9 June 1995

French nous helps win top profit from bull beef finishing

By Rebecca Austin

BULL beef accounts for 30% of all beef production in France, compared with 12% in this country.

The industry is producer-led, and controlled by well organised co-ops. Its reliance on exports to other European countries, such as Italy and Spain, sees exchange rates central to profits.

Aware that this is the weak link in their enterprise, producers adopt finishing systems which minimise input costs.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Paris Basin cereal producers serves them well when it comes to extracting a profit from finishing beef bulls. As cereal production is their main enterprise, feed bills are cut by lower transport costs compared with other areas of France.

One such producer is Vincent Robert, who farms 465ha (1149 acres) in Lavanne, Reims, in partnership with his two brothers and a brother-in law. He told a Dalgety-sponsored farmer tour that to complement the arable enterprise the Roberts finish 1250 Charolais bulls a year.

The farm is a member of Champagne Elevage, a 1000-member co-op. It buys and markets the bulls for Mr Robert under a three-year contract in return for 2% of the business turnover. In addition commission costs, including transport, feeding advice and technical visits, are about £29.48 a head.

Although arable production is the co-ops main concern, Champagne Elevage expects to export 70,000 cattle this year, of which 20,000-25,000 will be young bulls. It is also the main shareholder in one of the countrys largest slaughterhouses, giving it direct access to all meat markets.

Champagne Elevage technical adviser James Quentin buys eight- to 15-month-old stores (broutards) for Mr Robert from the Massif Central. In summer the broutards are heavier, as breeders graze them for longer to receive another premium payment. At 300kg they cost £897-£769. Although the price has dropped £90 this year, the store animal still accounts for 60% to 70% of production costs.

As soon as they arrive at Lavanne the bulls are housed in pens of 20. Each animal receives 1cc/30kg of Micotil to prevent pneumonia. The policy is new, previously the drug was administered only after the pneumonia was diagnosed. "By using Micotil as a preventative measure we have only lost two cattle out of 600 since September," said Mr Robert. "At the same time we are gaining an extra weeks performance in the transitional phase."

Managing such large batches makes it hard to identify sick cattle until disease is well set in. To overcome this, Mr Robert insists every animal has its temperature read with an electrical thermometer every two days for three to four weeks. It takes two men two hours a day to complete the job.

On arrival the cattle are also shaved to stop them sweating and prevent lice spread. They are vaccinated against infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, respiratory syncitial virus, E coli, and wormed.

All producers in the co-op are encouraged to follow the same feeding and management programme in an attempt to achieve a uniform quality of stock.

Finish target is 400kg to 420kg deadweight in 180-270 days, depending on arrival weight. To achieve this, average daily live-weight gain needs to be between 1.45kg a day to 1.50kg a day.

Diet is dictated by weight (see table). Chopped straw is included as roughage, although big bales are available to each group. Salt and bicarbonate is fed at 60g a head a day to maintain rumen pH. The diet costs 89p a head a day, although this varies depending on distance from the local sugar beet factory. Lavanne is only 7km away, so pressed sugar beet pulp costs Mr Robert £8.46/t at 25% dry matter.

The cattle are also offered a compound feed bought through another co-op. Cost is 17p/kg a day. Bulls are offered 2.2kg a day during the transitional phase and finish on 2.7kg a day when they are 700kg liveweight.

In 1994 Mr Robert achieved a net profit of £64 a head. That will not be repeated this year due to the liras instability. But Champagne Elevage compensates for this fluctuation. Currently bull beef is worth 269p/kg to Mr Robert for a U class carcass, even though the market price is only 256p/kg. The co-op will recoup its losses from producers when the market is more buoyant. &#42

French bull beef diet

Liveweight (kg)350550650+

Sugar beet pressed pulp (kg DM)5.307.006.80

Cereals (kg DM)0.801.002.00

Soya (kg DM)0.800.901.20

Minerals (g)

&#8226 60% Exported within Europe – two-thirds of that to Italy.

&#8226 17% Exported elsewhere.

&#8226 5% Intervention.

&#8226 18% Home consumption.

French producer James Quentin finishes 1250 Charolais bulls a year, marketing them through his co-operative Champagne Elevage.