27 February 2023
Bryn Farm, a Farming Connect demonstration site, near Cardigan, has for the last three years worked alongside Farming Connect on projects to improve the performance and sustainability of the business.
These have included producing bull beef from the progeny of the farm’s Saler suckler herd instead of selling as stores.
Huw and Meinir Jones made the switch because they farm in a high TB area and there was a risk that should the herd experience a disease breakdown, they wouldn’t be able to move the stores off the farm.
They now select bulls which wean off the cows at 280kg or heavier to keep entire; these are the progeny of a Charolais bull.
For the last three years, the performance of the bulls has been monitored by Farming Connect and the results shared with farmers at a recent open day at Bryn Farm.
One of the speakers was beef and dairy nutritionist Hefin Richards, of Rumenation Nutrition Consultancy, who had formulated the ration and provided advice.
Seventy per cent of the ration is home-grown rolled barley with the remainder made up of maize grain, rapeseed meal, protected rape, molasses, live yeast, limestone and a mineral specific to intensive bull beef. Intakes have averaged 13kg a day excluding straw.
This starch-based diet with a high energy density and a moderate protein level - typically 13-14% as fed - was formulated to achieve high DLWGs but, with a “fine line” between performance and acidosis, Mr Richards said careful consideration should be given to what goes into a bull beef ration to maintain rumen health.
Using controlled intake hoppers, the bull feed mix is offered alongside forage from weaning.
The hoppers are adjusted to gradually increase access until they are fully ad lib.
Performance over the three years has seen bulls spending 100 days on ad lib feed before slaughter at more than 600kg liveweight.
By finishing the bulls at 13 months, their efficiency in converting this feed into growth is at its optimum – February and March-born calves are typically sold by April so only need to be at grass in the first season whilst suckling.
Mr Richards said there is potential to keep the bulls for longer, to increase carcase weight, but that comes with a “trade off’’ with diminishing DLWG and feed conversion efficiency.
“Efficiency drops off at that point. Yes, the bulls could be kept for another six weeks, but the feed costs would be higher to put on additional kilogrammes,’’ he said.
Although diet is very important, so are many other factors, Mr Richards added.
“Good health, day to day management, genetics and clean water, it’s about attention to detail.
“The bulls need a comfortable environment and as few distractions as possible so that they eat and then lie down to ruminate. What should be avoided at all cost is to have female cattle nearby.’’
Over three years, Huw and Meinir’s bulls grew at an average of 2.4kg/head/day whilst on ad lib feeding.
Cattle achieved 345kg deadweight on average and killed out at 57%. The average sale price was £3.87/kg.
Farming Connect Technical Officer Menna Williams, who oversaw the project, said it had demonstrated that rearing bulls intensively is an efficient way to produce beef.
“This is especially so when home-grown grain is available,’’ she said.
Huw and Meinir have also improved the efficiency of their herd by reducing calving spread – 27% more cows are now calving in the first six weeks compared to three years ago.
This has been achieved in part by managing cows according to their appropriate body condition score; selecting bulls for calving ease had also increased the number of calves reared from 88% to 94% - worth £7,200 across the herd over the three years of the project.
Cows are outwintered for all but 10 weeks, grazing forage brassicas before they are housed for calving.
Beef consultant Rhidian Jones told farmers at the open day that efficient suckler beef production comes down to several important technical factors.
Farmers who breed their own replacements should select heifers from the earliest calvers and only bull heifers for nine weeks.
“Bull more than you need, but for a limited time, and this will build in fertility at the start of the cow’s life in the herd,’’ advised Mr Jones, of RJ Livestock Systems.
“Any that don’t get in calf can simply rejoin the store cattle and there is nothing lost.’’
Other factors that should be in place is the recording of fertility performance, health planning, measuring cow efficiency – cow weight reared needs to be at over 45% - and managing body condition.
One unit of condition is equivalent of 10-13% of liveweight.
Mr Jones warned against penalising cows for efficiency if they have gained condition at grass, which is essential for outwintering systems.
“This condition, going into the winter, is essential to contribute towards the cow’s ME requirements outside as well as protecting her from the elements,” he said.
Research shows that at a body condition score (BCS) of 2.5 – 3 at calving, the calving interval is 364 days, rising to 382 days at BCS 2 and as high as 418 days at BCS 1 – 1.5.
Mr Jones said that, additionally, a rising condition score of 2.5 to 3.0 at mating gives the best percentage of calves reared.
Setting some simple targets is a good starting point for improving the herd’s performance.
These can be factors such as the number of cows in calf, the expected number of calves, the number of cow and calf deaths, calf growth rates and the percentage of cows that get back in calf.
Mr Jones advises keeping a simple table with target and actual data, and to update and review it at regular intervals to keep the herd on track.