12 July 2002

Big throughput and good welfare

Feedlots are popular in the

US, they take advantage of

low feed costs and

economies of scale to

produce beef cheaply.

Could they work in the UK?

Jonathan Long visits one

Norfolk producer who

believes they can

FINISHING large numbers of beef cattle and achieving liveweight gains of more than 1.65kg a day does not mean animal welfare has to suffer.

In fact, without high welfare standards cattle will not gain weight and simply cost money, says beef unit manager Phil Dale.

"We finish more than 5000 head a year, if welfare is not right then the rest of the system falls apart. With that many cattle every part of the process has to be spot on."

The unit, on Paul Rackhams 515ha (1240-acre) Manor Farm, Bridgham, buys forward steers and heifers at between 20 and 24 months. The farm has a small forage area, so it can only make 340 beef special premium claims a year, and with a 100-cow pedigree Red Poll suckler herd on the farm the number of claims available to the finishing unit is minimal.

"We prefer to buy older steers which have had the second claim taken. We cant claim on many steers, so there is little point buying blue-carded steers. Cattle coming here have to be big and framey, we have the feed to finish them, but no time to wait for them to grow before finishing," says Mr Dale.

There is no preference on breed, but black-and-white steers do not tend to covert feed to flesh as well as beef cross animals, says farm foreman, Steve Suggett.

With more than 2000 cattle in finishing yards at any one time and at least 100 cattle leaving the farm every week, stockmanship has to be good. This means ensuring stock are healthy and happy.

All cattle coming into the yards are vaccinated for pneumonia, IBR and RSV, and wormed. Every pen has access to an open-air loafing yard and sheds have forced air supplies to improve air flow. Giving cattle access to an open yard ensures that they have space to roam and keeps them settled, believes Mr Suggett. But in the future new open-air finishing pens being tested out at the unit may replace indoor pens and yards.

Cattle at Manor Farm are fed a total mixed ration, including 66% vegetable waste, of which two-thirds is potatoes and parsnips, other ingredients include waste chips, sugar beet, rapeseed meal and oat feed pellets. Dry matter content of the ration is 34%, while protein content is 14.5% and metabolisable energy is 12.5MJ/kg.

"We feed cattle according to appetite, with top end cattle being offered up to 35kg a day in two feeds. The whole feeding operation takes six to seven hours a day, but this is unavoidable. We are looking to cut this time by possibly running two feeder wagons.

"With feed costing 49p/kg of liveweight gain, about 80p a beast a day, it is clearly our largest expense. But straw is also a major consideration, our straw bill is about £1 an animal a week. Despite this we try to keep all costs down to £1 a beast a day, so an average animal costs us £100 from arrival to departure."

Bedding cattle on straw is not cheap, but means that cattle stay clean and minimises the need for clipping before cattle are sent to slaughter.

Clipping dirty cattle is time-consuming and dangerous. By bedding cattle every other day, both summer and winter, cattle stay clean and staff spend more time among them and so pay greater attention to animal health, says Mr Dale.

"When you are sending 100 cattle a week you also need to be able to pick out and load them quickly and efficiently, without any undue stress to cattle or staff. This has led us to redesign our handling system along US lines to ensure cattle work easily and all management tasks can be done simply," says Mr Suggett.

Cattle are marketed deadweight, originally when the unit was only finishing 15 cattle a week they were sold liveweight. But with the numbers involved now, there simply is not the option of selling live.

"Despite being an ex-auctioneer, I simply cant find outlets for 100 cattle a week through live markets.

"This, together with the lack of competition now offered by auctions, has led us to develop relationships with a number of abattoirs and we reckon that we are as well off this way. But we are cautious of getting tied into one abattoir, we need to be able to bargain with buyers and not go down the same route which has seen the vegetable industry in such turmoil.

"We weigh all cattle when they leave the farm and after all deductions, including levies and transport, so far this year have averaged 85p/kg liveweight across every beast sent," reports Mr Dale.