Why Charolais Article 4

Pre-calving management and calf finishing update

Introduction: This is the fourth of a series of 12 articles on Simon Frost’s suckler herd at Youlgreave in the Peak District. 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 Charolais bulls have top 1-5% Terminal Indexes with focus on calving ease, growth and muscle EBV’s. The calves are sold at weaning to Alan and John Dore at Chesterfield and intensively finished. Last year the bull calves recorded a carcase weight of 438kg at 447 days old, which is exceptional performance. This article focuses on pre-calving management and outlines progress of the 2010 calf crop being finished by the Dore’s.

Pre-calving management: The two most critical periods in the annual production cycle for a suckler herd are bulling and pre-calving. Get them both right and you should exceed the target of a 95% calf crop with a 365 day calving interval for a herd with a compact calving period of 9 weeks.

For a spring calving cow the body condition score at calving should be 2 i.e. cows are in lean condition. Cows above score 2.5 have a significantly higher incidence of dystocia especially when carrying continental bred calves. With cows below condition score 1.75 there can be issues with quality of colostrum and strength at calving.

Table 1. Weaning and pre-calving cow weights and condition scores.

  Weaning Pre-calving
Cow wt (kg) 595 604
Condition Score 2.28 2.08

The pre-calving weight and condition score was recorded at 604kg and 2.08 respectively. The range in cow condition was relatively small with 85.4% of the herd at score 2-2.25. Only 8.3% and 6.3% of the herd were either below or above the target condition score. Sometimes it is advocated to increase feed levels prior to calving to boost colostrum production but this is not carried out by Simon Frost because this would result in too much colostrum and milk for the new born calf to cope with bearing in mind that the cows are half Holstein-Friesian and therefore very milky.

Calving starts on the 10th of February with 25 replacement heifers with the main herd calving down three weeks later. This is ideal since it gives the heifers extra time to grow some frame and rise in condition before going to the Charolais bulls on the 1st of May with the rest of the herd. The heifers are also put in-calf to a Charolais bull. This is something few suckler producers would ever contemplate and many would use an alternative easy calving breed. The bull currently used on the heifers, Littlebovey Altra, has a Top 5% Terminal Index with a Calving Ease Direct EBV of +2.3. He has proven to be very easy calving thus confirming his Calving Ease EBV. In fact Simon Frost has to intervene less at calving with his heifers compared to the cows!

During the bulling period records are kept of when cows are served and by which bull. Simon therefore can predict when each cow will calve and in conjunction with the visual signs of starting to calve is moved into one of four straw bedded calving boxes. Assistance is only given if deemed necessary. The average time from birth for the calf to take its first vital intake of colostrum is just 30 minutes. Simon supervises this first intake but he will stomach tube a calf where suckling can prove difficult. There are many factors that can cause calf mortality but one of the major ones is an inadequate intake of good quality colostrum. The target is 2 litres within 6 hours of birth and this quantity can be consumed with 20-25 minutes of effective suckling.

Once mothered up the cow and calf is moved into a straw yard and she is turned out a soon as weather and ground conditions allow which relieves pressure on the building and reduces straw use.

Cow and calf health First and second calved heifers are vaccinated against Rotavirus 3 weeks prior to calving. Third plus calvers are not vaccinated since they should have developed immunity which can be passed onto the calf via colostrum.

Cleanliness in the calving boxes is vital and they are pressure washed and disinfected every three weeks which minimises disease problems which can often occur with calves born late in the season. Once born the calves navel is treated on both sides and then again at 24 hours.

Ensuring the cows have an adequate mineral status, especially copper and selenium, has also been identified as a crucial factor for success. Simon Frost’s farm is in a limestone area and high soil molybdenum cause serious problems with copper lock-up. As well as receiving 2 Cosecure® (Telsol Ltd) boluses twice per year in spring and autumn, which provide copper, selenium and cobalt, the cows have year round access to molassed mineral buckets with a high copper specification including chelated copper. Average intake is 55g/cow/day. If the cows don’t receive this level of copper supplementation the coats soon start to have a red tinge. Having an adequate selenium status has eliminated retained cleansings.

