Summary Report Latest EBLEX costings reveal that Average and Top 1/3rd upland suckler producers recorded gross margins of £247 and £267 per cow respectively. However when fixed and non-cash costs are deducted this leaves a net margin of minus £346 and minus £190 per cow respectively. The vast majority of suckled calf producers are therefore using their Single Farm Payment (SFP) to stay in business. This is not sustainable and beef producers must focus on improving technical efficiency, especially with pending changes to the SFP.
Simon Frost is a commercial suckled calf producer in the Derbyshire dales and achieves top 1% performance with his upland herd. The calves are sold at weaning to Alan and John Dore at Chesterfield and intensively finished. Over the last 12 months I have independently monitored the performance of the cattle which has created the Farmers Weekly/Harper Adams Beef Focus Farm since the beef industry needs to hear and see how farms recording top 1% performance is achieved and maintained.
Focusing on ease of calving and getting as many kilos of gain at the youngest possible age are the key factors to efficient beef production. Cattle with high growth rates make more efficient use of the feed. Therefore feed costs a kilo of live weight gain are reduced as is time to slaughter. They are the precursors to profitability. This is achieved by Simon Frost with his herd of 125 small to medium sized milky Limousin x Holstein-Friesian suckler cows put to ‘curve bender’ high index easy calving fast growing Charolais sires. This is viewed by both Simon Marsh and Simon Frost as a blueprint for efficient and profitable suckled calf production.
The key area’s identified to maximise efficiency and hence profit in suckled calf production are as follows:
Economies of scale and focus on output: The majority of farm income (output) is from the sale of calves so targeting growth rates in excess of 1.4kg per day with 95% calves weaned per 100 cows put to the bull is a priority.
Rather than scaling back on cow numbers producers must maximise them and thus spread their fixed costs over a bigger herd. The change from headage payments to SFP has given producers the opportunity to cull barren and poor performing cows and replace them with fit young healthy bulling heifers. This is aided by the very buoyant cull cow trade and hence this replacement strategy involves minimal cost.
The worlds beef herd has been in contraction and with strong global demand for beef has been the reason for the upward movement in cattle prices. There doesn’t appear to be a slackening in demand for beef. Suckled calf producers can therefore expand their herds with confidence.
Easicare systems with low labour requirements: The sheep industry is adopting easicare production systems and the beef sector need to follow this trend. In a suckler herd easicare can be created by selecting terminal sires that are easy calving with cows in lean condition (score 2) at calving. The key priority of Simon Frost’s Charolais bull selection is a positive Calving Ease Direct EBV with an accuracy of over 50%. He has total confidence in EBVs and even uses a Charolais on his bulling heifers which few producers would ever contemplate. Last year the Charolais bull Littlebovey Altra was used on the heifers. Altra has a Calving Ease Direct of +2.4% and his bull and heifer calves were born with an average weight of 41.9kg and 37.0kg respectively but more importantly the calving score was only 1.8 and 1.0 meaning that the vast majority of calves were born without assistance. Overall calf mortality last year was just 0.8%. Altra’s bull calves went onto achieve a carcase weight of 410kg at 13.4 months old which would not have been achieved using a different breed.
The beef industry, especially the pedigree breeders, must move away from hard calving bulls. Whilst this article is based on easy calving Charolais bulls it totally frustrates me to see in some recent Charolais pedigree sales big money being spent on bulls with Calving Ease Direct EBVs of minus 20. These bulls will invariably be used in pedigree herds to produce future breeding stock which will be hard calving! There are even Charolais bulls in AI studs with high negative Calving Ease Direct EBVs. The Charolais was once the predominant Continental breed but fell out of favour, notably to the Limousin in many commercial suckler herds. Why did this happen – because of too many difficult calvings, caesarians and dead calves. Some pedigree breeders need to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’!
Utilise hybrid vigour and use high index terminal sires: A three-way cross using a curve bender terminal sire results in a 26.5% advantage over a pure-bred due to the benefits of hybrid vigour. This particularly benefits the traits with low heritability’s such as fertility and health. This is achieved by Simon Frost sourcing Limousin x Holstein-Friesians from a local dairy herd that uses a decent Limousin bull. 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 which deliver calves with frame, growth and muscle. This classic ‘three-way cross’ breed combination can of course be replicated with so many other breed combinations.
The approach adopted by Simon Frost 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
As stated previously and worth repeating again the use of a top 1-10% terminal index sire that has very high 400 day weights and easy calving characteristic is a key factor in achieving top 1% performance.
Don’t be afraid to buy ‘ugly bulls’ if their EBV figures are good. Too many buyers of bulls are obsessed with buying masculine pretty faced bulls with big back sides! Commercial beef producers need breeding bulls with easy calving, growth, width, length (‘an extra rib’) and depth of body that are fit to work and cover over 50 cows in a season. The highest priced part of the carcase is the loin so why are too many pedigree breeders obsessed with bulls with big back ends!
