Why Charolais Article 8

Lessons that can be learnt from the Poultry Industry

Introduction: This is the eigth in 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.

By Jeremy Hunt

When beef meets poultry – Peak District beef producer Simon Frost – Farmers Weekly/Harper Adams’ Beef Focus farmer – came face-to-face with award winning poultry producer David Speller to see if there was any “common ground” between profitable poultry production and ways to make more money out of beef. JEREMY HUNT was there.

While it may seem churlish to try and draw comparisons between intensive poultry and the production of suckled calves, the meticulous attention to every facet of management and performance that underpins David Speller’s broiler unit near Chesterfield must prove that there are lessons to be learned by the beef sector.

Working with a system over which you have total “push button” control – in terms of environment and feeding – is the template of livestock production operated on this award winning unit. But it’s certainly a world apart from the plethora of unpredictability that is very much the norm for our traditional management of beef cattle.

Although beef farmers can never be expected to achieve the same level of control, there are elements of the cutting edge management at David Speller’s unit that should be examined more closely by the red meat sector in an attempt to emulate them in part to help create a much tighter and more effective approach to performance and cost control.

This poultry unit, which always has 180,000 birds on site, is staffed by one man for five-hours a day – an indication of the degree of computerisation that is responsible for every aspect of management.

And when any minor changes may have to be made they can all be undertaken, if necessary, by accessing the software through a mobile phone. On a recent visit to China, David Speller was able to make changes to the ventilation of one of his broiler sheds in Derbyshire via his mobile.

But it’s how he’s able to monitor every aspect of his costs of production – and the level of performance he demands to generate maximum profit from the 1.2 million birds he produces every year – that could be a valuable management stimulus to beef producers.

One of the most fundamental aspects of David Speller’s business is that he knows the birds on his unit are gaining 25% of their bodyweight every day. There is no guesswork over weight gain. He knows the level of performance to expect because the birds are the product of decades of genetic selection for optimum growth. So is that the challenge, via the use of Estimated Breeding Values, faced by the beef sector?

David Speller is also acutely aware of the financial impact on his turnover should any minor aspect of his management fail. A “blip” – even for a few hours – can mean fractions of grammes of lost weight gain that quickly multiply into significant cash losses through poorer growth.

Applying that approach to beef production should stimulate greater awareness of the knock-on effect of time-delays in marketing, forced extensions to the length of finishing times and short-falls in management – all of which can seriously erode margins.

“Feed conversion rate is my paramount concern – it’s absolutely critical to the profitability of every one of the 1.2 million birds we produce every year,” says David Speller, Farmers Weekly’s Poultry Farmer of the Year 2009.

“As the price of feed keeps rising FCR becomes more and more relevant. Maintaining the optimum level of FCR – and we’re currently averaging about 1:6 – is about management, but it’s also about genetics. Efficiency is directly affected by age and the younger the birds the higher the feed conversion. The bigger they get the more calories they use.”

A new contract to produce birds to kill at 42 days will fractionally affect feed conversion rate compared with that being achieved with birds killed at 37 days and weighing 2.25kg.

“All sorts of things can affect the birds’ performance. They burn calories just by breathing and moving around but stress is a big user of calories – and the same losses can occur if conditions are too hot or too cold. So with 45,000 birds in a shed, if they all burn two calories because they are too cold, I have to feed them 90,000 calories just to counter that loss.”

But it’s this level of monitoring that warrants high investment. An under floor heating system has been installed costing £300,000.

Based on one chicken’s ability to feed a family of four, David Speller’s 2.5 acre unit produces around five million meals a year, but he stresses that it’s the birds’ genetics that are “vital” to the business’s profitability.

“We aren’t artificially stimulating growth. We feed a high protein, high calorific diet. Genetics and the level of management to get the optimum performance from those genetics has to be fundamental to any system of meat production. But the more you fine-tune the genetics to improve performance the greater the need for higher standards of management to fully exploit and keep pace with the improvement.

“But in the business we run every part of the production chain is working together. Everyone involved at every stage wants to keep their business profitable. In the beef sector it would seem there’s mutual benefit to be gained by developing closer links along the chain. We are working with Moy Park which has its own parent breeding stock, its own hatcheries and mills producing chicks for us to rear which then go back to them to be slaughtered and sold.

“I’ve worked in other sectors of the farming industry and seen the sort of cut-throat tactics that operate. Working together in an integrated supply chain with the joint mentality of everyone making a profit at every stage, has got to be the way forward.”

While David Speller acknowledges his intensive poultry system is far removed from producing beef from the suckler herd, he still believes there are big opportunities for beef producers;

“Working with cattle of known genetic potential, closely monitoring costs of production and any elements of the system that may affect it and more co-operation in the supply chain – these are the areas of the beef farming business that have the potential to improve beef producers’ profits.”

Genetics play an equally important part in the profitable production of beef cattle as they do in the profitable production of poultry – but they have got to be the right genetics in terms of how they influence an animal’s performance and that can only be achieved by basing all breeding decisions on Estimated Breeding Values, say Simon Frost.

“David Speller’s broiler unit is at the cutting edge of meat production and I was hugely impressed by the high standards he’s achieved throughout the production cycle. There are lessons we can all learn from the way in which every aspect of the management of the birds is so precisely monitored to achieve maximum profitability, but it’s all aimed at achieving the best FCR – that’s the trigger for profit and that’s what beef producers must concentrate on.”

Simon Frost was in full agreement with the importance placed by David Speller on establishing a close relationship between every stage of the supply chain. “It’s something I also believe is essential and can be of tremendous benefit to beef producers. The aim must be to try and eliminate as many of the variables and unknowns as possible.”

“By using high index bulls on suckler cows of known breeding we are producing calves that we know have superior genetic potential in terms of growth and feed conversion. And in our case they are sold to the Dore family in Chesterfield who have a system of feeding geared to getting the very best out of these calves as our figures of up to 3kg daily live weight gain a day have proved beyond doubt.

“We may be working in a very different world to David Speller but our aim has also been to link together as many aspects of the production chain as possible to ensure finished cattle with a high potential for growth based on their genetics are given every opportunity to prove their true value.”

“David Speller firmly believes there’s a big opportunity to establish closer associations between each part of the beef supply chain based on an openness and commitment at each stage. The beef industry needs to work together on this. Through EBVs we’ve got the ability to produce cattle with superior growth; the next stage must be to ensure that we manage and market these animals in a way that will bring assured stability to the beef production chain.”