Maximising kilos of weaned calf sold per suckler cow is the main objective of the livestock enterprise at Eyford House Estate, Slaughter, Cheltenham.
Eyford House Estate’s farming operation has to stand on its own two feet and the system is constantly being tweaked to achieve this goal.
Farm manager Mark Webb says: “A spring calving suckler herd is the only option for the estate’s non-arable land which features traditional permanent pasture and parkland. However, we find there is continual scope for improvement as suckler genetics and management tactics develop. Most recently we have focused on improving cow efficiency.
“We became aware suckler cows of a lower weight are, in general, more efficient at producing improved calf weight per unit of cow weight simply due to the higher cost of maintaining bigger cows.”
During a 12-month period, 75 per cent of feed consumed is used for maintenance by the animal which is directly related to cow size.
Five years ago, Mr Webb introduced a new strategy to breed smaller cows and produce more saleable calves from the unit.
He says: “Our continental cross suckler cows were averaging 800kg mature body weight.
The issue was not just size. We found these cows were losing their maternal traits, including milk and calving ease. I no longer wanted to pull big calves. Temperament was also becoming an issue, as was motherability – they were literally leaving their calves behind.
“At the time a friend suggested I should go native and introduce Beef Shorthorn, a breed which appeared to tick all the boxes in terms of having a smaller mature weight and demonstrating essential functional suckler cow traits. It is also known for thriving on low input forage-based systems such as ours.”
Since then having annually retained a portion of the Beef Shorthorn cross heifers for replacements, Mr Webb is firmly convinced the decision is paying off.
“We have now had five crops of heifers coming into the herd and they are going on to mature at 650-700kg which is enabling us to keep 10 per cent more cows on the same farmed area.
“Calf weaning weight at five to seven months has remained consistent at an average 350kg for steers and 330kg for heifers and they have a similar value to what we achieved for continental crosses.”
Steers and heifers not being kept as replacements are sold at weaning to a regular buyer for finishing.
“We keep in touch with the finisher. The latest crop of steers finished at an average 352kg at 480 days and surplus heifers at an average 321kg and 480 days and they all killed out in the R4L bracket.
“Beef Shorthorn crosses are easy to manage. They are calving a live calf with as little hassle as possible. While I do not bolt the back door at 11.30pm during calving, management is a lot less onerous and does not need assistance these days. I no longer have to deal with difficult calvings and the accompanying cost and the calves are up on their feet and sucking within minutes.
“Heifer replacements are our closed herd’s future and have a huge impact on its continuing profitability. Currently, we retain 40 head annually.
“I used to select what I thought looked to be good continental cross heifers for replacement purposes, regardless of weight and other selection criteria.
“Nowadays, I have adopted a focused management approach with specific targets which go hand in hand with the new Beef Shorthorn genetic make-up.”
Number of replacements required are determined by cow longevity and age at first calving.
This season is the first time Mr Webb has agreed to cull all cows which have given birth to more than 10 calves.
“We used to keep our cows for as long as possible, however last year we noted most issues were associated with those scheduled to calve their 11th and 12th.
Age at first calving is targeted at 24 months, an age which enables more calves to be reared per head per lifetime, combined with reduced time between generations, resulting in speeding up the herd’s overall genetic improvement.
Beef Shorthorn sires are selected from the breed’s top 10 per cent for calving ease, fertility and 200-day milk estimated breeding values, together with visual appraisal as they have to be ‘easy on the eye’ says Mr Webb.
Initially, 50 heifers are selected on weaning weight, at an average of 350kg, reflecting their dam’s milkiness, calving ability, and temperament. The final 40 are selected on weight, genetic make-up, temperament and finally looks.
Post weaning, seven- and eight-month-old selected heifers are housed in October and introduced to ad-lib silage and supplemented with 2kg per head per day, 16 per cent CP rearing concentrate designed to grow frame.
Mr Webb says: “Target growth is 0.8kg per day and a body condition score of 3. To ensure heifers stay on track, they are weighed at three intervals during the housing period and again at turnout in mid-March. Any which fail to meet targets are sold for finishing.”
At turnout, the 16 per cent crude protein supplement is reduced to 0.5kg per head per day. They are rotationally grazed on a weekly basis through the season on a mix of reseeds and permanent pasture.
Having achieved 380-420kg target weight at 14 months, the heifers are introduced to the bull for 63 days. Any heifers scanned empty are sold for finishing.
Heifers remain in the same group to be managed separately from the rest of the herd. They are maintained in body condition score 3.5 through summer on a grass diet.
Heifers are introduced to ad-lib silage on housing, until December when they are fed a maintenance diet of silage only to achieve a target average 580kg in the final two months of pregnancy.
Maintaining a closed herd minimises health risks, while buying is restricted to new stock bulls.
“We ensure all bulls are in a Cattle Health Certification accredited scheme, so we know what diseases they are tested for and their results. If circumstances allow, newly bought bulls are quarantined for six weeks. We vaccinate cows and heifers for BVD, IBR and clostridial diseases.
Correcting the unit’s natural mineral deficiencies has also added to the herd’s improved performance. Last year trace elements, including magnesium and manganese, were introduced to the drinking troughs.
Since then, fertility increased by 9 per cent while the number of retained cleansings fell from 18 per cent to 1 per cent. Selenium and copper levels have also been corrected to achieve the correct
balance for the farm.”
Mr Webb says: “While there is quite a bit of luck going in to the herd’s performance, I firmly believe you have to make your own luck and it is called good stockmanship.”