Last year we featured Beef Focus farmer Simon Frost (pictured below), who achieves performance in the top 1%. Jeremy Hunt gives an update.

What type of suckler cow is the most efficient and ultimately the most profitable? It’s a vexed question among suckled-calf producers and all those who have strong alliances to specific breeds and crosses. Inevitably, it’s an on-going issue that will always have strong protagonists on all sides of the debate.

simon frostBut according to Simon Marsh, senior beef lecturer at Harper Adams University, who has been monitoring the performance of Simon Frosts’s suckler herd, a herd of small to medium-sized, milky suckler cows put to high-index, easy-calving, fast-growing terminal sires is the blueprint for efficient and profitable suckled calf production.

Like many suckled calf producers, Mr Frost’s choice is the Limousin cross Holstein-Friesian. He values the combination of conformation and light bone gained from the Limousin, while he believes the cow benefits from the growth and milk of the Holstein-Friesian.

When put to high-index Charolais terminal sires with top 1-10% EBVs for calving ease, 400-day weights and eye muscle area, these “curve-bender” bulls deliver calves with frame, growth and muscle.

“This is a classic breeding combination, producing the ‘three-way cross’ that benefits from the Charolais to enhance hybrid vigour,” says Mr Marsh.

“The three-way cross with a curve-bender bull has a 26.5% performance advantage over a pure-bred animal that’s commercially managed. Hybrid vigour has a direct impact on low heritable traits such as fertility and calf survival.”

Target production

Last year Mr Frost’s cows were weighed and condition scored after weaning. The efficiency measure – and the target that suckler producers should be using – aims to achieve a 200-day calf weight that’s 50% of the cow’s live weight.

“If you’re below this target it indicates that you’ve either got big cows that are costly to maintain, or that your calf growth rates aren’t as good as they should be and need attention. When compared with performance at a Scottish Agricultural College Monitor Farm running Limousin cross cows, Mr Frost’s herd shows a marked improvement in performance and efficiency (see table 1).

table1

“What’s clear is that his cows are small to medium-sized and therefore have low maintenance costs and yet maintain the ability to milk well. The herd replacement rate is only 17.6% compared with the UK average of 21.7% – so longevity isn’t an issue,” says Mr Marsh.

Evaluating lifetime performance

Evaluating lifetime performance data of Mr Frost’s suckled calves on a liveweight and deadweight comparison (see tables 3 and 4), it’s the smaller cows that are proving to be significantly more efficient.

table3

table4

Bigger cows produce slightly heavier bull calves that finish earlier with carcass (not liveweight) gains of 1.0kg a day. Bigger cows produce a slightly higher gross margin a head, but this would be negated by a reduced stocking rate.

There is a direct relationship between cow liveweight and calf carcass weight for Limousin cross Holstein-Friesian cows. While the average liveweight of the cows at weaning was 595kg, the data has been evaluated to assess the efficiency of production, comparing big cows (those over 600kg) with small cows (those under 600kg) of the same breed type.

Big versus small cows

The analysis, which excludes data from first-calved heifers, shows the bigger cows were in a higher condition score at weaning and produced calves that achieved carcasses averaging 6kg heavier and finishing at least eight days earlier.

“If we compare the data from Mr Frost’s herd with that from other suckler herds, it’s clear the daily live/carcass weight-gain must be factored into the final performance figures, bearing in mind that Mr Frost’s bull calves finish at just over 13-and-a -half months old,” says Mr Marsh.

To maintain cows which are, on average 83kg heavier, requires an extra 8MJ of ME a day. During the winter this can be provided from 2.7kg of 30% DM silage at 10.0ME, and in the summer with 0.7kg of grass dry matter. If silage and grazed grass are costed at £92 a tonne and £45 a tonne of dry matter respectively, it follows that the increase in feed costs is £19.15 a cow – with the added negative factor of the enforced reduced stocking rate of bigger cows of approximately 6%.

“While there was an improvement in efficiency and reduction in feed costs with the smaller cows, the bull calves produced by the bigger cows were slightly heavier at slaughter and finished earlier.

“If the extra 6kg of calf carcass weight is valued at £3.40 a kilo, it’s worth £20.40 a head. If this is added to the money saved by the eight-days faster finishing of these bulls, the saving in feed costs is £15.13 a calf (based on 8.5kg a day of a home mix ration at £190 a tonne and 3kg a day of silage dry matter at £92 a tonne). In addition, there are reduced variable costs (including straw bedding) worth a further £2.40 a calf.

“Overall, the calves from the bigger cows returned an extra £37.93, giving an extra profit of £18.02 a cow. But this increase in margin would be negated by the reduction in stocking rate,” says Mr Marsh.

He concludes that focusing on ease of calving and getting as many kilos of gain at the youngest possible age are the key factors to efficient beef production.

Bull finishing

Calves produced by Mr Frost are sold at weaning in mid-October to Alan and John Dore at Glapwell near Chesterfield. Bull calves are creep fed up to a maximum of 1.5kg a head a day from early August until weaning in October, so they are well accustomed to taking feed prior to being sold, but are not fed ad-lib.

Bull calf weaning weights last year were 391kg at 212 days – that’s a Daily Liveweight Gain of 1.63kg from birth. The bulls are intensively finished on a 16% crude protein barley-based mix containing soya and linseed flakes which is fed to appetite with top-quality big-bale silage offered ad-lib.

Last year saw 56 Charolais bulls achieve an average carcass weight of 427kg at 415 days – just over 13-and-a-half months old (see table 2).

table2

Says Mr Marsh: “The recognised industry target for intensively finished suckler bulls is a slaughter weight of 590kg at 14 months old. If a killing-out percentage of 60% is assumed this equates to a carcass weight of 354kg. Mr Frost’s bull calves have performed significantly above this target.

Figures show 28.6% of the bulls recorded E grades for conformation, 67.8% graded U and 3.6% R.

“This is an outstanding achievement. Mr Frost selects terminal sires with very high eye muscle area EBVs, positive Calving Ease Direct and high 400-day weight EBVs. His target eye muscle area EBV is +6.0sq cm compared with the breed average of +2.9sq m, which has a big effect on the carcass grades being achieved. All the bulls graded either fat class 3 or 4L, so there were no issues of carcasses being too lean.”

All the figures produced from the bull slaughterings were based on being killed out “gut full” at 59.8%. This is equivalent to a live slaughter weight of 714kg and hence a DLWG from weaning to slaughter of 1.59kg, with a birth to slaughter DLWG of 1.62kg.

“Since breeds vary in their killing-out percentage, it’s more appropriate to calculate and quote daily carcass gains. This requires the birth carcass weight to be deducted. The standard practice is to take 24kg off the carcass weight to account for the birth weight. When this is done Mr Frost’s bulls have recorded a phenomenal daily carcass gain from birth to slaughter of 0.97kg a day,” says Mr Marsh.

The bulls converted their feed with a high level of efficiency – FCR of 4.7kg (DM):1 compared with the recognised target of 5.3:1.

When this performance is related to efficiency of production based on cow weight, the smaller cows are more efficient (see table 4), with an efficiency factor of 75.2 (bull calf carcass weight: cow live weight), compared with 66.5 for the bigger cows.

To date, 28 bulls of the 2011 calf crop have been slaughtered. They recorded a carcass weight of 453kg at just 429 days old. This equates to a daily carcass (not liveweight) gain from birth to slaughter of 1kg.

“This is once again a tremendous performance. The bulls were classified at E and U grades, with just two R grades and with 66% in fat class 3 and the reminder in fat class 4L.”