifer finishing diet 53.7 12.30 12.5% 7.9:1 Maize and grass silage TMR with cereals, biscuit meal and wheat distillers dark grains

Source: David Hendy, independent beef and sheep nutritionist

 15UpperCourt 1

Figure 2: Upper Court Farm Feed costs based on current feed prices:

  DM % Cost/tonne



Dry Matter

Cost/head/day Cost/kg gain L-Wt gain /head/day
Creep Feed 85.30 £121.4 £142.7
Bull finishing diet  



£124.6 £146.5 £1.45 £0.79 1.85kg
Heifer finishing diet 53.7 £64.5 £119.4 £1.43 £0.96 1.5kg

Source: David Hendy, independent beef and sheep nutritionist

Mr Hendy explains the critical point with the calf creep and bull beef cereal mixes is to maximise digestible fibre levels whilst capitalizing on performance and intake and therefore feed conversion ratio, (FCR). Optimum daily intake and the very positive FCRs have been ensured by Neutral Detergent Fibre (NDF) being as close or over 20% and including high fibre feeds such as whole oats in the calf mix and an appropriate balance of barley and wheat in the bull mix, and with up to 5% inclusion of molasses.

Tom says: “We believe in growing the calves as fast as we can pre weaning because that’s when their feed conversion is at its best – it’s the cheapest time to feed them. That’s why the creep diet is really important.

“Following on, we were struggling to get the bulls to target weight and with enough cover within 16 months whilst feeding a traditional forage based TMR, whereas nowadays, since introducing a cereal based diet formulated to specific specification, they are finishing to target weight at 14 months. The new regime is proving to be much more cost effective. We’re also tweaking the diet to ensure the bulls finish within ABP’s maximum 420kg deadweight to avoid penalties. 

“The heifers continue to be housed throughout the finishing period; feeding a homegrown forage TMR is proving to be the most cost effective and efficient.”

Tom adds: “We will shortly be introducing a crush with weigh scales which together with EID will provide us with an opportunity to regularly record each animal, identify any slack in the system and fine tune accordingly.”