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Using data to inform management decisions

The aim of AHDB Beef and Lamb’s Beef Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) project, run in conjunction with the University of Nottingham, was to evaluate current beef KPIs and develop further indices to help beef producers track performance and identify business strengths and weaknesses. Farmer Guardian reports.

Neil Rowe and Sarah Pick.
Neil Rowe and Sarah Pick.

NEIL Rowe, manager of the suckler enterprise at Manor Farm on the Cumber Estate, Oxfordshire, since it was established in 2008, has been part of AHDB Beef and Lamb’s KPI project.


Mr Rowe runs an autumn-calving herd of about 100 Stabiliser cows, which calve outside from mid-September. Cattle are housed in early November in a purpose-built shed.


Following turnout in March, Manor Farm cattle are rotationally grazed and calves achieve a daily liveweight gain of 1.2-1.3kg from birth to weaning.


Calves are weighed monthly and cows are weighed at weaning and service. This allows calculation of calf growth rates, which are used to ‘fine-tune’ weaning time and identify any calves which are underperforming.

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Mr Rowe says: “I can use cow weights to calculate cow efficiency [calf weaning weight as a percentage of cow weight] and I aim for a cow to wean a calf at least 50 per cent of its body weight. This and calf growth rates are used to inform breeding and culling decisions.”


Mr Rowe believes in using records to inform management decisions.


He says: “Fertility is key to a profitable suckler enterprise and the proportion of cows calving in the first three weeks is an important statistic.


“Pre-breeding checks are carried out by the vet. I cull any animals not suitable for breeding and treat those with fertility problems. Bulls run with cows for 70 days and I aim for 95 per cent of cows to be in-calf during this time.


“Pregnancy diagnosis is carried out by the vet after breeding ends and I then cull any cows not in-calf.”


Sarah Pick, AHDB knowledge exchange manager, says: “When farmers are asked why they do not record more data, a major stumbling block is always lack of time. Data capture can seem time-consuming and expensive, but it does not have to be.


“There is lots of pre-existing data which can be used to measure and monitor herd performance, such as data stored by the British Cattle Movement Service [BCMS].”


BCMS holds information such as calving dates with dam (and, where available, sire) ID, on and off movement dates and on and off movement types, allowing identification of births and deaths.


This can be downloaded into spreadsheet software, such as Microsoft Excel, and used to calculate a variety of performance indicators for both suckler and grower/finisher herds. For example, proportion calving in the first three weeks, calving interval, age at first calving, mortality rates and time to finish.


Graph 1 shows the percentage of calvings which occur in the first three, six and nine weeks of the calving period, calculated from the date the bull joined the cows, and those which calve beyond nine weeks.


Mr Rowe finds using BCMS data helpful as it uses information routinely collected anyway.


He says: “The ability to download BCMS data into an Excel spreadsheet has made it easy to calculate performance indicators for fertility, such as cows calving in the first three weeks, calving interval and age at first calving.

pic 2

Neil Rowe believes BMCS data can be helpful as it uses information which is routinely collected anyway.

“When looking at calving interval and age at first calving, averages are often used. However, it can be useful to see how each animal’s interval is spread around this average and how many animals have values different from the average. This provides a more complete picture of how the herd is performing.”


Calving intervals for Manor Farm were calculated from BCMS data and their distribution investigated.

Ms Pick says: “This provides a more complete picture of the fertility performance of a herd than an average calving interval value.


“We can see the average calving interval in 2012 and 2014 were very similar [marked as a cross on the graph], but the middle value [marked as a line on the graph], and the whole distribution [the box], is higher in 2014.


“This shows that, although the average value is lower, overall performance was worse in 2014 and the average value in 2012 was influenced by some individuals with long calving intervals.”

The ability to analyse this data meant Mr Rowe could identify management factors affecting the herd’s calving interval.


He says: “In 2014, I implemented a new breeding policy, which caused an increase in calving interval. Having the ability to see how individual cows influence figures meant I could identify this new policy was not working and revert back to the previous one.”


BCMS data is easily available on request and can provide detailed analysis of herd performance. It also has the potential to be the starting point for more extensive data monitoring. For example, by incorporating other available data, such as from kill sheets, medicine records, financial data or weight data.

For more information

AHDB’s Better Returns Programme manual, ‘Optimising suckler herd fertility for better returns’, is available at


Neil Rowe has recorded a short film on using KPIs, which can be found on the ‘AHDB Beef and Lamb TV’ YouTube channel

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