Why Charolais Article 10

Suckler cow replacement strategy This is the tenth of a series of 12 articles on Simon Frost’s suckler herd at Youlgreave in Derbyshire. Simon achieves top 1% performance with his upland herd of 125 Limousin x Holstein-Friesian cows put to ‘curve bender’ high index Charolais bulls which is the basis of the Farmers Weekly/Harper Adams Beef Focus Farm concept. This article focuses on suckler cow replacement strategy.

Choice of cow breed This is always a contentious issue amongst suckled calf producers who all tend to favour a particular breed type. However a ‘case can be presented’ to support most breed types in the various environments across the UK. Simon Frost’s choice of breed of cow is the Limousin cross Holstein-Friesian. The reason for this choice is the combination of conformation and light bone from the Limousin, with growth and excellent milk supply from the Holstein-Friesian vital for high calf DLWGs. This then complements the choice of terminal sire which are top 1-5% Terminal Index Charolais curve bender bulls i.e. easy calving with high growth rates, which deliver calves with frame, growth and muscle. This is a classic breed combination being ‘three-way cross’ using a terminal sire such as the Charolais put onto a cross-bred cow which maximises hybrid vigour. Another advantage for choosing the Limousin x Holstein-Friesian suckler cow is that they are readily available due to the popularity of the Limousin as a beef sire in the dairy herd.

Compared to pure breeding the three-way cross has a 23.3% performance advantage. When curve bender bulls are used this performance advantage is increased to 26.5%. The relative improvements in performance of the various cross breeding strategies are outlined in table 1. Cross breeding results in hybrid vigour which particularly improves traits with low heritability’s such as fertility, health and longevity.

Table 1. Relative weight of calf weaned per cow exposed to the bull with various mating strategies.

Breeding Programme Relative weight of weaned calf
Pure bred 100.0
Two breed rotation 115.5
Three breed rotation 120.0
Four breed rotation 121.7
Four breed composite 117.5
Half bred dam + Terminal sire 123.3
Half bred dam + Curve bender Terminal sire 126.5

To explain the benefits of hybrid vigour to students at Harper Adams I use the analogy with dogs which some of them are familiar with. There are numerous pedigree breeds of dogs with health issues, for example Alsatians with hip problems, blindness in Dalmatians and breathing problems with Bulldogs to name a few and so pedigree dogs are consequentially frequent visitors to the vets. Why has this happened? Because pedigree breeders often use ‘line breeding’ – which is basically ‘in-breeding’, to stamp a type or trait on the breed. When I ask students who own mongrel dogs if they ever take them to the vets – the answer is usually never! This is due to the benefits of hybrid vigour!

Simon Frost has minimal concerns about the Holstein-Friesian influence in the cow. The last crop of bull calves recorded DLWG’s of 1.63kg per day from birth to weaning with only 90kg of creep feed which could not be achieved without milky cows. “You cannot get DLWG’s of 1.63kg on fresh air”!

The cows aren’t big and hence costly to maintain. Last year they weighed 595kg at weaning so with the calves recording a 200 day weight of 336kg this equates to a cow efficiency factor of 56.5%. The target is to achieve a calf 200 day weight that is 50% of the cow weight and this is the first time I have seen it achieved in a suckler herd. The replacement rate in Simon Frost’s herd is only 17.6% compared to the UK average of 21.7%. However, low replacement rates are not one of today’s targets with the sky high prices being achieved for culls when a bulling heifer can be purchased for similar money to a good fit cull cow grading O+4L.

A common criticism from suckler producers (and readers of the articles who have seen the pictures of Simon Frost’s cows) is the poor conformation of the cows due to the dairy breeding. A lot suckler producers would regard Simon’s cows as ‘plain middle of the road’ cows and many wouldn’t keep them due to their poor conformation. I agree that the cows when sold fat would only grade O+ yet the statistic that 29% of Simon Frosts bull calves produced E grade carcasses with 68% grading U totally dismisses this criticism! A key factor in achieving these conformation grades is using Charolais bulls with a high Eye Muscle Area EBV in the top 1% for the breed. The Eye Muscle Area breed average for the Charolais is +2.9sqcm and all of Simon Frost’s bulls have an EBV of between +5.0-6.0sqcm.

Factors influencing choice of cow breed In the 1960s/70s the British Friesian was the predominant breed in the dairy herd and supplied beef crosses from the Angus, Hereford and Limousin as a major source of replacements for the UK suckler herd. The unfortunate change to the Holstein in the 1980s saw many suckler producers move to breeding their own replacements, especially in the North of England and Scotland. Another reason why suckler producers have turned to breeding their own replacements is improved herd biosecurity.

One of the problems with choosing beef x dairy bred suckler cows is the typical approach by dairy farmers to buying beef bulls for use in natural service. Their priority when buying a beef bull is as follows; easy calving, good locomotion, not too big, quiet temperament and cheap i.e. kill price plus £50. This inevitably means that 3rd rate scrub (low Index) bulls are often used on dairy farms which doesn’t helped the cause of that breed or the use of the heifer calves subsequently produced by that bull that might become suckler cows.

Recent figures from BCMS however show that the 40% of the national suckler herd contains dairy breeding so the beef x dairy bred cow is still plays a major role in UK suckled calf production. The current trend in the dairy industry to move away from extreme Holstein breeding to ‘easier care better balanced’ cows with longevity that can hold body condition is good news as far as the beef industry is concerned. The ‘Holstein’ has been the curse of the beef industry. The dairy industry at last appears to have ‘seen the light’ and is moving back towards Friesian type breeding!

