Feed and forage came under the spotlight at a recent Meat South West farm workshop in Cornwall.

Livestock producers could slash input costs and boost performance by better targeting feed and forage, according to beef specialist Lachlan Maclachlan.

Speaking at the open day, Mr Maclachlan said good silage and careful rationing were key to boosting performance without breaking the bank.

Finishing a Continental cross steer from 450kg to 550kg with good silage and 2.5kg of concentrates a day would take 84 days, and cost £87.50 in feed, he said. With poor silage it would take 104 days – or 81 days if you doubled the concentrates, at a cost of £104. “It is essential to grow good silage.”

This year’s wet summer meant most grass silage was poor quality, and particularly low in sugars, said Mr Maclachlan. On average, it had 11% crude protein content, 10.4 ME, and just 1.5% sugars. “Bear that in mind when creating your ration – buy in some molasses for the extra sugar and get your merchant to check your silage analysis before formulating your feed requirements.”

About 65% of cattle were finished at 24 months old, which was no longer economic, said Mr Maclachlan. It cost £1.52 a day to finish a 650kg steer with a liveweight gain of 1.2kg – but it would only be worth about £1.35/kg liveweight in the end.

Crucially, producers should feed according to the animal’s growth stage – calves fed with creep feed would grow by 1kg for every 4kg of feed – the best conversion rate they would ever achieve. “The stronger the calf at weaning the faster you’ll finish it. Growing cattle need protein to grow frame, but finishing cattle need lower levels of protein to speed up finishing.”

Farmers should weigh their cattle frequently to establish growth rates and work out costs of production, said Mr Maclachlan. Only then could they make profitable changes to the system.

They should also examine their choice of suckler cow, as large 650kg Continental cross cows required 20MJ more energy (or 2kg of extra barley) a day than traditional 500kg cows. “Just because a suckler cow produces a lovely big calf doesn’t make it profitable – you have to look at the cost of the cow too.”