Margins down, herd
A smaller beef herd fed on a low cost winter ration is the strategy for our managing beef series 18-month finisher. Jon Riley reports
CATTLE numbers are being reduced in response to falling margins at David Maughans 95ha (240-acre) arable and beef unit at Morton Tinmouth, County Durham.
Previously up to 100 bulls were finished on an 18-month system from batches of calves bought in August and November. But no calves were bought this August and the plan is to buy only 40 calves plus 20 stores later in the autumn.
The reduction has been made to drop stocking rates to 1.2 livestock units a hectare to qualify for extensification payments, worth £32 a head. It will also allow Mr Maughan to devote more time to the farms arable enterprises. "We will use about 60 acres for the beef and reduce total cattle numbers to about 120.
"The concern with buying-in stores is that they may be too heavy by the time turnout arrives. We could have to hold them back on a straw-based diet so that compensatory growth occurs next spring and is fuelled by the cheapest feed, grass," he says.
Growth rates for all cattle in the first winter are held back at about 0.75kg a day so that bulls are 240kg at turnout. For their second winter, bulls are housed at about 400kg and fed a highly palatable diet. "Silage must be high quality to maintain intakes that will give us target gains of 1.5kg a day."
The silage has a high dry matter content of over 30% and, despite low yields from first and second cuts, a third cut in September has generated sufficient stocks for the winter.
"To buffer silage and reduce barley use we feed root crops. This year potatoes sourced at £13/t delivered will provide 12.5MJ/kg ME at 25% dry matter. These will be fed with barley and a small amount of protein balancer to give a ration with 15% protein at a cost of £124/t," says Mr Maughan.
But he warns that dry matter varies according to the potato variety and must be checked, because crisping varieties such as Record have a far higher dry matter content.
"The big risk with potatoes is choke, which leads to bloat. The key is to keep the animals head low when feeding. This means feeding potatoes at floor level, and never from raised troughs unless the potatoes are chopped. We offer potatoes in converted ring feeders rather than on the floor to cut competition, which further reduces the chance of choke," he says.
To assess how well the diet is achieving target weight gains, Mr Maughan weighs cattle at six-weekly intervals.
Bulls are drawn from February onwards and this year target weights have been lowered from 630kg to about 580kg to suit the home market.
"Bulls must be pushed on quickly and every precaution taken to reduce disease risk at housing," says Mr Maughan.
"All bulls are treated for stomach worms and lungworms using an injectable ivermectin, which also protects against external parasites, cutting handling and stress at housing," he says.
Younger animals are batched in groups of no more than 20 and different age groups never share the same air space. To stop bulls sweating and reduce humidity, a 20cm (8in) strip is clipped from their backs.
Bought-in calves are given electrolytes for the first 36 hours on the farm and introduced to milk gradually. "Vigilance is the key and we take temperatures routinely to catch any disease before it becomes a problem," says Mr Maughan.
"Any calf running a temperature is examined and problems discussed with the vet so that bugs can be identified and specific vaccination programmes formulated.
"This programme keeps mortality rates to between 1% to 2% and enables us to push bulls on quickly," he says. *
Before housing, David Maughan introduces bulls to a small amount of barley in the field to smooth the transition from grazing to the winter ration.
• Attract extensification payments.
• Cut ration costs.
• Achieve target gains by preventing disease.