15 March 2002

Dairy switch brings a less painful life

Many dairy producers are

considering whether to

expand or try something

different. Richard Allison

reports from one unit where

profitable beef finishing

was the solution

SWAPPING a profitable dairy herd for a beef finishing enterprise sounds like a financial nightmare to some, but it means a less hectic life for one Somerset producer.

Richard Roberts sold his 75-cow herd at Bussex Farm, on the edge of Sedgemoor, in 1999. "Since then, a 150-head beef finishing enterprise has been established, achieving a small profit for the first time last year.

"The decision to sell the dairy herd was due to several reasons. Cow numbers needed expanding to bring unit costs down and about £200,000 of investment in new buildings and a parlour was required. A bad back also meant milking cows twice a day had become painful."

Another reason for selling the herd was that grazing was restricted to less than five months on the wet peat soil averaging 4m (12ft) above sea level. Extended grazing was, therefore, not an option to cut costs and there was the added expense of having to reseed swards every 2-3 years, says Mr Roberts.

"Finishing Holstein-Friesian steers has proven the most profitable system, with some making about £200. Red card steers are purchased for about 55-65p/kg at 24 months and finished on maize silage for 2-3 months."

Daily gains of 1.2kg can be achieved with maize silage, but he offers the more Holstein looking steers some additional barley to achieve these gains.

"Holstein steers are well suited to the old dairy cubicles. Automatic scrapers and cubicle mats allow animals to be kept clean without straw, reducing time spent clipping animals before slaughter."

The secret with dairy-bred cattle is not to pay too much, he says. Holstein steers are not worth more than 65p/kg. Since regularly buying beef stores, Mr Roberts has developed an eye for valuing animals, which is essential as many Holstein-Friesians are fed the worst silage with straw and often in poor condition.

Buying older dairy-bred cattle and finishing them quickly means they are without beef premium claims. "I do not understand why some producers pay more for cattle with claims, as the cash is tied up for some time and there is the hassle of paperwork and calculating forage areas."

He also finishes a small number of suckler-bred heifers to supply a local butcher. "The butcher only wants small heifers as the meat is less grainy than steers. His ideal animal is a Continental x Hereford with a white face, weighing 250kg or less and R grade or better."

While this is less profitable than Holstein steers, suckler heifers can be picked up cheaply and do not cost much to feed. It also keeps the local butcher happy, adds Mr Roberts.

Suckler-bred heifers are bought at 12-15 months and fed a grass silage based ration until slaughter at 24 months. "A ration containing only 20% maize is fed as heifers should not be pushed too rapidly, before being finished on maize silage."

He also operates a more traditional bull beef system with Limousin cross bulls finished on a cereal-based premix achieving daily gains of 2kg. The premix costs £130/t and is mixed in a feeder wagon. A mix consists of 1.5t rolled barley, 300kg soya, 75kg molasses and 40kg MGA minerals.

"Only good quality barley is used. Some producers complain about poor gains when feeding a nut which is cheaper, but they contain other ingredients which reduce performance."

Barley straw and maize silage are also fed to provide some fibre and avoid acidosis, he does not just rely on cattle eating their bedding. Mr Roberts has not risked a 100% maize silage ration with the bull beef system, as they need high quality feed to exploit their full potential.

A key part of Mr Roberts beef enterprise is maize, with nearly 20ha (50 acres) grown on higher land. It typically yields about 49t/ha (20t/acre). "Considerable time and effort is invested in producing a high quality crop, taking advantage of MGA consultants."

But conflicting with their advice, Mr Roberts opts for lower seed rates and 51cm (20in) rows instead of conventional 76cm (30in) rows. "This is due to peat soils in which atrazine has no residual effect and narrower rows reduce the light available for weeds and soil space is used more efficiently."

Fields are also sub-soiled and slurry is applied by a contractor with an umbilical system to minimise compaction. A good seedbed has a greater impact on crop yield than variety, he says.

Beef finishing is not the only new enterprise at Bussex Farm, willow is being grown in the wetter parts of the unit. The harvested crop is sold for basket making and to local flower shops.

He hopes to extend the area for willow, as there are plenty of wet fields which can be used. Mr Roberts does not discount going back into dairying, but it would have to be on a different site. &#42

&#8226 Beef finishing.

&#8226 Holsteins most profitable.

&#8226 Willow for basket making.

Housing suckler-bred beef cattle on the old dairy unit has thoroughly tested gates and fences, says Richard Roberts.