14 June 1996

BSE:How Britain is coping

In the first of a new series run in association with the Meat and Livestock Commission. Jonathan Riley examines the management options available to hard-pressed beef producers. Over the next few weeks we will report on how each of the six producers above is adapting different management systems to a new market environment.

BEEF producers must tighten marketing procedures and routine husbandry to maximise profits and minimise costs.

So says Meat and Livestock Commission beef strategy manager, Chris Brown.

"With beef prices down by 20%, some producers have tried to reduce costs by cutting out routine health programmes such as worming," says Dr Brown. "But to stop using anthelmintics is a false economy that will reduce feed conversion efficiency throughout the year."

Routine weighing

He also stresses that routine weighing is now of increased importance to keep track of growth rates and spot slow growing animals as early as possible.

He advises that these animals should be sold at the first opportunity, for feeding an animal with poor conformation would not improve its grade.

"Buying the right animal in the first place is vital and although calf prices for beef breeds were down, the 7000 calves submitted in the first two weeks of the calf slaughter scheme are putting upward pressure on calf prices."

To maximise margins it is also important to be sure of the target market.

"Currently the market is volatile but trade is particularly restricted for bulls after the closure of the export market and intensively finished cereal beef will also be under pressure from rising cereal prices," he says.

Dr Brown advises that final weights of animals finished intensively should be kept down because there had been a 4% swing in sales away from supermarkets towards independent processors which might require smaller carcasses.

"Winter finishing of heavy stores for the French market with bull carcasses in excess of 600kg yielded extra margins for beef producers up to the export ban. But this outlet has gone and the extra weight will not now produce the same margins," he says.

The UK market prefers steers and Dr Brown believes there will be a strong demand for these. Opting for steer production also gives more flexibility than bulls, which produce tougher meat over 14 months, creating a narrower marketing window.

"Flexibility could be a key factor in business survival. Because of this, 18-month beef could become more popular as a system. Suitable autumn calves can be finished intensively in the second winter, or can be sold at the start or end of the grazing season. This provides a large marketing window that is better placed to take advantage of prices changes," he says.

"For cattle finished off grass effective parasite control is vital to capitalise on compensatory growth at grass and grazing must be managed carefully.

"Growth targets must be adhered to for grass finishing and it is important to start drawing off stock to match stocking rates to grass growth," says Dr Brown.

&#8226 Continue health programmes.

&#8226 Weigh frequently.

&#8226 Sell poor conformation animals first.

&#8226 Select calves for finishing carefully.

NICK BAKER winter finishes progeny from 200 suckler cows on alternative feeds at his 525ha (1300-acre) beef dairy and arable farm near Driffield, East Yorkshire. Hereford Friesian cows are put to a Charolais bull and heifers to a Limousin. "Returns are down by £200/head for bulls and £150/head for heifers while straights costs are rising. We may look to silage in the future if straights prices continue to rise."

STUART HUTCHINS of Gatley Farms near Leominster, Herefordshire, produces suckled calves on 605ha (1500 acres) from 210 Hereford x Friesian cows and buys in about 130 beef reared bull calves. "We have been finishing bulls on silage at 630kg for the Italian market and heifers at 400kg. Planning sales now is a complete unknown with prices on the home market up to 40p/kg liveweight below the export price leading to a cut in margins from £750/ha to £500/ha."

DAVID CHAPMAN farms 140ha (345 acres) near Ledbury, Glouc- ester, and buys in 150 Angus cross bull calves for finishing on silage when 15 months old at about 500kg liveweight. "We are regaining confidence gradually and will stay with silage finishing but with margins down by about £100/head we have to consider other more viable options for the land."

DAVID MAUGHAN farms 140ha (240 acres) near Bolam, County Durham. Target market for 100 animals finished on an 18-month beef system was the export market for heavy bulls. "We buy in Continental and black and white calves in August and October but this year we will have to reduce cattle numbers and will consider increasing the arable acreage."

CHARLES PHILLIPS of management specialists Colburn Phillips manages 1420ha (3500 acres) Barrington Park Estates, Oxfordshire, which produces 60 pedigree South Devon bulls reared intensively on a cereal diet. Bulls that are not selected for breeding have been finished for the Italian market at 600kg. "Only pedigree bulls are reared intensively and our policy is extensify all other beef production on the estate. Central to this move is traceability."

which we will achieve with electronic tagging and closer recording. And meat quality which will be derived from the introduction of Angus to our suckler herds."

ROBERT McNEE operates a closed herd policy for his 280 Luing sucklers on 1070ha (2500 acres) of LFA land at Bathgate, Lothian. Steers are finished off grass and heifers are sold either as breeding stock or kept as replacements. "We feel very aggreived as we have an excellent and safe product. Even our cull cows have been finished to export quality."