Using forage systems that allow suckler cows and weaned calves to be kept outdoors for longer in winter can help slash cost by up to 62% – a big step towards improving beef profits post-CAP reform.

Headline figures from the second winter of the three-year Cattle Outwintering Demonstration at SAC’s Bush Estate, Penicuik, show costs for managing spring-calving Angus and Limousin cross sucklers were cut from £1.08 a cow a day for housed stock to just 41p a cow a day for grassland managed specifically for winter or deferred grazing.

Cost for sucklers strip-grazing stubble turnips or kale were 59p a day and 64p a day, respectively.

Savings were also achieved where weaned beef calves strip-grazed kale, compared with a control group housed and fed 15kg a head a day of whole-crop and concentrates.

That saw cost of liveweight gain fall from 91p/kg for housed calves to 66-67p/kg for those on kale supplemented with straw or silage.

Results were better than expected, says Gavin Hill, SAC’s beef specialist and principal trial officer.

“It has demonstrated there is huge flexibility to reduce over-wintering costs for beef farms.

It is not about out-wintering versus housing, but identifying how costs can be cut by managing cattle outdoors for longer, offering savings in straw and labour,” he said.

The results are timely. Producers wishing to adopt strategies used at SAC to improve profits in the decoupled subsidy era can incorporate winter grazing crops into this spring’s drilling, says Mr Hill.

Deferred grazing

There were a number of options.

Shutting up grazing after first cut and applying fertiliser to provide a good bite in winter – deferred grazing – was simple and had limitations, says Mr Hill.

“Protein and energy level of grass fell in winter and were not sufficient to meet the needs of the developing calf.

“Even so, it allowed sucklers to stay out an extra 60 days compared with 100 days on other systems and offered savings over housing that were still worth having.”

Both strip grazed kale and stubble turnips prolonged grazing by 100 days and provided sufficient nutrition to cover maintenance and achieve a slight fall in condition score in the run up to calving.

“It is apparent you don’t have control over body condition, but the intention was to house sucklers a month before calving to get it right.”

Establishing grazing crops demanded attention.

“Avoid using a plough to protect soil structure and cut risks of poaching and run-off,” says Mr Hill. Kale was direct drilled into a sward and a pass with a set of discs allowed stubble turnips to be drilled to a depth of at least an inch to improve establishment.

“Key is the ability to put all feed into a grazing area before stock go in.

No vehicle has been on those areas during winter.

That’s the beauty of strip grazing; stock move to fresh ground every day.”

Other lessons have been learnt.

Producers must pay more attention when selecting varieties for winter keep, he warns.

“We’ve learnt variety should be chosen on intended use.

A stemmy variety of kale used last year to provide a maintenance diet for sucklers was adequate.

But the switch to weaned beef calves suggested a leafier variety would help achieve targeted daily weight gains of 0.7kg a head a day,” he says.

The third year of demonstrations – supported by SEERAD and QMS – is intended to shift demonstrations to three commercial units in Aberdeenshire, Forfar and Dumfries to give better access to producers, said Mr Hill.

“There is tremendous opportunity to cut costs in winter for beef systems.

It’s not suited to every farm, in particular those with heavy soils.

And it’s unlikely that kale or turnips could provide adequate nutrition for finishing beef cattle.

But it allows costs to be removed and opportunities taken.

For example, having weaned calves and sucklers outdoors frees housing to get older cattle finished and away before other stock needs to come indoors.”

fwlivestock@rbi.co.uk