The biggest threat facing the UK beef industry is reduced consumption due to competition from cheaper, more efficiently produced meats like chicken and pork, said Billy O’Kane, speaking at the British Cattle Breeders Club conference in Telford.
Mr O’Kane who runs 150 Stabiliser cows and 1500 New Zealand Romney type ewes in County Antrim, Northern Ireland said: “We cannot price ourselves out of the market so we have to become more efficient rather than constantly demanding higher farm gate prices and subsidies. If we can do that current beef price is sustainable.”
The biggest driver in suckler beef production is kilos of calves weaned per hectare and the biggest influence on this is cow type. About 65 per cent of the cost of producing a kilo of beef is keeping the cow,” said Mr O’Kane.
“Various trials, including on my own farm, have shown that using the best maternal genetics can improve kilos weaned per hectare by 30 per cent and increase net profit per cow by up to £300.
“If we get the cow right, we can use whichever terminal sire which suits our production system. If we get the cow type wrong it is virtually impossible to make a profit.”
Cow size is crucial said Mr O’Kane: “Bigger heavier cows do not wean bigger, heavier calves. Research figures show that 600kg cows wean the same weight of calves as 800kg cows. More small cows can be kept on the same land area resulting in substantially more kilos weaned per hectare which is expressed as cow efficiency percentage.
The UK average is 40 per cent. US agri-economists say that 50 per cent is generally regarded as necessary to give substantial profit. This is easier to do with a smaller cow and increasingly difficult when cow weight exceeds 650kg.”
Mr O’Kane said we need to reduce the age of first calving in the UK. All large scale beef producing countries calve heifers at two years old. Compared to calving at three years this increases profit by £40 per cow for every year of its life, he said. He stressed that to achieve this heifers should be fed well during their first winter otherwise they would never catch up and achieve early puberty.
Mr O’Kane also said cross-bred cows were essential to introduce hybrid vigour. Other major maternal influences which had improved profits on Mr O’Kane’s farm were improving fertility, reducing the calving interval, birth mortality and the number of assisted calvings.