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Handy Hints: Maximising beef returns

With beef margins under pressure Advanced Nutrition’s veterinary consultant, Debby Brown offers some tips for maximising returns.


Beef margins are extremely tight, with a net margin of just 77p/kg deadweight for the top third of producers finishing under 16 month olds and 29p/kg deadweight for over 16 month olds, while the rest are making a significant loss, according to AHDB Beef and Lamb.

Dr Debby Brown says: “Improving margins is all about setting a number of goals to increase performance. Growth rates are key to ensure cattle reach target weight and grades in as short a time as possible, while this allows a higher throughput of animals and spreads fixed cost. This, in turn, helps to improve margins.

“Regular weighing and assessing condition is also critical; you will need to measure and monitor in order to manage.”


THE priority must be to target the right feed to the right animal at the right time.

Diets need to be matched to cattle breed and sex in order to exploit their efficiency. Native breeds and heifers will need a longer growing phase, since they will have more of a tendency to get fat before they have grown sufficient frame.

In comparison Continental cross bulls, steers and some heifers will grow frame much easier, consequently they need a shorter growing period and longer time on a finishing diet. The table below demonstrates the significant component differences between growing and finishing diets to achieve target daily gain.

Table 1: Growing v finisher DLWG and diet components



Target DLWG

0.7 – 1.3kg/day

> 1.3 kg/day




> 12


16 per cent

14 per cent


> 40 per cent

< 25 per cent

Starch and Sugar

< 25 per cent

> 35 per cent


3 per cent

6-8 per cent


Source: Advanced Nutrition


THIS is the biggest area to consider. Any animal under stress will perform less efficiently than one that isn’t.


There are a number of issues to look at:

  • Fresh, clean water – This is often forgotten, but has a big impact on rumen health as well as dry matter intake and digestion. On a hot or humid day you should allow 7-8cm water access per head of cattle. There should always be two water troughs per pen
  • Feed access – This depends on the diets being fed. Access to a full ad-lib TMR can be a bit tighter than if restricted concentrates are fed, in which case all cattle need to be able to easily access the feed face at the same time to avoid smaller, lame or weaker animals missing out. However, as cattle are herd animals, they like to eat together and so the closer feed space can be to fit all in together, the better
  • Feed presentation - How often is it pushed up? How often are troughs cleaned out? Is the feed cold and palatable?
  • Stocking densities – Over-stocking a pen reduces feeding access as well as lying times, and this reduces efficiency of feeding, often leading to longer finishing times and more feed being fed
  • Mixed sizes, sexes in one pen – Smaller, weaker animals get pushed out
  • Dry bed – Wet environment leads to higher humidity and, therefore, an increased risk of pneumonia and reduced feed conversion
  • Air quality and ventilation – Again poor air quality will mean reduced feed intake as well as lead to an increased risk of pneumonia


PERFORMANCE and efficiency are affected by a number of health issues. These include:


  • Fluke and worm burden – Fluke and worm infections have a big effect on cattle that have been grazed through the summer and then come in onto a finishing diet. You need to be aware of the farm status, using faecal egg count testing if necessary, and then dosing as required at the most suitable time
  • Lameness – Lame animals naturally hang back from feeding and do not lie down as easily because it hurts them more when they get back up. They will cope better in a well-bedded environment that is not over stocked. Ensure these animals have every opportunity to access feed and recover from issues. As soon as an animal is identified as lame, it should be checked, its feet lifted and treated as appropriate. If a group of animals is suffering, then look for the possible causes and aim to prevent rather than cure. Zinc and biotin can help foot health if issues occur regularly, and mineral supplementation should be considered as an aid to prevention
  • Pneumonia - Any animal that has had pneumonia in the past or gets pneumonia will reduce its feed intake and will have a reduced growth rate compared to fully healthy animals. Prevention, again is better than cure, so establish when your periods of highest risk are and which diseases are likely to be the main cause so protocols can be implemented to reduce the impact. Vaccinations prior to periods of risk, and against main viruses occurring on farm are key to controlling disease, and this should be discussed with your vet to implement the best system for your farm
  • Other diseases - Any other diseases that have an effect on the immune system or digestion will reduce feed efficiency. A common one is BVD, where one infected animal will spread virus and as well as not performing itself, may also reduce the immunity of other cattle in the group so predisposing them to pneumonia and other diseases. Ensure control measures are in place for all the above diseases. Discuss with your vet the best options for your farm for time and type of dosing and/or vaccinations

Measuring and monitoring

THIS is key to being able to improve your profitability. You need to have a starting point to be able to move forward.

Weighing regularly is really necessary, ideally fortnightly, with beef cattle to monitor growth rates. Look at which animals are struggling in a group and why that might be.

Regular monitoring will quickly highlight if a group suddenly reduces in overall growth rate and enable a quick reaction to reduce losses.


Gaining and sharing information

GAINING information from others and passing knowledge on is also a really helpful and important aspect to maximise returns.

The first thing to do would be to find out if there is a local beef benchmarking and discussion group and join it if possible.

If not, then consider setting one up. This should lead to wider experiences, different systems and ideas and will give possibility to moving your farm forward quicker.

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