Why Charolais Article 5

Post-calving/pre-bulling Management and Calf Finishing Update

Introduction: This is the fifth 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 post-calving and pre-bulling management and outlines progress of the 2010 calf crop being finished by the Dore’s and will report on what we believe to be ‘world record performance’ for daily carcase gain for a commercially finished cross-bred bull calf!.

Interim bull finishing results The ‘precursors for profit’ with suckled calf production are ease of calving and maximizing daily carcase gain. Easy calving is facilitated by top 1% suckler producers Simon Frost by using Charolais bulls with positive Calving Ease Direct EBVs and making sure the Limousin x Holstein-Friesian cows are in lean condition (score 2) at calving. High daily carcase gain is facilitated by using bulls with high EBVs for growth and muscle alongside focus on herd health and nutrition throughout the production cycle. The Charolais bulls used by Simon are termed as ‘curve benders’ since they have top 1-5% Terminal Indexes and are easy calving bulls as well as having very high growth rates. The calves are sold at weaning to Alan and John Dore at Glapwell near Chesterfield and intensively finished. The specific management of the calves by the Dore’s was outlined in the previous article (Farmers Weekly 6 May 201) and to date just over half of the bulls have been slaughtered.

The 30 Charolais bulls finished so far have achieved a mean carcase weight of 417.4kg at 394 days old which is just less than 13 months old (see table 1). This calculates to a carcase gain from birth to slaughter of 1.00kg per day. The bulls killed out ‘gut full’ at 59.8% which equates to a live slaughter weight of 698kg and hence DLWG from birth of a 1.67kg. If the bulls had been weighed ‘gut empty’ i.e. as per in a market or abattoir then the killing out percentage would be approximately 62%. Some 39% of the bulls recorded E grades for conformation with the remainder grading U+ which is out-standing. Full details and averages of all the bulls and also the heifers with feed intakes and feed conversion ratios will be presented in a subsequent article.

Table 1 Interim bull finishing results.

30 Bulls
Live wt at slaughter (kg) 698
Days to slaughter 394
DLWG from birth (kg) 1.67
Kill out 59.8%
Carcase weight (kg) 417.4
Daily carcase gain* (kg) 1.00
% E grades 39
% U+ grades 61

Note: Carcase birth weight was assumed to be 24kg

One of Alan and John Dores’s reactions to this year’s very high cereal prices compared to last year is to slaughter the bulls earlier and lighter before any possible deterioration in feed conversion ratio. Last year’s crop of bull calves recorded carcase weights of 438kg i.e. some 21kg heavier but were 30 days older. I estimate that this strategy has ‘paid off’. Selling slightly lighter bulls would result in a lower return of £66.15 per bull but would have cost £72.10 to put on. This is based on £60.10 of feed (9.5kg per head per day of 16% CP Barley mix and 4kg silage) and £12 of miscellaneous costs i.e. bedding etc. at 40p/bull/day.

World record performance for carcase daily gain! Within every population there is variation in performance but it always follows the random distribution curve with very small numbers of either ‘high fliers’ or ‘relatively poor doers’ which it is why it is important to discuss average performance rather than quote individuals which can sometimes occur in the pub or at a discussion group! Nevertheless despite this comment one particular bull calf stands out with his performance. This ‘high flier’ was a Charolais calf sired by Balthayock Clifford, a bull with excellent back breeding and a top 1% Terminal Index with an EBV for growth of +61kg at 400 days. This calf was slaughtered at exactly 365 days old with a carcase weight of 471kg grading E3 thus recording a carcase gain of 1.22kg per day. With a kill out percentage of 59.8% this equates to live weight at slaughter of 788kg with a massive 2.04 kg DLWG from birth to slaughter. Taking into consideration that the calf would hardly exceed growth rates above 1kg per day in its first month of life this bull must have recorded DLWGs of nearly 3kg per day at its peak. The daily carcase gain from birth to slaughter of 1.22kg we believe is a world record for a commercially finished bull unless someone can provide evidence to the contrary!

I am a great believer in setting production targets and this is something Simon Frost follows. His target was to achieve this 1.2kg daily carcase gain from birth with one of his Charolais sired bull calves. The question is therefore what are Simon Frost’s next targets? Is it to achieve the same carcase weight but in 10 days less thus achieving a carcase gain in excess of 1.25kg? I would suggest that rather than focus on an individual that he should aim to get all of his bulls to record a daily carcase gain of 1.0kg per day from birth to slaughter when last year it was 0.94kg.

The bulls were slaughtered at Kepak in Wakefield and exported to a European market that does not penalise heavy weight carcasses. It is a crazy situation that some abattoirs penalise heavy weight carcasses which have been produced very efficiently. Some abattoirs used to penalise carcase weight over 400kg but this has changed recently and many have relaxed their buying specification. For example one of the leading abattoirs in the UK pays on all weight up to 450kg for E and U grades but deducts 10p/kg for any additional weight. With the same abattoir if the carcase is an R grade or below then any weight over 450kg is not paid. This penalty is basically due to the size of a plastic tray for a sirloin steak in a supermarket since the steak must be ¾-1 inch thick! Some action needs to be taken to change butchery techniques to remove this unfair penalty. Kepak do not penalise heavy weight carcasses.

