Dont delay, finish cattle pronto, says specialist
By Emma Penny
BEEF producers should aim to finish cattle as fast as possible, and consider carefully the impact of any changes in production.
Some producers are considering overwintering cattle on forage only in an attempt to delay sale in the hope of better prices, and to reduce feed costs. But SAC beef specialist Basil Lowman warns that this is unlikely to be cost-effective.
He points out that hoping for better prices in spring is questionable. "Prices depend on many factors – but mostly the strength of the £, and its anyones guess how it will perform over the next six months or year."
The assumption that feed costs will be reduced on a forage ration is also misguided, he says. "Daily feed costs may be reduced, but feed cost/unit of output will increase. For example, in a factory, it isnt the overall weekly wages bill which counts, but the output achieved that week."
He advises aiming for faster growth to reduce cost/unit of liveweight gain, which requires introducing or maintaining concentrates in the ration (see table).
"Slowing growth means cattle will reach heavier weights before they finish. For example, a Charolais cross steer gaining 0.8kg/day will have to reach 650kg before it is in finished condition, whereas the same animal gaining 1.4kg/day will finish at 500kg."
Dr Lowman also points out that maintenance requirement of heavier animals is greater, and that they are likely to be too large for most markets and so will be penalised.
Some producers may also be tempted to keep animals longer to collect the second subsidy payment, but this is unlikely to cover costs, warns Staffs-based Signet beef consultant Ian Pritchard.
"Keeping cattle for longer will also impact on the rest of your system. For instance, if you store animals over winter and plan to turn them out in spring, is there enough grass for them? Will you have enough silage to last overwinter?"
He advises against changing systems unless the potential impact has been scrutinised carefully, and warns that tampering can often be a false economy. "Finishing cattle off farm more quickly means money in the bank more quickly."
Both men warn that overwintered stores may be too heavy for profitable sale in spring, as good grazing this summer has meant that many animals are heavier than in previous years.
According to Dr Lowman, store finishers must achieve gains of about 100kg after purchase to ensure a margin, and that, coupled with carcass weight restrictions means buyers will be looking for lighter cattle.
"Any steers weighing more than 350kg and heifers over 300kg should be taken out of storing now and fed hard to finish – they will be too heavy come spring to be attractive to buyers unless they are very cheap."
Mr Pritchard says that producers could help reduce costs by shopping around for alternative feedstuffs. "Cost every alternative against barley in terms of cost/unit of energy to compare options."
In some situations, such as feeding sucklers, a silage-only diet will suffice, but he warns that cattle will not finish on silage alone. "And even with high quality silage, it is likely that the ration will have to be balanced."
The cost* of different rations and liveweight gain
Ration cost (p/day)42557490124
* Inputs based on silage at £20/t and concentrates at £135/t. ** Animals storing only, and will not finish, therefore cost/kg liveweight gain irrelevant. Source: SAC
• Finish cattle faster.
• Aim for lowest cost/kg gain.
• Carefully consider any changes.