High performance bulls bought through as a result of a farmer education initiative have boosted returns for Northern Irish beef producers

Trying to make savings on feed costs is high on the agenda of every beef finisher this year, but some Northern Ireland producers cut the finishing period by 70 days last year, even though cattle gained an extra 30kg.

It was worth almost £150 a head – and this year it will be worth more than £200. The reason? Using bulls with high EBV figures.

The EU funded Beef Quality Initiative – based on a hefty £6m grant – has just come to the end of its five-year programme, which subsidised the purchase of performance recorded bulls to 900 Northern Ireland beef producers.

Farmers who were able to claim back 50% of the purchase price of high-ranking bulls have reaped the benefits, says beef and sheep development adviser Kieran Mailey, who is based at Greenmount College.

“Northern Ireland beef production needed to improve in terms of better performance of finishing cattle and a planned approach to breeding suckler herd replacement females.

“The project’s aim was to achieve that by helping producers get a real grasp of what performance recorded figures mean and how they could apply them in their own herds. There’s no doubt our beef sector has made a huge leap as a result of the BQI scheme,” says Mr Mailey.

Greenmount College elite progeny performance v ave progeny

 

Elite progeny

Average progeny

Difference

Days to slaughter

593

667

-74 days

Carcass weight

347kg

317kg

+30kg

Kill Out %

55.3

51.7

+3.6

Margin (£)

610

535

+75

Two Charolais bulls were used on the hill farm run by Greenmount College in 2006. One was an elite bull (top 1% for growth, muscle and beef value) and the other had an average ranking for the same traits.

“While there was a £75 difference in the value of the carcasses produced by the two bulls (see table below), having cattle killed 74 days earlier achieved an estimated saving of £74 from less feed consumed at a cost of £1 a day.

“When that was added to the actual margin earned by the progeny of the elite bull, it was worth a total extra income of £149 a head. That saving would be considerably more now based on the big increase in feed costs.

“Almost 2000 beef producers completed the BQI learning programme and 900 went on to buy a high genetic merit bull. And when questioned after assessing the performance of the bulls’ progeny we found that 88% said they would buy another Elite or Super ranked sire.”

Farmers who joined the BQI programme had to attend a series of training days and produce a breeding plan for their own herd. They were then eligible to join the subsidised bull purchase scheme to acquire either Superior or Elite ranked sires.

CASE STUDY 1

Stephen Heenan, Clough, Co Down

An investment of 6500gns in a Charolais bull that is in the breed’s top 1% for muscle and the top 5% for growth has brought a significant improvement in the growth rates of suckled calves in the 100-cow herd of Stephen Heenan of Parkview Farm, Clough, Co Down.

The system run on his 100-acre unit depends heavily on grass rather than bought-in feeds, a policy he felt required greater emphasis on sires with genetic performance superiority.

Stephen-Heenan

“Once you’ve learned how to interpret the figures and grasped how to use them you begin to realise that you have something that can take the guesswork out of buying a bull. You’ve got something to go by to back-up your own visual assessment,” says Mr Heenan.

He made his 6500gns purchase at Perth, buying a bull from the Balthayock herd by leading breed sire Dingle Hoffmeister. Latest results show the average carcass weights of the bull’s steer progeny – bred predominantly out of Limousin-cross cows – were 372kg at 24 months giving an average daily gain of 0.94kg from birth to slaughter.

Heifers achieved a 320kg carcass weight at 21 months, with bulls averaging 360kg at 14-months. “Steers we sold last autumn at 16 months averaged 1.2kg a day liveweight gain . And, in addition to the improved performance, we have benefited from the bull’s easy-calving trait, which has not only reduced calf losses, but made a big saving on labour.”

CASE STUDY 2

Tony Griffiths, Saintfield, Co Down

A big increase in daily liveweight gain – up to 1.43kg a day – has been achieved by calves bred in Tony Griffith’s 65-cow herd at Saintfield House Estate, Saintfield, Co Down.

The Charolais bull used in the herd, following Mr Griffiths’ involvement in the Beef Quality Initiative, is in the breed’s top 25% on performance figures.

“Growth rates have been the big improvement. Calves by the high EBV sire were averaging 1.1kg over their first 16 weeks compared with 0.98kg for calves by our other stock bull.

“The trend continued last year. Progeny of the performance recorded bull averaged 1.43kg over the first four months compared with other calves gaining 1.3kg,” says Mr Griffiths.

The BQI programme was also aimed at improving producers’ ability to breed better replacement heifers after taking account of a bull’s maternal traits as well as growth.

“Fertility, temperament and milking ability are our main selection criteria for herd replacements. We’ve traditionally bought-in replacements, but last year we retained some of the bull’s heifers. He’s in the breed’s top 25% for milk, so we’re hoping we can benefit from that.”