Beef men who produce cattle that look like ‘poodles on broomsticks’ is a hobby and a fashion for primestock shows – always remember that ‘growth is king and will pay the bills’.
Herd fertility and block calving: Improve herd fertility and block calve. Data from Herdplus in Northern Ireland and a recent EBLEX survey shows the average calving interval is 399 days, calving rate was 88.3% (similar to EBLEX Business Pointers data) so therefore there are 80.8 calves produced per 100 cows in a calendar year. This is dreadful performance! The target is a minimum of 95 calves per 100 cows per 365 days with a calving period of 9-11 weeks. A major factor influencing herd fertility is cow condition score at bulling. The target is a minimum score of 2.5. Too many stock bulls are sub-fertile or even infertile so Simon Frost rotates his bulls every 3 weeks in case there should be a problem with an in-fertile bull. Last year Simon Frosts’ herd achieved 92% calves reared within a 14 week calving interval which is significantly better than most herds but nevertheless could be improved. The calving interval in EBLEX recorded top 1/3rd producers LFA herds was 17 weeks.
Maximise calf DLWGs and cow efficiency: The target is to achieve a calf 200 day weight that is 50% of the cow live weight. This can only be achieved with small-medium sized cows put to high index sires. Last year Simon Frost’s cows weighed 595kg at weaning with the calves recording a 200 day weight of 336kg (bulls 370kg, heifers 302kg) equating to an efficiency factor of 56.5%. This is the highest I have ever seen. The calves do receive some creep which is vital to grow frame and minimise the growth check at weaning but they are not fed excessive amounts with the bull calves given 90kg from early August to weaning in mid October.
Simon Frost’s calves are finished by Alan and John Dore at Glapwell, near Chesterfield. The calves are finished on ad lib top quality big bale silage and a high quality 16% CP home mix based on barley, oats, hipro soya, linseed and minerals. On arrival the home mix is gradually introduced to the weaned bull calves. By 4 weeks they are on 4.1kg/h/d and by 6 weeks it is increased to 5.9kg and then gradually increased up to 8.2kg fed to appetite. The heifer calves get a flat rate of 3.1kg/h/d which is increased to 5.7kg 5 weeks prior to slaughter. The home mix is always fed twice per day and silage is always available ad lib.
The 56 Charolais bulls from Simon Frost achieved a massive carcase weight of 427kg at 415 days of age which is just over 13½ months old. Simon Frost’s bull calves have smashed the EBLEX targets. Simon Frost’s heifers achieved a mean carcase weight of 313kg at just 447 days of age which is just over 14.6 months old. Compared to the UK average the heifers were therefore finished some 265 days (8.7 months) sooner which will help to reduce their carbon foot print. Full animal performance details are shown in table 1.
Table 1. Hopping Farm calf finishing results vs. EBLEX targets for bulls.
|Live wt at weaning (kg)||340||391||330|
|Days weaning to slaughter||172||203||226|
|Live wt at slaughter (kg)||590||714||559|
|DLWG weaning to slaughter (kg)||1.45||1.59||1.02|
|Days birth to slaughter||427||415||447|
|DLWG from birth (kg)||1.28||1.62||1.16|
|Kill out %||59.0||59.8||56.0|
|Carcase weight (kg)||348||427||313|
|Daily carcase gain from birth (kg)||0.76||0.97||0.66|
|% E & U grades||N/A||96.4||59.2|
|Kg silage (kg DM in brackets)||N/A||812 (412)||1,523 (771)|
|Finishing FCR (kg DM: kg lwt gain)||5.3:1||4.7:1||6.6:1|
As you would expect the performance of Simon Frost’s bulls was significantly greater than the heifers. Overall the bulls grossed £314 more than the heifers. An objective for the industry should be to develop synchronized AI breeding programmes to allow for the successful use of sexed semen that maximise conception and percentage of bull calves born. This unfortunately is a few years off.
Some 62.1% of Simon Frost’s bulls were slaughtered at fat class 3 with 37.9% at fat class 4L so there wasn’t an issue of the bulls being too lean. A few readers have commented that the bulls were sold at heavy weights not suited to many outlets. The Dore’s have an export market for their bulls but if necessary they could slaughter them 30 days sooner at carcase weights of approximately 400kg and they would still have adequate fat cover. Most markets now do not penalise heavy weights especially with the strong demand for beef.
World record? 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!
Feed costs: Producers must focus on minimising feed costs and maximising utilisation of home grown forage.
