With dairy businesses being squeezed it is important to optimise cattle sales and this means knowing your market. Laura Bowyer and Howard Walsh report.
In recent times, many dairy consultants have been endorsing serving heifers at 14-15 months as the most profitable option, but if heifers are destined for the sale ring, is this what the market really wants?
Establishing the long-term intention of individual heifers from an early age can enable profit-driven decision-making and, with increasing success of sexed semen in dairy herds, the destiny of each heifer should be considered at an early age.
If growing heifers for your herd, serving them at the often advised 14-15 months may well be the best and most cost-effective option. However, if heifers are to be sold, leaving these animals to mature for another six months may be beneficial, with the trade at many sale rings appearing to favour a slightly older, stronger heifer, calved at 30 months.
Early calved, less mature and less robust heifers may not be able to deal with the stress of travelling, the market and integrating into a new herd, so may not come into full milk quite so quickly, at an age where they are expected to give 30 litres per day.
Several auctioneers say they are noticing a better trade for stronger heifers, although not all agree.
Fred Spurgeon, dairy auctioneer at Gisburn Auction Market, says older heifers are making more money at the North West market.
He says: “Heifers have recently been hitting £1,800-£2,000 through our ring and these are consistently the 28- to 30-month-old animals. They have extra strength, weight and maturity, can stand their corner and keep growing in a new home while giving 30kg per day.
“When rearing heifers to calve at the lower end of the age scale, only the highest quality of management will ensure the animal is fit for service and not a day can be missed when it comes to early-life vaccinations. But body condition needs to be bang on at the point of service, you cannot just go off the calendar.”
He believes buyers are indicating they want surplus heifers to be left to mature and grow before serving.
This message is echoed by Meg Elliot, dairy auctioneer at Leek Market and Farmers Guardian’s Mart’s the Heart Awards auctioneer of the year.
She says: “From an efficiency and good management point of view, heifers calved at just over two years will milk better and this is fine if you are milking them yourself.
“But in a sale, heifers are better suited being a bit stronger and will be more valuable aged two-and-a-half to two-and-three-quarter years. They have strength and size and look more milky, so are more saleable and make more money.
“They are judged as they are seen in the ring and will always be favoured. However, there is a fine line between being strong and being too old.”
Derek Biss, dairy auctioneer at Sedgemoor, says: “Heifers at 22-24 months are fine for people geared up for keeping smaller heifers apart from bigger cows.
“Flying herds are not usually able to keep animals separately, so look for stronger, older heifers of 30 months, which go for better money. But, keeping them this bit longer may counteract the increased value gained, although we are fortunate in the South West to have plenty of grass which can help keep costs down.”
Claiming heifer age is a regional preference, Glyn Lucas, dairy auctioneer at Harrison and Hetherington, has a different stance on the ideal age to sell heifers.
He says: “We see a larger percentage of heifers coming through here at 24 months and they usually make more money.
“Our breeders have really improved the way they rear heifers but older heifers may fetch more money in the Midlands. It really all comes down to body condition and some heifers will have the body condition as early as 21 months if the management was right in the early stages of their lives.”
Rather like spent hens, cull dairy cows are viewed by many as a by-product of the main enterprise and sold to make what they will.
But some auctioneers and processors suggest, outside TB restrictions, dairy farmers might make a few pounds more by identifying the best outlets for their culls, notably young leaner cows and any cows on foreign ear tags.
While the auction mart is the disposal route of choice for many farmers, those who know, and can provide, what processors want are satisfied with their returns from the deadweight system. However, while an R3 or 4L might be the preference for one firm, a minus-O 3 might suit another.
AHDB knowledge exchange manager Liz Ford says it is clear most farmers are now more attuned to market requirements, partly down to the concept of grading auction mart culls, one to four, which was first promoted more than 10 years ago. She says while its uptake is now by no means universal, she believes it has served to ‘get the message across’.
With grade one well-fleshed right through, having even but not excessive fat cover, and grade four extremely poor and under-finished or over-fat, there is often scope for the specialised job of further finishing some of the two grades between, provided they were completely dry and sound on their feet.
Several processors say they believe the general quality of dairy culls has improved in recent years, whether this is because dairy farmers are more focused on cull values in the light of weaker milk prices, or simply because the industry is preferring a more robust type of milk cow.
Clearly, lean is less of a problem than fat, and some highlight the loss of carcase value from injection site damage on the rump, rather than the neck.
There does however remain an issue with cows on foreign tags. While some firms will take them readily ‘at a price’, others simply price against them because they are not wanted due to the considerable additional costs in processing in order to comply with the rules.
In simple terms, the rules in place require segregation from one end of the line to the other and clear labelling according to specific country of origin. Boning out and boxing separately adds further cost.
Greg Pickstock is managing director of Pickstock Telford, where 1,800-2,000 cull cows are processed weekly. Most are of UK origin.
He says: “We would normally discount cows on foreign tags by 30p/kg deadweight and this is largely due to the higher costs involved in processing them.
“For example, Dutch, French and German cows would have to be processed and packed separately, causing inefficiencies and higher costs in the boning hall. Sales of EU cows tend to be limited to export, although right now it is quite a good trade due to the currency.”
Pickstock’s preference is to source direct from farm and it is roughly a 60:40 split between domestic and export on the sales side.
Paul Woolley, director at Woolley Bros, Sheffield, pays a level deadweight price on mixed loads of foreign and UK cows, although he prices them individually if they are consigned separately.
“We find it a straightforward, transparent system, but it is up to the farmer to market his cows to best advantage. When a farmer is marketing UK and foreign tag cows he should look for the best overall average price, not the highest UK-tag price, with foreign cows heavily discounted,” he says.
Woolley Bros buys at some auction marts, but prefers to source direct, handling about 800 cows per week.
Acknowledging many dairy farms did not have the facilities to try and improve the finish on culls, he says not all plain cows were suitable for feeding anyway, because of age, bad feet etc.
Mr Woolley says they have several customers happy to buy beef from foreign cows, mainly in Holland and Ireland.
“But of course they pay less for them. We tend to sell them as sides. If you are boning out there is a lot of additional cost in segregation and labelling and you need 25 like-for-like carcases at any one time to make it economic.”
One of the largest cull cow auctions is Market Drayton which alternates red and green sales at its Monday fixture.
Auctioneer Bernie Hutchinson says vendors of young, leaner but problem-free cows, can be well advised to sell in a green market, thereby giving specialist finishers the opportunity to compete for these animals.
“We regularly now have as many finishers as abattoir buyers round the ring at our green sales and some finishers are seeing more margin-potential in good young cows than stores in some cases.
“We have some finishers who will actively ‘follow’ vendors as they have bought from them before and know there is potential in the type of animal they are selling.
“Obviously it is a specialist job but where they see potential to turn a young cow into profit with a few months feeding, it makes sense.
“We have a few dairy farmers who have the accommodation to put a bit more weight and finish on their cull cows and benefit from it but most just need to sell them on as soon as is feasible.
“Dairy cows on foreign tags tend to find fewer buyers but there are wholesalers who have a good export trade, or have customers which do not require the ‘British’ label.”