Beef suckler herds could boost output by £56 a cow by improving cow and heifer fertility, according to performance figures from SAC.

Top performing suckler herds in Scotland are rearing 94 calves for every 100 cows put to the bull compared with only 88 calves in average herds and are also achieving an extra 30kg of weight at weaning.

This adds up to extra income of £5662 for a 100-cow herd, worth £56,620 over 10 years. The figures are contained in a new advisory booklet, Improving Suckler Herd Fertility, produced by SAC for Quality Meat Scotland and launched at last week’s Royal Highland Show.

“Managing and improving herd fertility is one of the easiest ways for farmers to increase beef enterprise margins without having to make any major structural changes to their business,” says SAC senior beef consultant Iain Riddell.

“Our surveys have found a wide range in performance, but the best are consistently exceeding 95 calves reared for every 100 cows mated. This highlights the gap between what many herds achieve and what is being achieved at the top end.”

The booklet identifies five key areas for improving fertility – the management of bulling heifers, the soundness and fertility of bulls, managing cow condition and fertility, the avoidance of difficult calvings and maintaining herd health.

Mr Riddell says the aim should be a 95% calf crop, with 65% of cows calving in the first three weeks. “The most effective way of increasing weaning weight is to tighten up the calving pattern,” he says. “A calf born in the first three weeks of the calving period will obviously be heavier at weaning than one born six weeks into the calving period.”

The Scottish survey showed that only 43% of cows calved in the first three weeks and 73% within six weeks, with a long tail through to week 18.

The main management factors affecting calving performance are heifers reaching target weight for bulling, checking bulls for breeding soundness before turnout, using maternal cow breeds, selecting bulls with good maternal traits and ensuring high herd health.

QMS chairman Donald Biggar said the scope for improving performance in most suckler herds was significant. “At a time when red meat businesses are facing considerable challenges, no one can afford not to improve fertility,” he said.

  • For more from the Royal Highland Show see p.44

Shortening calving periods can improve returns by £5662 for every 100 cows, through better calf growth and reduced labour costs.

eddie.gillanders@btopenworld.com