Increasing numbers of suckler cow farmers are taking a different route to generating replacements.

While many committed beef producers are still prepared to pay premium prices for “good outfits”, buying in animals poses a significant risk of importing disease.

The alternative is for farmers to breed their own replacements, but this brings its own challenges, particularly for smaller farmers. Beef specialist Gavin Hill of SAC Consulting says it is “very difficult” for small to average-sized suckler herd farmers to try to breed their own replacement females.

“When they’re producing suckled calves for sale or taking them through to finishing, it’s an extra commitment in terms of cost and labour to run a home-bred replacement policy. They end up being a jack of all trades and master of none.”

See also Improve maternal genetics to improve beef production

But even going into the marketplace for females that meet the right criteria in terms of breed type, quality and health presents an ongoing challenge for many herds.

“Herd health has never been more important so that’s now adding another increasingly important factor into buying-in decisions. Johne’s, bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD), infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and leptospirosis, as well as TB, are health issues that have to be taken into consideration and we’ve seen some producers weigh-up the risks and go back to retaining their own heifers. It’s an ongoing dilemma for many,” says Mr Hill.

Radical approach

But over the past six months he’s noticed a trend among some herd owners to look at a radical management strategy to deal with the contentious issue of producing home-bred replacements.

“We’ve had farmers with, say, 120 cows deciding to split the herd so that they have the bulk of the cows going to a terminal sire and possibly 30 put to a bull with high EBV figures for maternal traits. But instead of running two bulls some producers are prepared to AI a batch of cows to produce replacements.

“By using AI they can bring the highest level of superior genetics for maternal traits into the herd and also ensure herd health isn’t jeopardised.”

 

Pros

Cons

Buying

Seeing the finished article

Risk of importing disease

Don’t have to wait 30 months before first calf

Extra competition for high herd health animals

 

High upfront cost

High variability in calf quality

Breeding

Know what you are getting

Difficult for small/medium-sized herds

Control of the maternal genetics

Extra commitment in terms of cost and labour

Known disease profile

 

Mr Hill says this is now being considered more widely among suckled-calf producers – and by adopting other new approaches to their replacement policy it’s now possible to avoid having male calves that may lack the performance of those by a terminal sire selected primarily for growth.

“To avoid the problem of having male calves that may have a lower value as a consequence of their breeding we’re now hearing that some producers are considering using sexed semen.”

Challenging

But while forward-thinking 
suckled-calf producers with large herds can avail themselves of these new tactics for breeding replacements, Mr Hill acknowledges that sourcing future females that satisfy all requirements on health, quality and price remains a challenge.

“Increasing numbers of suckler herds are now in herd health plans so that’s adding other criteria to sourcing and selection. And with pedigree herd owners also in the marketplace looking for high health status heifers as recipients, it’s adding extra competition.”

Some suckler herd owners would like to see more co-operation established with dairy farmers so that beef bulls with good maternal traits could be used to produce replacement heifers. But one North Yorkshire beef producer who identified a local herd with less “extreme” type black and white cows received a less than enthusiastic response when an approach was made.

“I suggested that if I selected the semen that could be used on the cows going to the beef bull, I’d buy back the heifer calves at an agreed price. But I didn’t get any co-operation,” the farmer told Farmers Weekly.

Although, if given a more positive response, that may sound like an option more suckled-calf producers should consider, but Mr Hill has his reservations.

“The cows in a dairy herd that are put to a beef bull aren’t usually the best in terms of their conformation or genetics,” he says.

But what’s the most cost-effective replacement policy for suckler herds? That’s a question more producers are being urged to look at very closely.

Home-reared heifers on a low-cost system work well for many herds, but some can come unstuck when heifers are expected to calve at two years old. A preferred calving at three years is more costly.

Buying in

Beef advisers recognise the appeal of buying the “finished article” in terms of a good-quality cow or heifer with a calf at foot even though it can mean paying £2,500-3,000 for the best outfits. However, health issues still need to be factored into these purchases.

Where cattle are bought at a sale, buyers are advised to talk to sellers to establish their herd health status and to isolate and monitor any new replacement females when they arrive on the farm.

The Limousin has undoubtedly had a big influence on the modern cross-bred suckler female produced from the dairy herd, but the British Limousin Cattle Society’s technical manager Alison Glasgow says suckled-calf producers buying in replacement heifers should try to find out as much as they can about the genetics and breeding behind any females – no matter what breed – they are considering buying.

“The reason there is wide variation in calf quality in many herds has a lot to do with the dams that produce them. It’s wrong to assume that one breed or cross will all do the same job because there is variation in the genetic maternal make-up within them,” says Mrs Glasgow.

Clever sourcing

She urges producers to do some “clever sourcing” and if buying at a sale to try to find out as much as possible about the sire of the females under consideration.

“It’s not difficult to find out the maternal figures of bulls these days – even at a commercial female sale. And even that amount of information will have an impact on how those females perform.”

Mark Towers of Colt Park, Ulverston, Cumbria, has a reputation for producing top-quality beef-cross heifers with calves at foot.

He’s been averaging £2,500 at sales this spring for the popular mix of Limousin and British Blue breeding and believes more buyers are coming back into the marketplace to buy replacements.

“Buyers are more driven by quality now than they were 10 years ago, when it was little more than a numbers game. We’re now seeing more producers investing in really good-quality heifers with strong calves – and paying a premium for that initial investment – because a female that will go on for maybe 10-12 productive years will easily earn it back.

“I don’t think there has ever been more clarity about the benefits of buying at the top end rather than at the lower end. In fact, a good-quality calf can quickly earn a big slice of the initial premium paid for the outfit and the buyer still has a good cow to last another 10 years or more.”