The possibility of developing of a low-cost production system for dairy-bred beef calves was discussed at a recent open day at Harper Adams University. Simon Wragg reports.
Seed – £188
Lime – £75
Fertiliser – £198
Sprays – £160
Contractor – £255
Rent – £250
Overall total – £1,126/ha
Source: Marc Jones, ADAS
New guidelines for an outdoor forage-based ‘Brexit dairy beef scheme’ aimed at delivering a net profit of £300/head are being researched in a bid to overturn current industry-wide losses suggested to be running at £67/head.
In a collaboration between AHDB, ADAS, Harper Adams University (HAU) and commercial sponsors the Hereford Cattle Society and beef processor Dunbia, the low cost beef system marries attributes of two seasons of rotational grazing with over-wintering on strip-grazed fodder beet – the lowest cost forage on a kg DM basis – to rectify dairy beef margins.
According to HAU’s beef specialist Simon Marsh, the system effectively did away with a winter ‘store’ period and later reliance on using cereal-based rations on which to finish cattle. This would be achieved by targeting a daily liveweight gain of at least 0.7kg/head from beet allowing cattle to be finished off grass the following summer at 620kg liveweight ‘comfortably’ at 20-21 months old.
At a recent open day at the university, Mr Marsh said: “This system is about stripping out costs. So if you have got a desire for a big tractor on a feeder wagon which eats diesel and rusts, or you like lots of concrete and steel then go home as it is not for you.”
Not all farms would be able to benefit from the proposed system, producers heard. Having land on which to grow and strip graze fodder beet would exclude heavier soils and/or steeper fields.
And even those able to utilise the system would need to manage the introduction of fodder beet as the main winter forage carefully to avoid digestive disorders which could eat into the targeted weight gain needed to generate profit.
The study began in October 2016 with 35 Hereford cross Holstein Friesian and 35 Holstein Friesian steer calves being reared at ADAS beef and sheep specialist Marc Jones’ home farm near Welshpool.
He said: “We out-winter between 300-600 cattle each year so know the problems you can get into.”
Mr Jones’ family grow 16 hectares (40 acres) of fodder beet utilising it as an entry into a new grass reseed.
“Why fodder beet you may ask? It is the highest yielding forage at 27t/ha, roughly three times its competitors, with an ME of 13 per cent. On a p/kg dry matter basis, concentrate costs 24p, silage 12-15p, grass 6p but forage crops, such as fodder beet, is 4-6p.”
He added: “Our aim is to reduce costs. We can take cattle out to the crop over winter reducing machinery, bedding and other costs. For example, it costs £1.44/head/day to house stock against £0.70 to out-winter.”
These additional costs erode dairy beef margins as highlighted by on-farm figures collated for AHDB’s Stocktake recording scheme. Using data from 2016, figures suggested beef cattle finished at between 16-24 months old were losing £67.29/head, with an average concentrate use of 1.3t/head and short grazing window of four-and-a-half months.
To rectify these losses, the new study saw October-born calves reared on a commercial milk replacer, concentrate and ad-lib straw to achieve a bodyweight of 180kg/head at turnout the following March.
Youngstock were moved to an area of permanent pasture and offered a 20 per cent crude protein grower nut and big bale silage before moving to a rotational grazing system in early April.
Mr Jones explained: “Youngstock were rotated through 10, one-hectare paddocks producing an annual grass yield of 12t DM/ha with an ME of 12 and crude protein of 18 per cent; just as good as any concentrate.”
A daily liveweight gain of 1kg/head while at grass and a bodyweight of 370kg before transitioning onto fodder beet for winter from late October was targeted. Study data highlighted actual weight gains of 0.90kg and 0.84kg were achieved by the Hereford crosses and Holstein Friesians, respectively, during the grazing season.
While youngstock were at grass, fodder beet was planted in late April and can be part of a grass reseeding policy.
Mr Jones explained: “It is quite an expensive crop to grow at £1126/ha but its yield makes it the most affordable winter forage crop (see panel). A yield of 30t/ha results in a value of 3.75p/kg DM; a 20t/ha crop has a value of 5.63p/kg DM.”
Agronomy could be challenging, he said. “Getting contractors to drill below 40,000 seeds/ha is a challenge. Most do not set their machines that low for any other crop and you need to use high pressure nozzles on your sprayer (for weed and pest control) and avoid grassland sprays as these are likely to kill the beet.”
Producers were told to avoid growing beet on land where rhizoctania had been an issue in the recent past. Dressed seed was available but options were limited due to their gradual withdrawal under EU-rules, explained Mark Sheridan of seed supplier Field Options.
The AHDB-funded study will see cattle taken into a second grazing season at HAU. Finished stock will be sold at 620kg liveweight with carcase data from abattoir group Dunbia used to assess overall animal performance and the financial margin achieved.
Mr Marsh said: “I believe we will make more money out of the Hereford crossess than the Holstein Friesians as the latter will struggle to get sufficient fat cover. I have no illusions on that.”
Introducing fodder beet as a core winter forage
Fodder beet has to be introduced gradually to cattle diets over three weeks to avoid acidosis, but balanced carefully against restricted access to supplementary grass and/or silage to ensure the fodder crop was eaten out efficiently to waste.
Simon Marsh said: “Cattle need to be of an age to cope with beet. As a guide, a 400kg animal would eat 3 per cent of its bodyweight as beet once accustomed to the crop (about 12kg DM/day).”
During the initial switch, cattle should be given access to a run-back area of grassland on which to lie and to access big bale silage and drinking water.
From day one cattle should be allocated 1-2kg DM fodder beet/head plus 8kg DM of grass silage.
Mr Marsh said: “Aim to increase the amount of fodder beet by 1kg DM/head every other day to day 14.”
At this point cattle could accept 8kg DM/head of fodder beet and 2-4kg DM/head of grass silage. From day 21 ad-lib fodder beet may be offered and supplemented with 2kg DM silage.
To determine how much fodder beer is required for each cattle group’s daily feed, first calculate the root yield from a meter square plot within the field and multiply by the field area (1ha = 1,0000m sq).
For each 400kg liveweight animal in the study a 12kg DM/head/day allocation was calculated. This was multiplied by the number of cattle grazed and divided by the total field yield to indicate how many days grazing could be supported, delegates were told.
Electric fencing was used universally and moved frequently to ensure the area to be grazed was eaten out cleanly. Some roots deep in the soil would remain. A back fence becomes useful later to avoid unnecessary poaching.
Where possible delegates were encouraged to graze cattle from the top of a field to the bottom. This reduces the risk of run-off, principally, but it was always easier to move stock downhill than uphill. Access to drinking water throughout was required.