Why Charolais Article 2

Choice of suckler cow breed & winter management

This is the second 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 Charolais bulls which is the basis of the Farmers Weekly/Harper Adams Beef Focus Farm concept. The first article outlined the background to the project with an overview of Simon Frost’s farm and his management strategies. This article focuses on choice of suckler cow breed and winter management.

Choice of cow breed This is always a debatable issue amongst suckled calf producers and a ‘case can be presented’ to support most breed types. 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 milk from the Holstein-Friesian. This then complements the choice of terminal sire which are top 1-10% Index easy calving Charolais bulls 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 which maximises hybrid vigour. Compared to pure breeding the three-way cross has a 23.3% performance advantage. Compared to a 2 breed rotational cross breeding programme the advantage is 7.8%. Simon has minimal concerns about the Holstein-Friesian influence in the cow. Last year Simon Frost’s 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 this DLWG on fresh air”! Last year the bull calves went on to reach carcase weights of 438kg at 447 days of age which is phenomenal performance.

Many suckler producers have moved away from Holstein breeding in their cows due to issues with fertility, longevity and conformation but Simon’s herd replacements come from a dairy herd that is not ‘extreme Holstein’. Suckler producers who have moved to breeding their own replacements can find issues with cows lacking milk, increased cow size, reduced progeny sales having chosen a beef breed with maternal traits, and, the need to subsequently prevent father from serving his daughters! The current trend in the dairy industry to move away from extreme Holstein breeding to ‘easier care’ cows with longevity that can hold body condition is good news as far as the beef industry is concerned.

The choice of the Limousin in the cow is supported by research work by Jenkins and Ferrell (1994) in North America at the noted Meat and Animal Research Centre in Nebraska where nine beef breeds were compared with low or high feed availabilities thus mimicking either hill or lowland environments. With low feed availability the native British breeds fared best closely followed by the Limousin whereas with high feed availability the continentals were more efficient when measured on the basis of weight of calf weaned by feed intake.

Simons’ cows were weighed and condition scored following weaning. An efficiency measure and target suckler producers should be using is to achieve a 200 day calf weight that is 50% of the cow live weight. If you are below this target it indicates that you either have big cows that are costly to maintain or calf growth rates need attention. When compared with an SAC Monitor Farm with Limousin cross cows Simon Frost’s herd show a marked improvement in performance and efficiency. I am not aware of the management standards on the SAC Monitor Farm but I suspect it is a well run unit.

Table 1. Cow live weight and efficiency with Limousin cross cows.

SAC Monitor Farm S Frost
Cow wt (kg) 667 595
Calf 200 day wt 291 336
Efficiency (% of cow weight) 43.6 56.5

What is clear is that Simon Frost’s cows are of small-medium size therefore with low maintenance costs with the ability to milk well. Herd replacement rate is only 17.6% compared to the UK average of 21.7% so longevity is not an issue. Some beef specialists suggest that cows must have good longevity and virtually ‘live forever’. I believe that with the current cull cow price a culling rate of around 20% is not a concern since a young fit cull cow can cover the cost of a replacement bulling heifer.

Confirmation that cow size in the suckler herd is increasing with the move to 100% beef breeds in the cow was presented by the SAC (Hyslop, 2006) with their Limousin cross Angus herd which were recorded at 685kg. Always remember that big cows take a lot to maintain!

Winter management Simon Frost’s cows are cubicle housed in the winter and feeding is based on restricted big bale silage plus straw to hold or manipulate cow condition so that the cows are ‘fit not fat’ at calving i.e. condition score 2-2.5. The housing system at Hopping Farm is unique and novel in that they are housed in a barn that was converted to cubicles that are not on raised beds. Cows do however have mats to lie on. Five years ago the herd was housed in the same yard bedded with straw and the move to cubicle housing has saved over 100 tonnes of straw per year. Should Simon Frost ever wish to convert the yard back then it would be very simple and low cost with not having to take out cubicle beds.

