With margins tight in the beef sector, a preventative approach to disease is key. A new score-based audit for beef suckler systems could help.
Daily exposure to the public has given Brandrith Farm, a multi-generational tenant farm at the Castle Howard Estate, York, the opportunity to secure a premium market by selling beef direct to its customers.
Providing most of the diet for the 120-head herd of Aberdeen-Angus is the 182 hectares (450 acres) of estate grassland, with another 223ha (550 acres) of arable production providing cereals for the finishing period.
Heifers and bullocks are finished at 18 months old, with bullocks averaging 650-700kg liveweight and heifers averaging 600kg liveweight.
Carcases are hung for at least 21 days and sold direct to the butchers at Castle Howard farm shop.
It is this highly marbled Aberdeen-Angus meat, coupled with expert butchery and local sourcing, which has proven popular with visitors to the estate.
Ben Fargher, the youngest generation of the farming family at Brandrith, says: “Our cattle will only have travelled a couple of miles in their lifetime as well as primarily consuming home-grown feed.
“The farm shop customers can see first-hand not only how and where their meat comes from, but the people behind it.”
With such a focus on direct sales and a relationship with their customers, the daily occurrence of outside eyes on the herd has added extra pressure to the farm to maintain a high health status.
When coupled with current herd expansion plans, mitigating against disease risks and maintaining a high herd health is crucial to its approach.
Mr Fargher explains: “We are trying to increase herd numbers to 150-head, which means protecting the herd from any production losses due to illness is crucial.”
This summer, an unprecedented pneumonia outbreak in the youngstock on pasture resulted in an increase in pre-weaning mortality.
This led to the farm’s decision to work more closely with their vet, Ellie Button of Howells Veterinary Services, to develop a preventative health programme.
Mrs Button says: “To get a clear idea of the current management practices influencing herd health from birth to weaning, I performed an audit using MSD Animal Health’s new suckler herd performance checklist.”
The tool is designed to link-up how management practices are influencing herd health and has been developed collectively by five practising beef vets.
It works through a series of 10 questions within five different areas impacting youngstock health, scoring producers 0-2 on their management system.
Once the audit is completed, five key areas of improvement are highlighted and used to develop an action plan.
Mrs Button continues: “The action plan includes what needs to be changed, who is responsible for implementing the new practices and when these need to be completed.
“This approach has proven to be an effective way to help producers make notable progress, rather than overwhelming them with a long list of things which need to be changed.”
At Brandrith, early life vaccination against pneumonia was a key action point, with Mr Fargher now planning to vaccinate the herd ahead of spring turnout.
The other significant action point was tightening the calving period to improve nutritional management and to also reduce scour infection.
Mrs Button says: “Previously, the farm had an eight-month calving season which began in January and extend into August, but the extended calving period was causing significant issues with scour infection as well as requiring prolonged management.
“Calves pick up scour pathogens from the environment or their peers and typically, the pathogens come from older calves.
“Calving periods of 15 weeks carry eight times the risk of scours for calves born in the second half of the season.
“The first group of calves with scours will increase the pathogen load for the next group born. As they recover, these will then increase the environmental challenge for the next group of newborn calves, and so on.
“By the time the last group of calves are born towards the end of the calving season, they are being hit with a huge infection pressure.”
Following the process, the farm sold its July and August calving cows to reduce the calving season by two months and they will gradually tighten the season to 15 weeks.
The checklist also outlined a need to manage grouping of calving pens differently. In previous seasons, newborn calves were born into and left in pens with adult cows and older calves, increasing disease pressure.
However, following the exercise, the farm made some crucial investments to increase the calving barn infrastructure so calves can be kept in a two-week age group after birth.
Mr Fargher says: “It is so important for us to adopt an immunityled disease prevention health programme to set our herd up to perform to its genetic potential and also to give our customers confidence in the beef we supply.”
SUCKLER HERD PERFORMANCE
REDUCING calf morbidity and mortality rates in a suckler herd starts with management practices before conception, explains Ellie Button.
She says: “Optimum performance requires following proper management protocols throughout the youngstock period from birth to weaning, including effective colostrum administration, vaccination, nutrition and hygiene.
“Regular benchmarking can help to show the progress which has been made and outline new areas of improvement.”