17 August 2001

Efficient rationing turns a profit on bull finishing

By Robert Davies

Wales correspondent

DEMANDS of managing over 450 dairy cows meant Peter Joules had little interest in beef – until the calf scheme ended and it became impossible to dispose of his surplus black-and-white bulls.

"I did not like selling 10-day-old calves for slaughter and I could certainly not bring myself to shoot perfectly healthy animals at birth," says Mr Joules.

"The alternative was to use our experience of buying large quantities of feed for dairy cows to make up a ration that gave us a chance of making a profit on bull finishing."

He and ADAS consultant Ken Stebbings sat round the kitchen table at Tan-y-Coed, Llandyssul, and looked at formulations for calf and finishing concentrates. They also drew up a budget which suggested it was possible to make a margin of £100 on a 550kg bull, as long as the calf cost nothing.

There were no suitable buildings for boisterous growing bulls, but because the plan was to stop the enterprise as soon as the calf market improved. Mr Joules decided to use sheds at a farm six miles away on which he had a five-year Farm Business Tenancy.

Although larger animals wrecked the buildings, even creating new windows by pushing their heads through corrugated sheeting, the project has gone well. New specialist buildings are to be erected, carcasses of some cattle have been marketed on the internet and an on-farm abattoir is planned.

"You can get some pretty good beef from dairy bulls when they are correctly handled before and during slaughter and the carcasses properly hung. This farm had an abattoir when we first came and there is no reason why we cannot add more value to our surplus calves by home butchering."

At present the aim is to feed cattle as efficiently as possible. To simplify mixing, only one concentrate is fed right through. The formulation varies according to what is available, but the aim is to offer cattle a palatable ration. In early August it contained 57.5% rolled wheat or maize meal, 20% sugar beet pulp, 15% rape meal, 5% molasses, minerals and salt to encourage cattle to drink.

This ration cost £90/t, but with older animals it would be possible to reduce the protein and the cost a little. However, to do so would complicate mixing schedules that must give priority to the dairy herd, says Mr Joules.

His beef cattle do not receive any long fodder other than straw bedding. Holsteins on the system put on at least 1.2kg a day, while Belgian Blue crosses have gained up to 2kg a day. The last cattle sold weighed between 306.5kg and 396.5kg deadweight and realised between £472 and £594 a head. Bulls averaged £1.54/kg and £547 a head. Eligible producers could also claim beef subsidy, adds Mr Joules.

"When we started the finishing system, we had to have faith that somebody would want the stock. For 12 months we put in feed, straw and labour and nothing came back. But we believed that production costs could be reduced because we forward bought feeds in bulk for the dairy herd.

"With about 900 animals on 270ha, spread over four units, we are big buyers of ration ingredients. We must have close contacts with the reducing number of suppliers and there has to be a lot of shopping around to get the best deals. Nothing must be left to chance.

"We are contracted to buy 100t of wheat a month from October starting at £78/t, rising by £1/t each month. Maize meal has been ordered for January, February and March at £88/t delivered. All our straw has been bought at competitive prices."

Local producers who do not have Mr Jouless merchant contacts know his beef ration does the job and are ready to pay £130/t for it. This is still considerably less than they would pay for a finishing concentrate.

"Beef margins are so small that everyone wants a feed that is reasonably priced, but with no compromise on performance."

Mr Stebbings had some doubts about setting up the bull beef enterprise, but now admits it is working. However, he believes future finishing target weights should be 550kg, even with Belgian Blue crosses. &#42

DAIRYX BEEF FINISHING

&#8226 Feed efficiently.

&#8226 Forward buying straights.

&#8226 Simple feeding system.