SWITCHING FROM finishing steers and bulls to heifers to generate extra returns once subsidy is decoupled is all well and good, but heifers must be managed differently to achieve a good return.

With subsidies previously available, heifers have been considered the poor relation, but as subsidies are removed, they are now on an equal footing with bulls and steers. And, as reported in farmers weekly (Stock and Sales, Dec 3), many are considering a switch.

But as MLC beef and sheep technical manager Duncan Pullar points out, finishing methods must be geared around feed, grazing and housing availability. “There must be a degree of attention to physical and financial costs of the chosen enterprise.”

SAC Perth consultant Ian Riddell agrees producers must make economic decisions based on best margins available for their beef enterprises. “Some producers are under the illusion that beef heifers can”t be finished intensively, but providing it is done efficiently, good weights and grades can be achieved,” he reckons.

“Feeding a suckled calf from six months of age on a silage-based diet to gain about 0.7-0.8kg/day, before gradually phasing in barley, can result in target carcass weights of 260-270kg.”

Gary Gray of Norfolk-based beef finishers Beckhithe Farms says the most important factor to consider is to not start the finishing ration until they have a sufficient frame. “Otherwise, we end up slaughtering a 500kg animal that grades R4L, but doesn”t come to much more than 470.”

Mr Riddell suggests another option is to take heifers through the winter store period and finish at grass. “Straw and a little concentrate may also be offered from July onwards when required.”

Selection of suitable breeds will also have to plat a vital part to play, he adds. “Concentrate on Continental breeds with fast growth rates coupled with high estimated breeding values for back fat.”

Previous research has also shown that feed efficiency of heifers is poor compared with steers and bulls. But Mr Gray says the last batch of heifers finished last week was typical of what they would regularly achieve.

“These reached average liveweight gains of 1.46kg/day for the 10 weeks they were finished and were fed the same ration as steers, that of 4kg rolled wheat, potatoes, oily chips, maize, rape meal and lime flour.”

Average liveweight was 518kg, with the heaviest being 650kg, at an age of about 24 months and they returned 567/head, he adds. “Steers average 1.6kg/day and release an extra 50/head, but costs of production for both steers and heifers are similar.”

When considering a change to heifers, Mole Valley Farmers” Brian Jennings reckons finishers often forget to check their market outlet will accept finished heifers. “Some abattoirs may not have the capacity for light and fat heifers, so make sure you can hit their specification.”