Better genes needed to turn out heavier heifers
Heifers finishing too light are causing difficulties for our Managing Beef series winter finisher. Jonathan Riley reports
DECIDING to continue finishing bulls has paid dividends with a secure outlet paying a premium for suckler-bred beef.
But, Yorkshire-based Nick Baker says that the same outlet prefers to take heifers at weights over 480kg. And for his system, which is based on maximising daily gains and a fast turnover of progeny, this requires a long-term rethink.
Mr Baker and his wife Jane run three 100-cow herds calving in autumn, early and late spring. These graze 260ha (650 acres) of marginal land 300m (1000ft) above sea level during the summer before housing from November to May.
At housing bulls weighed 315kg at 212 days old and growth rates averaged 1.3kg a day. Fed ad lib on a 19.4% protein and 12.8ME home mix costing £85/t, bulls reached 456kg and were growing at 1.5kg a day by early February, the heaviest bull reaching 575kg.
"Heifers weighed 285kg when weaned at 223 days with growth rates averaging 1.1kg a day. By the February weighing these heifers averaged 379kg. The heaviest heifer, to date was sold at 483kg but our outlet requires a minimum of 480kg.
"The average finished weight for heifers is about 10kg below the minimum required by our outlet. But above the average weight heifers would lay down fat and we could be penalised for going over the required fat class of 3-4L," says Mr Baker.
Last year he was advised to restrict rations so heifers would grow more slowly and produce a bigger frame. To achieve this Mr Baker put some heifers on a store ration and held some heifers at grass last summer.
"But as they near finishing it seems the heifers we restricted have just taken longer to finish without increasing final size.
"Our system relies on clearing animals quickly because we are trying to maximise cow numbers, and we havent got sufficient grass to run all our calves at grass and finish them later. This would also disrupt cash flow and incurs costs in maintenance feeding," he says.
The short-term answer has been to liaise with the outlet, which has for now accepted these heifers at a lighter weight – at about 10kg below their requirement.
"Longer term we must change the genetics, because the smallest heifers have been from Hereford Friesians, we need to boost heifer size by about 50kg liveweight.
"To have more control over genetics and because the difference between replacement cost and cull cow price is so great we intend to breed our own replacements.
"The ideal seems to be to use a South Devon bull and eventually cross them with Angus cows. This should improve conformation and heifer size while keeping the cow to a sensible final size to minimise maintenance requirements. This is a long-term commitment and breeding will take time. We may, therefore, use AI to boost genetics quickly." he says. "If we do buy a bull we may share it with several other local beef producers who also market cattle to the same outlet," says Mr Baker.
"We share transport costs and plan to share the cost of a trouble-shooting visit from a Signet adviser. And any surplus replacement heifers bred could be passed between the other producers once we have our breeding programme up and running.
"Joining forces like this in a loose alliance not only helps us to share some costs, but allows us to pool ideas too, without restricting our own farming methods." *
Nick and Jane Baker hope to improve genetics to boost beef heifer size. Their outlet wants heifers over 480kg.
• Optimise final size of dam.
• Increase heifer size.
• Enhance bull conformation.