The 2009, 2010, 2011 Calf Crops

Farmers Weekly/Harper Adams Beef Focus farmer Simon Frost has just hit one of his lifetimes targets for his suckler herd with a daily carcase gain (dcg) of his bull calves of 1.00kg from birth to slaughter. The 2011 crop of calves recorded a carcase weight of 462kg at just 440 days (14.4 months) old. This daily carcase gain calculation removes 24kg from the carcase weight to account for the calf birth carcase weight. With a kill out of 59.8% (gut full) this equates to a live slaughter weight of 773kg and a daily live weight gain of 1.66kg from birth – phenomenal performance.  

The herd is independently monitored by Simon Marsh, Senior Lecturer and Beef Cattle Specialist at Harper Adams University who comments that this is the best dcg I’ve ever seen. The dcg on many of the herds I monitor and suckled bull performance that I analyse typically ranges from 0.70 to 0.80kg. So how does Simon Frost achieve this tremendous performance? By total focus on what we call the ‘Golden Triangle’ of genetics, nutrition and health.   

The suckler herd at Hopping Farm is based on small to medium sized milky Limousin x Holstein-Friesian cows which are put to top 1% terminal index Charolais bulls which have been specifically selected to have positive Calving Ease Direct EBVs with very high 400 day Growth and Eye Muscle Area EBVs. These types of bulls are termed as ‘curve-benders’ which can be found within the Charolais as well as all other terminal sire breeds.

Simon Frost sells his calves at weaning to John and Alan Dore at Glapwell near Chesterfield and they ‘really know how to manage and finish quality high genetic merit cattle’ feeding a 16% CP home mix and good quality big bale silage.        

The 2009, 2010 and 2011 calf crops

Steady progress has been made over the years with the finishing bulls. The 2009 bulls recorded a carcase weight of 438kg at 447 days old equating to a dcg of 0.94kg. The 2010 bulls recorded a carcase weight of 427kg at 415 days old equating to a dcg of 0.97kg and then finally the target of 1.00kg dcg was hit with the 2011 calf crop.

Table 1. Simon Frosts suckled bull calf finishing results compared to the EBLEX target.

EBLEX

S Frost Bulls

Targets

2010

2011

Slaughter age (months)

14.0

13.6

14.4

Slaughter wt (kg)

590

714

773

DLWG birth – slaughter (kg)

1.28

1.62

1.66

Kill out %

59.0

59.9

59.9

Carcase weight (kg)

348

427

462

DCG from birth (kg)

0.77

0.97

1.00

% E & U grades

N/A

96

96

Concentrates (kg/bull)

1,500

1,384

1,662

Silage (kg DM/bull)

N/A

412

681

FCR (kg feed DM/kg gain)

5.3:1

4.7:1

4.9:1

The 2011 calves carcase weight of 462kg may by some commentators be considered to be too heavy for a lot of retail outlets. With the rising demand for beef these heavy weight carcases are now seldom penalised, and, if it is penalised it may only be a 10p/kg deduction for any weight over 450kg. The ‘shoe is now on the other foot’ with world demand for beef increasing. Some 44% of the bulls recorded a fat class of 4L so the comment I would add is that they could easily be finished at lighter weights and still have decent fat cover.     

Simon has hosted several groups of visiting farmers this last year and some commented on visually assessing the finishing bulls that there were ‘too many R grades’. You will note from table 1 that only 4% graded R, the rest grading E’s and U’s. I suspect these comments were made by finishers with what Simon Frost would describe with ‘inny-outy’ cattle that are relatively weak on the loin and shoulders in relation to the back-end. It should be remembered that conformation classification is based on assessing a carcase in three areas, the shoulders, loin and back-end. If a beast has a decent back-end appropriate for a U+ however if the loin and shoulders are weaker and graded -U then the carcase will get an overall classification of –U. Hence disappointment by some producers with carcase grading results when visually they only look at the back-ends of cattle! 