Some negative comments have been made by readers about the quality of Simon Frost’s Limousin x Holstein-Friesian suckler cows based on the picture shown in the first article (Farmers Weekly 21st January 2011). The cow pictured was a first calved heifer and her bull calf went on to produce a carcase weighing 430.8kg at 388 days old grading U+3. I trust this silences those sceptics!

Post-calving management Calving starts on the 10th of February with 25 replacement heifers with the main herd calving down three weeks later. The average time from birth for the calf to take its first vital intake of colostrum is just 30 minutes which is crucial for calf health and performance. Colostrum is the ‘elixir of life’!

Calving problems at Hopping Farm are relatively minimal and the birth weights and calving ease scores are being recorded which will be presented in a subsequent article. Using Charolais bulls with positive Calving Ease Direct EBVs with high accuracy (50+%) on cows in lean condition (score 2) minimises calving difficulties. However if an occasional calf does has a very difficult birth and is struggling to survive Simon Frost administers a ‘health cocktail’ of Dopram, Voren, Selenium, multi vits and Synulox. This has proven to be very effective in minimising mortality.

Once the calf is paired up with its mother they are turned out as soon as weather and ground conditions allow. They go out onto minimal grazing but fed silage since putting them initially on to good quality grazing i.e. 8-10cm sward heights for the first 4-6 weeks would result in excessive milk yields with Simon Frost’s milky Limousin x Holstein-Friesian cows which would be too much for the calf to take. Thereafter grazing quality is gradually improved with the objective of offering pasture at 8-10cm sward heights to increase milk yields and cow condition score in readiness for bulling. Having cows in a rising plane of nutrition leading up to and during the bulling period at condition score 2.25+ is a key factor in optimising fertility.

High Mag molassed mineral buckets which also have a high copper specification are offered for free access feeding and the cows are also given a Cosecure bolus supplying copper, selenium and cobalt. Copper deficiency is a major problem on Simon Frost’s farm due to the high molybdenum soil content which locks up copper.

In 2010 there was only 1 cow death in the 125 cow herd at Hopping Farm and that was a cow that had been knocked in an accident.

Calf health Power washing and disinfecting the calving boxes every 3 weeks has significantly improved calf health and cut down on anti-biotic use especially with calves born late in the calving period. The only major threat to calf health in recent years at Hopping Farm is coccidiosis. The symptoms are a ‘mucky dark scour’ which if untreated quickly include blood. Simon Frost’s immediate action is to treat with the coccidiostat Vecoxan which has proven to be very effective and quickly clears up problems. Simon believes that calves quickly recover and it doesn’t significantly affect subsequent performance provided the calf has early and successful treatment.

Bull management The Charolais bulls used to be put in with the replacement heifers on the 1st of May and the cows on the 21st. This year it has been decided to put bulling dates back by three weeks for calving to start in mid March which is now considered to be more appropriate for an upland farm in the Derbyshire dales. The very dry spring this year has been a bonus and facilitated early turnout but will this happen again?

The bulls have their feet trimmed about 3 months prior to going into the herd. This is good practice since if foot trimming is done within 2 months of work and causes some initial curative lameness it can influence spermatogenesis (sperm development takes 50-60 days) and subsequent fertility. Last year it was found that one of the 3 bulls on the farm was found to be infertile and was ‘firing blanks’. This has resulted in a batch of late calving (May-early June) cows. This problem is commonly seen in a lot of herds as the reason for having a batch of late calving cows. Prior to this year Simon Frost had a calving period of just 14 weeks which compares favourably to EBLEX recorded herds with a 20 week calving period. Even the top 1/3rd EBLEX producers recorded a calving interval of 19 weeks!

An option to consider is to semen test the bulls using electro-ejaculation techniques which costs approximately £100 per bull. Some veterinary practices that semen test a lot of bulls are reporting issues of either sub-fertility or infertility in 20% of the bulls they test. However electro ejaculation only gives a picture of the bulls’ semen on that day and it does not assess the bulls’ libido and its physical capability to serve a cow. There are also reports that a couple of bulls after been semen tested with an electro-ejaculator have subsequently failed to serve cows. Ideally semen should be collected by AV from a bull that is given a synchronized cow to mount which then also assesses libido. If an electro ejaculator test is to be done it must be by an experienced competent operator.

Simon Frost firmly believes that all bulls sold before breed society sales should be semen tested. This should prove highly beneficial for the purchaser and also lower bull fertility insurance premiums for the vendor. This year Simon will rotate bulls every 3 weeks around the bulling groups.

Post-calving/bulling summary:

• Ensure an early and adequate intake of colostrum

• Gradually increase cow nutrition post calving

• Rising cow condition prior to and during bulling

• Semen test and MOT bulls at least 3 months before work

• Offer grass sward heights @ 8-10cm during the bulling period

• Rotate bulls every 3 weeks