19 April 1996

Closed herd system goes for records…

COMMERCIAL beef producers should make use of records and pool resources to improve genetics, reduce variability of calves and provide what the market requires.

This is the view of John Dring who runs 125 suckler cows on his 480ha (1185-acre) arable and grass farm at Bleasby, Lincs.

The herd is split into May/June and February/March calving groups to improve cash flow and split workloads. Heifers are fed a finishing ration to give growth rates of 0.8kg a day to ensure sufficient condition to calve at 22 months.

Mr Dring says that the herd had been closed for nearly 60 years, apart from a brief period when Aberdeen-Angus/Friesian crosses were bought in to improve milk yields.

"We noticed an increase in scours and variability of carcasses while the sale price fell due to poorer classification. Longevity also seemed worse, which did not suit our system because we seek cows which can produce up to 14 calves. The Friesian crosses were culled earlier."

Two markets

Mr Dring sells into two markets. Both stipulate lean and meaty carcasses that the Continental cross provides. So on returning to a closed herd policy Limousin x Simmental cows were used to produce meaty calves and milky replacements.

"With a closed herd a new bull has to be bought in every three years or the bull would be put to his own daughters. The cost of buying the wrong bull is immense because the genetics stay in the herd for many years after that bull has been sold on," says Mr Dring.

Previously visual assessment alone formed the mainstay of the purchasing decision but Mr Dring has used estimated breeding values for the first time to select his new bull Hockenhall Emperor. He was chosen on 200-day milk value and performance, 400-day growth and muscle score and the beef value of his sire Hockenhall Winkie, which at 28.72, is about five points above breed average.

Selection criteria

Replacement heifers are selected on parentage and visual assessment. "Replacements are weighed at 200 and 300 days and we assess and record the conformation of the brisket, belly, chime and back end, says Mr Dring. Temperament, udder characteristics and muscle score are also assessed and recorded on a scale of 1 to 15 with advice from Signet beef consultant Richard Elliot.

"These can be correlated to classification and a muscle score of 5 or 6 would relate to carcass classification of R,"says Mr Elliot.

"The records for each female in Mr Drings herd include carcass classification and price received for the calf she produces. These are compiled on the MLCs Beefbreeder Scheme," he says.

Mr Dring says: "This information provides the basis for our future breeding policy. We hope to link with other producers using similar breeds to expand the pool of statistics on these breeds to further enhance accuracy of forecast results for bulls by cross referencing BLUP figures with statistics for progeny produced.

"I believe this will allow us to reduce the likelihood of buying the wrong bull and is the way forward for UK beef producers.

"However, though we have a recording scheme we need a computer system that will allow us to assimilate statistics for individual animals from the huge amount of data that we are already generating," he says.

Signets Richard Elliot (left) and John Dring record and assess heifers for conformation, muscle score, temperament and udder characteristics.