The reason for the heavier carcase weights for this last batch of calves is simply attributed to them being ‘slower to get going’ according to Alan Dore. One thing they do not do with the bull calves on arrival after weaning is push too much home mix at them. It is all about minimising stress with the calves when they are weaned by housing them in well ventilated, well bedded straw yards with double the recommended space allowance. Top quality silage is fed ad lib and home mix is gradually built up and by 4 weeks they are on 4kg, 6kg at 6 weeks and 8kg at 8 week. The bulls start on good quality dry 11.5ME big bale grass silage but by January it is replaced with mature fibrous 2nd cut with 9.8ME which complements the high cereal feeding rate. When asked about the economics of intensive finishing Alan Dore remarks “you have to feed to the potential”. The merits of intensive cereal finishing is a question frequently asked of Simon Marsh and he is reluctant to suggest diluting down the energy density of ration of high performance stock. The main option to consider is replacing some cereal with very high quality forage. Dramatically reducing cereal feed rate will reduce dcg, delay slaughter and generally increase overall finishing costs. The bulls eat on average 6.96kg of home-mix plus 2.85kg silage DM from weaning to slaughter so you can calculate with your feed prices what it costs to put on 1kg of carcase weight per day and judge for yourself if intensive finishing is economic!  

Achieving 1.00kg dcg from birth to slaughter has been a long term target for Simon Frost. The next target is 1.02kg. The question I would ask is ‘how high can we go’? Having got the health and nutrition ‘spot on’ Simon attributes the improvement in dcg from 0.94 to 1.00kg over the last 3 years to simply ‘better bulls with higher indexes’. Simon has recently added to his bull stud with the purchase of Maerdy Grubby at Stirling in February. Grubby, a son of Blelack Digger who is by the renowned Balthayock Adonis, has a Calving Ease Direct of +11.8 (breed average = -0.9), a 400 day weight of +68kg (breed average = +42kg) and Eye Muscle Area of +7.8sq cm (breed average = +3.0). Grubby has a top 1% Terminal Index of +82 and is a true ‘curve bender’. He will throw progeny that are very easily calved with excellent growth and since the Eye Muscle Area EBV is one of the highest within the breed will produce E and U+ grade carcasses and help Simon continue with the genetic improvement in his herd.      

Heifers finishing results

The heifers being a much early maturing breed type are finished on significantly lower levels of home mix. This averages just 3.0kg per head per day of the same good quality 16% CP home-mix based on barley, oats, hi-pro soya, linseed, molasses and minerals. This year a yeast culture was fed.

Table 2. Simon Frosts 2011 born suckled heifer calf finishing results. 

S Frost Heifers

Slaughter age (months)

14.8 (450 days)

Slaughter wt (kg)

550

DLWG birth – slaughter (kg)

1.14

Kill out %

56.0

Carcase weight (kg)

308

DCG from birth (kg)

0.64

Conformation class

4% E, 60% U, 34% R, 2% O+

Fat class

38% @ 3, 58% @ 4L, 4% @ 4H

Concentrates (kg/head)

789 + 1,038kg DM silage

FCR (kg feed DM/kg gain)

6.5:1

The UK average heifer carcase weight in 2011 was 310kg @ 690 days old. Simon’s heifers finished 7.8 months younger than the UK average at similar carcase weights. It is of note that 96% were finished at fat class 3 and 4L with only 4% finished at fat class 4H, with 64% at E and U grades.

It is also worthy to note that the difference in carcase weight between the bulls and heifers was a massive 154kg. At a carcase value of £3.70/kg this is worth £570 in favour of the bulls. Based on feed costs of £215/t for home-mix and £100t/DM for good quality silage, the bulls would have feed costs of £425 per head compared to the heifers £274 i.e. £151 more for the bulls This still leaves a net margin over feed in favour of the bulls of £419! Serious consideration therefore needs to be given to the development and use of sexed male semen AI, especially in synchronisation programmes. Unfortunately it is not recommended to currently use sexed semen, which is predominantly sexed for heifers, in synchronisation programs.       

cattle lined up to feed