Dry spring calving suckler cows on most commercial units are fed silage and this is no different at Hopping Farm. The target condition score for spring calving sucklers at weaning in the autumn is stated by EBLEX as 3.5 i.e. very good condition, and then dropping condition score to 2.5 at calving. If this strategy was adopted by Simon Frost it would result in increased winter feed costs of over £45 per cow. The reason is simple in that he would have to feed more purchased straw and an expensive protein concentrate and less home grown big bale silage if his cows were at score 3.5 at housing. By holding his cows at condition score 2-2.5 with a weight gain of 0.3kg/day due to the growth of the foetus over the winter, Simon can feed just silage and straw to provide then with 89MJ/day of energy.

Simon Frost’s cows had an average condition score of 2.28 at weaning and the objective will be to hold this condition during the winter with restricted big bale silage and ad lib straw to calve down at score 2 to help minimise calving difficulties. The silage is analysed and could be described as being of medium-good quality although the protein content is low but typical for big bale silage from an upland farm which doesn’t use a lot of nitrogen fertiliser.

Table 2. Silage analysis from Hopping Farm.

Dry Matter 45.3%
Crude Protein 10.9%
ME 10.5 MJ/kg DM

Feeding a restricted quantity of silage means that all cows must be able to access the feed. The method of feeding is based on using 2 feed trailers and 4 ring feeders that allow all cows to feed. Each feeder is layered with good quality wheat straw topped with grass silage which takes just under 24 hours to be eaten. This ensures that the cow’s rumens’ are full. Feeding silage with straw is an excellent combination compared to straw and concentrates. On the latter ration the rumen microbes have to adjust to degrading both starch and fibre. With just a forage based ration the microbial activity is enhanced and the cows extract more from the straw than the theoretical value. High magnesium/copper/selenium molassed mineral buckets are fed free access throughout the year with average consumption being 55g/cow/day i.e. 20kg/cow/year.

Table 3. Suckler cow ration at Hopping Farm to hold body condition but provide for a live weight gain of 0.3kg/d.

Feeds (cow/day)  
Big Bale Silage 13.1kg
Straw (ad lib) 5.0kg
Minerals   55g
Dry Matter Intake 10.3kg
ME Supplied (MJ) 89
Crude protein (% in DM) 8.4
Cost/cow/day 49.8p

Any cows that are at condition score 3 about 6 weeks before calving are separated from the herd and fed on ad lib straw and minerals in order to thin down to score 2.5 and hence minimise calving difficulties. This typically only involves 3-5 cows.

Consideration has been given to buying a feeder wagon however this could not be justified. The current system is simple, low cost and flexible. Why spend money on machinery that ‘rusts and burns fuel’, invest it in livestock instead it will give a better return!

If there is one strategy that Simon Frost could implement would be to split the herd into mature cows in good condition with another group containing heifers and lean cows.

Table 4. Average and range of cow weights and condition scores at Hopping Farm.

Cows 1st calved Heifers
Average cow wt (kg) 607 527
Range in wt (kg) 504-757 501-563
Condition Score 2.31 2.11
Range in CS 1.75-3.25 1.75-2.25

As with any population there is a range in weights and condition scores but this follows the normal standard distribution curve. Despite what appears a wide range of cow condition scores the vast majority of the cows are between score 2 and 2.5. The difference in weight between the cows and first calved heifer is some 80kg so separate grouping would be recommended.

Calving ease is influenced by both the cow and the bull. The cow’s

contribution to positive calving ease is achieved by managing condition

score, the target being 2-2.5 at calving. The bull’s contribution to calving ease is achieved by the selection of bulls with a positive EBV for calving ease,

short gestation length and low birth weight. It is important that these EBV have a high accuracy (>50%). Suckler producers who breed heifer replacements have an additional tool in the form of maternal trait EBVs.


Jenkins, T.G and Ferrell, C.L. 1994. Productivity through weaning of nine breeds of cattle under varying feed availabilities: 1. Initial evaluation. Journal of Animal Science, 72: 2787-2797

Hyslop, J.J. 2006 Relationship between live weight and condition score in Aberdeen Angus crossbred and Limousin crossbred commercial suckler cows. Proceedings of the British Society of Animal Science. Paper 169.