Dry spring calving suckler cows on most commercial units are fed silage and this is no different at Hopping Farm. The cows are wintered on restricted high dry matter big bale silage and ad lib straw which is fed in ring feeders whereby all cows can access the feed. Minerals are offered via molassed mineral buckets which are high in magnesium, copper and selenium. The cows were weaned at condition score 2.28 and calved down at score 2.08.
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 dropping cow condition score to 2 over the winter 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 which costs just 49.8p per cow per day (83.8p/d with silage fixed costs included). Calving down at score 2 minimises calving difficulties.
Fixed costs: Fixed costs are a major area for attention and in most instances can exceed the gross margin from the herd. EBLEX recorded LFA average suckler herds for 2010-11 recorded a gross margin of £246/cow but fixed costs were some £374 per cow. Fixed costs can be reduced by out-wintering however in certain parts of the country I accept that this is not possible which is the case with Simon Frost.
Expenditure on machinery should be kept a minimum. For example both Simon Frost and the Dore’s achieve top 1% performance and they do not have an expensive feeder wagon. Remember that machinery depreciates, rusts and burns fuel! I would rather beef producers invest their money in buying top genetics – at least this should give an excellent return on investment.
Health: Producers must have high levels of health care to minimize cow and calf losses. Calves with a disease challenge will not thrive. Simon Frost firmly believes that total attention on the ‘Golden Triangle’ of management, genetics and nutrition will help producers achieve top 1% performance. His definition of ‘good management’ is ‘good stockmanship’ focusing on taking preventative action rather having to implement fire brigade tactics. It is vital to minimise disease incidence because the subsequent losses incurred cannot be made up by improved nutrition or genetic exploitation.
Marketing: Producers should target either the commodity or niche beef market and produce beef as efficiently as possible. Simon has focused on the former which is the predominant market. There are critics of bull beef production and Continental breeds so if Native breeds are reared on extensive systems they must obtain significant premiums in the market place. Producers must still focus on rearing beef cattle as efficiently as possible.
Summary: • A herd of small to medium sized milky suckler cows put to high index easy calving fast growing terminal sires is the blueprint for efficient and profitable suckled calf production.
• Focusing on ease of calving and getting as many kilos of gain at the youngest possible age are the key factors to efficient beef production.
• There must be synergy between management, genetics and nutrition to achieve top 1% performance.
Final Comments from Simon Frost:
While cow and calf health, nutrition and genetics are all vital elements to profitable beef production Simon Frost believes that without efficient animals we are on a loser. Things need to change in the beef industry.
Simon Frost is particularly interested in bringing the Livestock Auctioneers
Association (LAA) into the picture and encouraging them to take some
responsibility for the promotion at point of sale of cattle sired by parents with known EBVs.
The LAA and the current auction ring marketing methods could be viewed as an impediment to the effective sale/promotion of calves by high EBV bulls
Currently, catalogue entries and rostrum announcements mention, in no particular order: membership of farm assurance schemes, reared at 1500 feet, vaccinated for orf/blackleg/pneumonia, taking creep feed/never had creep, this is the grandchildren’s pen of calves, etc.
Moreover, there has also been reluctance on the part of some auctioneers to update their knowledge of desirable carcass traits, resulting in the perpetuation of the belief that the hindquarters are the most valuable part of the animal.
Auctioneers may (and do) argue that they merely facilitate an agreement between buyer and seller, thereby neatly exempting themselves from taking responsibility for how they influence buyers’ ecisions – those fabulous one liners from the rostrum are surely not just for entertainment purposes!
However there is a marvelous opportunity for members of the LAA to embrace the concept and meaning of EBVs, and to realize that it should be encouraged as an entity, and included in the information available to ring-side purchasers, as this offers those purchasers another tool to use when making their choices. Put simply, if a pen of suckled calves are vaccinated for pneumonia, and they are also by a bull with high EBVs for muscle and growth rate, the purchaser knows that not only will they be much less likely to contract pneumonia, but they are also more likely to grow fficiently and finish at the desired weight and classification.
Alan Dore was quoted in one of the articles as saying that he would welcome EBV information for cattle which he buys out of the sale ring.
In summary, if finishers could purchase cattle sired by bulls with known EBV status, they would be paying for productive capacity rather than overtly pretty cattle (although the two traits are not utually exclusive). This would offer stability to their businesses as output and profitability could be gauged more accurately. This effect should then cascade to the suckled calf producers, encouraging them to focus on purchasing bulls with known EBVs, and in turn should act as a stimulant to the pedigree breeders to re-orientate their considerable efforts towards producing terminal sires which are fit for purpose.
Unfortunately this will be achieved neither easily nor quickly, but the beef industry needs to move further towards operating in an environment which fosters the uptake and use of science and factual knowledge rather than gut instinct and smoke and mirrors.