Pre-calving summary:

• Target condition score 2 at calving

• Use easy calving bulls with positive Calving Ease Direct EBVs

• Calf standing and sucking colostrum within 30 minutes

• Regularly clean and disinfect calving boxes

• Treat navels at birth and 24 hours

• Adequate trace element status

Progress of the 2010 calf crop being finished by Alan and John Dore:

Simon Frost’s calves are sold in October to Alan and John Dore at Home Farm in Glapwell near Chesterfield. The farm consists of 1,200 acres of which 200 is down to grass with the remainder growing barley, wheat and oilseed rape. The Dore’s finish some 600 continental bulls, steers and heifers each year. The majority are suckled calves purchased at 350-400kg which includes those from Simon Frost.

Simon Frost starts creep feeding the Charolais bull and heifer calves in early and late August respectively feeding up to a maximum of 1.5kg per calf prior to weaning in October. The calves therefore go to the Dore’s ‘knowing what concentrates are’ but they are not fed ad lib. The creep feed (Massey Feeds 16% CP X-Tender Nuts) are high in energy from digestible fibre (NDF) to encourage frame and lean carcase growth. The key is to continue to grow frame, especially with the heifers, at this stage. The bull calf weaning weights last year were 391kg at 212 days old equating to a DLWG of 1.63kg. The heifers were 329kg at 221 days equating to DLWG of 1.31kg.

Two weeks prior to weaning the calves are vaccinated with Rispoval4® (Pfizer Animal Health) to minimise respiratory disorders. They have their backs clipped out and treated with Closamectin® (Norbrook). The bulls are finished on ad lib good quality big bale silage supplemented with 16% protein barley based ration containing Hi-pro Soya and Linseed Flakes. This is a unique approach since many nutritionists would advocate a ration containing only 14% protein using straights such as rapeseed meal and not the ‘luxury proteins’ such as Hi-pro or linseed. The Dore’s believe that it is essential that suckled bulls from Simon Frost with the potential to grow consistently in excess of 1.5kg per day to carcase weights of 438kg by 14.6 months old need highly digestible by-pass protein sources to maximise lean tissue deposition. The inclusion of some oats takes ‘some heat out of the ration’ being higher in fibre and lower in starch compared to barley.

Table 2. The Dore’s finishing ration.

Feeds %
Rolled Barley 63
Rolled Oats 15.5
Hi-Pro Soya Bean Meal 10
Linseed Flakes 10
Intensive Beef Mineral 1.5
Analysis Values as fed (except ME)
Crude protein 16.0
Starch 35.7
NDF 20.0
ME 13 (MJ/kg DM)

The grass silage offered to the calves has an analysis that many dairy farmers would strive to achieve with a dry matter content of 50.8%, protein of 13.6% and ME of 11.6 MJ/kg DM)! Intakes average approximately 4kg per bull per day. Problems with acidosis are non existent.

On arrival the bulls get 4.5kg of barley mix which is fed twice per day and after a fortnight gradually increased to 6.8kg and then tweaked up to 9kg per head per day. The finishing ration is fed to appetite twice per day in troughs which means that the bulls always have an edge to their appetite which is different compared to offering feed in a hopper. The heifers are fed lower levels of barley to grow frame and are kept on 3.1kg of barley mix which is gradually increased 6 weeks prior to slaughter targeting carcase weights 290-320kg.

The first bulls are about to be slaughtered and full details on bull and heifer slaughter performance and FCRs will be given in a subsequent article.

Clarification of cow winter feed costs A number of readers have commented in the second Beef Focus Farm article (Farmers Weekly – 4 March 2011) on how low Simon Frost’s cow wintering costs are at 49.8p/cow/day. This was based on 13.1kg silage @ £11.10/t (£24.49/t DM), 5kg straw purchased from the Dore’s @ £65/t and 55g of high spec mineral bucket @ £500/t. The silage costs appear very low but this is because they are only the variable costs of making big bale silage at Hopping Farm which include fertilizer, sprays, baling, plastic and wrapping costs. If the fixed costs of making silage at Hopping Farm are included then it is costed at £37.08/t (£81.86/t DM for 45.3% DM silage) thus increasing the cow winter feed costs to 83.8p per day.