Simon Frost’s herd replacements come from a local dairy herd that does not have ‘extreme Holstein breeding’ and has a high health status. The Limousin bull used is a high index bull which has been selected for the purpose of breeding good quality suckler replacements by the dairy farmer. The bull used to breed suckler replacements must have a positive Caving Ease Maternal EBV to help ensure that the daughters calve easily. Choosing a bull with high 200 Day Milk EBV is less critical in this situation since the milk comes from the Holstein-Friesian breeding. What Simon looks for in a bulling heifer is good width between the pin bones, not too extreme conformation, not excessively leggy but with good locomotion and not too narrow. Simon is able to select 22 heifers from a bunch of 35 and buying from one farm minimises disease challenge.

Simon Frost buys his replacements as bulling heifers at 18-24 months old. This is considered a more appropriate and also much cheaper option compared to buying a new calved heifers since he can decide which bull he uses on the heifer – i.e. an easy calving Charolais with positive Calving Ease Direct EBVs with high (above 50%) accuracy. The heifers can be summered cheaply on rough ground which cannot be grazed by cows with calves at foot and wintering is relatively low cost on restricted silage and straw.

Breeding your own replacements This sounds simple but it can be quite complex. The main advantages are well recognised in the improvement in herd bio-security and move away from the Holstein’s perceived influence of poor fertility, longevity and conformation. However suckler producers who have changed to breeding their own replacements can find issues with cows lacking milk, increase in cow size, issues with temperament since suckled heifer calves have less human contact compared to bucket reared diary-bred calves, requirement to calve at 2 years old with a Spring block calving herd, and also the need to subsequently prevent father from serving his daughters, especially with small herds! To ensure a herd sources all its own replacements which has a cull rate of 20% then some 54% of the cows need to be put to the maternal breed. This can have an impact of the sale of weaned/finished calves with the male calves having lower sale values than a true terminal sire which needs to be compensated for by improved values for the heifer for breeding. Some popular maternal breeds to produce herd replacements are the Simmental, Stabiliser, South Devon and Saler. The bull chosen to breed replacements must have top 20% EBVs for Calving Ease Daughters, Milk 200 Day weights, Scrotal Circumference (an indication of fertility) and Mature Cow Weight with low values being preferred for the latter.

In September the European Beef Researcher Group held their bi-annual conference at Harper Adams which included a visit to Simon Frost. The topic of suckler replacement strategy was discussed and delegates outlined their systems.

SAC SAC beef specialist Jimmy Hyslop reported that the suckler herd at The Bush Estate in Edinburgh is based on a 2 breed rotation with the Angus and Limousin. The cows genetics are therefore either 2/3rd Limousin and 1/3rd Angus or vice versa. This is a combination of native and continental genetics each with their well known breed specific traits. Cow weights are now approaching 700kg in the herd and there has to be particular focus on using bulls with high 200 Day Milk EBVs. Other popular 2 breed rotation combinations that knit together well are the Angus with the South Devon, Saler with the Hereford and common north of the border are the Simmental with the Angus and Luing with the Simmental, the latter being especially suited for upland units. All these combinations marry a native with a continental breed.

Greenmount College Steven Johnstone and Norman Weatherup’s approach at Greenmount College to suckler cow breeding policy is to run a 3 breed rotation on their Glenwherry Hill Farm’s 100 cow herd using a mix of Angus, Shorthorn and Limousin genetics to synthetically reproduce a ‘West of Ireland’ type cow. Their objective is to produce a moderate sized (550kg) easily fleshed cows with hybrid vigour. This herd will be used to supply heifers to a newly established suckler herd at their lowland unit (Abbey Farm) which will be commercially run with Charolais terminal sires. This is excellent integration with the hill herd supplying cows for a lowland herd similar to the stratified approach commonly used many years ago with hill Galloway herds put to Whitebred Shorthorn bulls to produce Blue Greys’ for upland and lowland farms.

The Beef Improvement Group The Beef Improvement Group headed by Richard Fuller is the organization behind the importation and establishment of the Stabiliser breed. This is a 4 breed composite consisting of the Red Angus, Hereford, Simmental and Gelbvieh developed in the USA. The Stabilizer was selected for the maternal traits of milking ability, calving ease, calving interval and early puberty. With the genotype selection for a medium sized cow which has low maintenance, high output, longevity and hybrid vigour. The Stabiliser is again a 50:50 blend of native and continental breeds and is currently in the process of multiplying up. Most herds are currently breeding pure to sell replacement heifers but it should eventually reach a point when the Stabiliser breed reach critical mass to be put to high growth rate terminal sires.

Hillsborough (AFBI) Francis Lively from Hillsborough is in the process of establishing two herds based on the Stabiliser or Limousin x Holstein-Friesian cow put to Charolais bulls which will eventually produce some excellent breed comparison performance data.

Conclusions As can be seen there are numerous strategies to produce herd replacements. The approach adopted by Simon Frost is relatively simple and is based on a small-medium sized milky cow that has hybrid vigour. It does however depend on a link with the dairy industry to get the dairy farm to use the right type of bull to produce the suckler cow he requires which needs ‘joined up thinking and co-operation’ for the benefit of both parties.

Suckler cow replacement summary:

• Small-medium sized cows with hybrid vigour

• Plenty of milk to maximise calf growth rates

• Three-way cross maximises hybrid vigour, especially using curve bender bulls

• Co-operation needed between the dairy farmer and suckler producer to use selected high index beef sires to produce beef x dairy-bred suckler replacements