Margins from bull beef, back to basics for grassland management, and using rather than just gathering data were talking points at AHDB’s recent Beef Live event at Harper Adams University. Simon Wragg reports.
New research comparing dairy-bred bulls and steers reared on a cereal-based ration showed entire males achieved an extra £18 margin over feed cost but this came with associated risks, suggested researchers at Harper Adams University.
Bulls are favoured for their higher growth rate, improved feed efficiency and faster throughputs than steers, explained Simon Marsh, Harper Adams University’s principal lecturer. But this comes at a cost with meat being less tender (albeit still within major processor/retailer guidelines), having a higher risk of dark tissue leading to rejection, and - importantly - greater concern over staff safety.
The new research data came from a study of 34 five-month-old Holstein, British Blue cross Holstein and Hereford cross Holstein males weighing 220kg liveweight and reared on a commercial cereal-based 14 per cent crude protein concentrate. This was offered ad-lib along with fresh straw.
Bulls achieved a daily liveweight gain of 1.33kg versus 1.25kg for steers reaching a finished weight of 580kg and 564kg, respectively. Bulls reached slaughter weight in 270 days and steers in 278 days, shows the research carried out with the help of AHDB and beef processor ABP.
The improved performance saw bulls achieve a feed conversion efficiency (FCE) of 6.22kg feed per kilo of liveweight gain against 6.38kg for steers. Kill out percentages were also better at 51.6 per cent versus 50.6 per cent, respectively.
On the flip side, bull carcases were leaner (2+ versus 3-/3+ on the EUROP carcase grading grid) and had higher tissue colour scores (4.50 versus 3.60). The impact of poorer fat scores for dairy-bred bulls could see animals classified as 2+ or 2- subject to deductions currently of between 10-15p/kg compared to those classified 2+.
AHDB tests on meat quality using the carcase eye muscle (Longissimus dorsi) showed although steers had a smaller surface area (68.8cm square versus 81.0cm square), tissue was lighter in colour, contained more marbling and had a lower shear force suggesting better eating characteristics.
Mr Marsh said: “Overall bulls returned a higher gross margin of £18/head (£263 versus £245).” But when questioned he admitted risks of handling bulls – generally recognised to be more dangerous than steers – may ameliorate some of the financial benefit.
Steers are also better suited to making use of home-grown forage – a factor which has encouraged the university to increase the number of steers reared in its commercial unit having recently obtained extra grazing. Health and safety concerns were also a factor, he added.
Beef producers should move away from judging the profitability of grass-based systems on a £/head basis to using either sales of stock sold (£/ha) or kilos of liveweight sold off-farm (kg/ha) to evaluate the management and use of low cost grazing, suggested Marc Jones of ADAS (PICTURED).
On a pence/kg DM basis, both grazed grass (5-7p/kg DM) and grass silage (14p/kg DM) were more affordable than concentrate feed. But as a feed stock its availability and quality were dependent on good management, he explained.
Mr Jones said: “Soil pH is critical as this has a significant impact on the availability of nutrients from soil (to support grass growth). We should be aiming for a target of 6-6.5pH which can be addressed by applying lime to grassland or soil ahead of a reseed.”
At a pH of 5.5 just 30 per cent of nitrogen (N), 23 per cent of phosphorus (P), and 33 per cent of potassium (K) is available to the growing crop. At a pH of 6.0 this increases to 89 per cent of N, 52 per cent of P, and 100 per cent of K. But there were still gains to be made by achieving a target pH of 6.5 where 100 per cent of N, P and K were accessible, delegates learnt.
Data from Irish grassland research body, Teagasc, showed correct stocking on a rotational grazing basis increased grass production significantly.
“Do not allow grass to get too far ahead before letting cows in to graze,” said Mr Jones.
Looking at a mature field of grass, some of which had thrown seed heads due to the recent dry spell, he added: “Cows would trample half of this field; you would not allow them to do that to half a bag of feed.”
Dividing larger fields into 1ha (2.5-acre) paddocks with electric fencing and placing water troughs strategically were a good management tools to ensure grass was utilised efficiently and wastage minimised.
Likewise, producers should try to practice leader/follower systems where younger cattle are allowed to graze the top leaves and older cattle graze out the bottom where there was a greater risk of parasite infestation.
Well managed grazing could allow livestock to stay out longer reducing winter housing.
“Remember it costs roughly £1.40/day to house a suckler cow versus 70p/day outdoors.
“And do not worry about getting involved with management tools such as plate-metering. Leave that until you have a system up and running.”
Farmers in general are getting better at gathering data but too few use it to monitor what is going on in their suckler herds and to influence management decisions taken to improve profitability, said Oxfordshire-based farm manger, Neil Rowe (PICTURED).
If herd owners and managers used just one key performance indicator (KPI) to judge performance it should be the weight of the mature cow versus the weight of its calf at weaning, he said.
“If you have a 750kg cow and its calf is 325kg at weaning, that is a figure of less than 50 per cent. At 45-50 per cent I would suggest 90 per cent of what she has eaten has gone into body maintenance and just 10 per cent to what you are selling off the farm.
“We need to get to smaller cows bred for better feed efficiency (not feed conversion efficiency which only leads to bigger cows); a trait which is 43 per cent heritable. A 640kg suckler producing a 380kg calf at weaning is using 70 per cent of what she has eaten for maintenance and 30 per cent for production. Using this KPI I have been able to wipe out £50-£70/cow in feed costs alone.”
Tightening up other areas by monitoring data and changing management, such as shortening the calving period, had seen margins improve by £260-£300/cow across the 150-cow herd he manages on behalf of W. Cumber and Son.