Beef farmers have a huge opportunity on their hands to improve returns and reduce costs in the post CAP reform era, by reducing the time taken to finish Continental-cross stock.

According to the latest EBLEX analysis of 2005 BCMS slaughter figures, the average slaughter age for young bulls and steers is 619 days, compared to 623 days in 2004.

This suggests little change in the large proportion of stock being slaughtered at more than two years old, explains MLC economist Duncan Sinclair.

“Although some animals slaughtered up to May last year could have still been subject to BSP slaughter retention periods for the old subsidy system, this proves there are great opportunities to reduce time taken to slaughter.”

Furthermore, Mr Sinclair says analysis of commercial Continental-cross steer and heifer slaughter performance data revealed no worthwhile increases in average carcass weight beyond 23-24 months of age.

“There certainly isn’t enough to pay for the average £1 a day costs recorded in extensive beef finishing systems in 2004/05.

“And as well as increasing risk of over-fatness and overweight penalties, older stock have generally poorer conformation than younger, faster grown cattle.”

MLC beef and sheep manager Duncan Pullar says it’s all about setting targets, as there is huge scope to reduce finishing periods by as much as four months in some instances.

“For farmers buying in heavy stores for a quick finish there is little they can do.

But anyone taking bucket reared or suckled calves through to finishing should be concentrating on target growth rates of at least 0.8kg a day.”

And monitoring growth rates against these set targets is vital, adds Dr Pullar.

“This involves weighing cattle at turnout, mid grazing, yarding and every two months during the finishing period.”

South west-based JGW Thomas’ beef specialist Lachie Maclachlan says finishers looking to reduce finishing periods should start by analysing forages and looking at what they are buying in to supplement them.

“The biggest learning curve for some is to use starch as a finishing base for the diet rather than protein.”

But he warns that using cheap by-products such as maize gluten won’t be satisfactory for target growth rates, as starch has been extracted.

Where forage or grazed grass quality is concerned, he advises following a regular reseeding programme of five to seven years to maximise quality.

“Dairy producers are all too familiar with metabolisable energy values of 10.5 and above and protein values of 12-13%, so it’s about time beef finishers were too.

Even the best concentrates aren’t enough to complement poor quality forage,” he adds.

With potential to save up to £30 a month, as well as earn valuable extra carcass returns, EBLEX advises producers that faster finishing will also offer opportunities to improve cash flow while spreading fixed costs over a larger number of animals.

Turn around times will be quicker, therefore, increasing the amount of beef produced in a year.

chrissie.lawrence@rbi.co.uk