Jennifer MacKenzie is an agricultural photo journalist with almost 30 year's experience. Operating from her base in Cumbria, Jennifer undertakes mainly industry-related freelance writing and photography.

Improving productivity in the suckler herd

Improving feed conversion efficiency of youngstock as well as herd fertility are among ways beef producers can help maintain margins in an era without subsidies.

Donald Brown, left, with John Guiry at Town Farm, Glanton where more efficient feeding of beef cattle has allowed expansion of the sheep flock and the building of new winter housing for the sheep, right.
Donald Brown, left, with John Guiry at Town Farm, Glanton where more
efficient feeding of beef cattle has allowed expansion of the sheep flock
and the building of new winter housing for the sheep, right.

These are areas where Northumberland beef farmer John Guiry has already increased productivity since switching to a total mixed ration for his suckler herd and youngstock at Town Farm, Glanton, near Alnwick.

And Keenan beef specialist Donald Brown advises producers that they must devise strategies to go forward in an industry which had previously been geared around the subsidy system – this included reducing the amount of feed to produce a kilo of beef, improving productivity from the suckler herd and finishing cull cows.

John Guiry, who runs the 333 acre Town Farm with his father Pat, has improved health of his 70-cow suckler herd and achieved shorter feeding periods for his suckled calves since switching to a TMR system.

One of the most important factors was virtually eliminating calving problems caused by the Limousin and Angus cross cows getting too fat and reducing the resultant vets’ bills and ongoing fertility problems.

Store cattle are also ready for sale at 11 months old instead of 14 months achieving daily liveweight gains of 1.25kg instead of 1.02kg. The shorter finishing period has saved about £70 a head on feed, bedding, labour and finance costs.

John Guiry said: “The change in diet has freed up my best grass fields, which has made the biggest significance now for my sheep. Ewes and lambs are able to graze the fields normally cut for silage and I am able to finish more lambs off grass at very little cost.”

The plan is to increase sheep numbers and house the ewes during the winter, feeding them a complete diet.

Mr Guiry, who is optimistic about the future of livestock production, added: “We have got to look to produce more efficiently and increase our turnover. We still need to produce an income to live off.”

Donald Brown said: “One of the main things that farmers can do is reduce the amount of feed to produce a kilo of beef by improving feed conversion efficiency and use this saving to increase throughput of cattle for the same fixed costs.”

He said despite the absence of subsidies, BCMS figures showed that producers were not finishing their cattle any earlier, with the vast majority being finished in the 27-30 month period and 1,000 prime cattle – not cows - a week going into the OTMS.

This could be a whole range of bad management issues but producers needed to set a target age for finishing their cattle by 18 to 21 months when they would get the best feed conversion efficiency – anything over that weight was losing an average £30 a month in feed costs.

Producers should maximise their animals’ 200-day weight, then be focused on continued frame growth, followed by a short, sharp finishing period with a target age and weight in mind.

It was important to feed fibre, protein at up to 16 per cent to feed rumen bacteria and minerals.

The fibre was vital for its scratch factor to keep the rumen pH stable and ensure that the rumen microbes were working 24 hours a day and a TMR diet used the engineering to help this.

With a 350,000 tonne deficit of manufacturing beef in the EU, there were opportunities for finishing cull cows with the ending of the OTMS.

Mr Brown recommended breeders finish their own cows, aiming for the last third of lactation when the cows would put on weight more efficiently when they had stopped making milk-producing hormones.

For those buying cull cows to finish, they should select large-framed thin cows at body condition score of 2 which could increase in liveweight by 2kg a day for the first 30 or 40 day period of compensatory growth.

“Buy them thin and finish them as fast as you can. You really have to know when to stop feeding them. Finish them at body condition score 3-3.5 and in less than 90 days. It could be worth paying 60-70p per liveweight kg for a good animal to finish.

He suggested a finishing diet of 11.8 ME at 11-12 per cent protein with effective fibre and to spread the carbohydrate load with the use of a TMR.

Another cost saving area was with spring calving suckler cows which could make the most of grazing conditions in May and June.

“I question whether it’s best to let the grass grow for silage. Let the cow eat it and put it on her back and go into the winter 120-130kg heavier.

“Those extra two fields of grass that you are not going to cut for silage can grow on your heifers for calving at two years old rather than three years.

“Adding more clover and creep feeding the calf would help to keep body condition on cows. We’re very poor managers of grass in this country because we haven’t had to be.”

He said with suckler herds breeders should aim to have the first calf born on or before the heifer’s second birthday with subsequent calves born at 12 month intervals.

The cow should have her first oestrus within 60 days of calving and there should be a minimum 70 per cent conception to service. Attention should also be paid to cows’ health and milk yields.

With the change of diet at Town Farm, grass silage making has been reduced and no pit silage was made this year with the diet being made up of wholecrop wheat at 40 per cent dry matter at a cost £30/ton and 35 per cent whole crop lupicalage (tricale and lupins) at a cost of £25/ton.

All the growing cattle will be fed the same ration based on a 360 kg animal eating (amounts in kg): 0.5 straw, 0.1 minerals, 1 rolled barley, 1.5 distillers dark grains, 7 whole crop wheat, 7 whole crop lupicalage

This will provide 8 kg dry matter from which the better cattle will gain 1.2 kgs/day without getting fat, at a cost of 70p/head/day and cost/kg live weight gain of under 60p.

The cows with calf at foot will be fed: 1.5 straw, 0.15 minerals, 16.5 whole crop wheat, 16.5 whole crop lupicalage.

This will provide 14 kgs dry matter, enough for milk, conception/pregnancy and holding body condition at a cost of £1/day.

At lambing time the indoor ewes will be fed: 0.02 minerals, 0.25 soya, 0.25 barley, 2 whole crop wheat, 2 whole crop lupicalage which is 2 kgs dry matter at 16.5 per cent protein and a cost of 17p/head/day.

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