18 June 1999

Criss-cross strategy best bet for herd replacement

Breeding beef heifer

replacements, buying bulls,

and beef consumption were

key topics at last weeks

Beef 99 event at Lowther

Estate, Penrith, Cumbria.

Jeremy Hunt reports

REPLACEMENT heifer policy is a big issue among suckled calf producers, but a casual approach to retaining a proportion of heifers that would otherwise have been sold for finishing is not the answer.

Basil Lowman, SAC beef specialist, said suckler herd owners must adopt a new mentality to heifer replacements. "To do it properly is a very long-term job," he told visitors to Beef 99.

He said the most important question farmers should ask themselves is: "How will I be breeding my heifer replacements in 10 years time?

"Too many farmers drift into an approach to breeding heifer replacements that is not thought out further than the first generation of crosses."

Dr Lowman recommends a criss-crossing policy based on two beef breeds to produce a suckler female, one being a native breed. SAC began with Limousin x Holstein cows which were initially crossed with Limousin.

These three-quarter bred heifers were kept and crossed with an Aberdeen Angus. The heifers from this mating were crossed with a Limousin and the next generation of heifers put back to the Angus.

"We probably need to mate half the herd to Angus or Limousin bulls to give us enough replacements," he says.

Although small suckler herds have insufficient cow numbers to establish a replacement policy, he hopes larger herds will develop a role for themselves as suppliers of breeding females.

But the move away from the Holstein influence is increasing gestation length by three days in the SAC herd, causing concern over possible calving difficulties.

"Suckled calf producers should look at the ease of calving EBV figure of bulls used to sire heifer replacements. There is a risk that the daughters of these bulls could experience calving problems if they are retained.

"Small hips on a calf are often the reason for an easy delivery. If a bull with a high EBV for calving ease produces small-hipped calves and those calves are retained as replacements, the very trait that their sire was selected for could mean that they will have difficult calving because of small hips.

"Get ease of calving in perspective if you are breeding heifer replacements. Go for -1 to +1 and also look for a high 200-day milk figure. Aim for a negative EBV for gestation length so that cows do not start to slip back and the calving period becomes extended."

Selecting cows

How selective should producers be in choosing which cows to breed heifer replacements from? Dr Lowman said the most important criteria was to get all potential heifer replacements born in the first three to four weeks of the calving period to ensure that in two years time, when they calve, the calving period will not become extended.

Dr Lowman said upland herds should resist huge Holstein crosses weighing 700-800kg and aim for a cow of about 550kg.

"That means she has to be 50% native-bred. Although lowland herds can manage a slightly heavier cow, the days of the big, inefficient suckler are over. And when exports resume its the 350kg high quality steer carcass that will be wanted, not huge 400kg carcasses worth 70p a kilo for manufacture."

Sales of mince higher than before BSE crisis

THE MLC says household purchases of minced beef are at a higher level in terms of volume and expenditure than they were in the same period in 1995 before the BSE crisis. And beefburger sales are up 18%.

MLCs upbeat message was also intended to make sure beef producers were aware of how effectively the commission had used producer levies to regain consumer confidence in beef.

The MLCs Len Chamberlain said communication with farmers must be improved so that beef producers appreciated how much they were benefiting from levy funded meat promotion.

"The recovery of mince beef sales and the steadily growing confidence in British beef is directly attributable to a wide range of promotional activities undertaken by MLC.

"But we now have a major challenge to ensure that producers are fully aware of the role levy funds continue to play in the recovery of the British beef industry."

Pedigree Lim move

THE British Limousin Cattle Society is setting up a new pedigree herd of Limousin cattle at Lackham Agricultural College, Chippenham, Wilts.

Announcing the move at Beef 99, breed society chairman John Logan, who runs the Homebyres herd at Kelso said: "The society is investing £20,000 to provide 20 maiden heifers for the Lackham Limousin Project. This will undertake trials to monitor maternal traits of fertility, ease of calving, milk production, gestation length and a range of other breeding data."

In April last year the BLCS launched the LIMO project (Leading the Industry to Meat Objectives) at Greenmount College in Northern Ireland.

Vet warns buying in mature bulls risks bringing in disease

NEVER buy a bull that has worked in another herd – that was the advice of SAC vet George Caldow.

"Only buy a virgin bull and not a mature bull that has worked in other herds or you could introduce serious health problems to your own cattle," said Mr Caldow.

Although acknowledging the fact that many bull breeders consider it an asset if a sire was already proven, or if a young bull had already been seen working, Mr Caldow said that a virgin bull with a clean health history was the safest option.

Bulls can introduce several infections into a herd – camphylobacter (venereal infection), BVD, Johnes disease, IBR and leptospirosis, he warned.

"Camphylobacter is the major risk when using mature bulls that have worked in other herds. Bought-in bulls should also be blood tested for BVD but it is not possible to test young bulls for Johnes disease. Johnes disease introduced into a suckler herd via a bought-in bull can cause up to 5% mortality in cows.

"My advice is only to buy bulls from herds that have tested as being free from the disease," said Mr Caldow.

He believes all bulls should be quarantined after purchase, undergo a vet health check and be blood sampled. "Also, as more beef producers opt for a closed herd and to breed their own replacements it is even more important to ensure the health status of bought-in sires."

Readjustment must be faced

THE beef industry still has to face a painful readjustment period before it can operate under the restraint-free conditions that prevailed in the early 1990s.

National Beef Association chief executive, Robert Forster, told visitors to Beef 99 that dismantling anti-BSE controls such as the export ban itself, the calf processing scheme and the over 30-month cull would not be without trauma. "It may even hurt as much to have them dismantled as it did to have them inflicted upon us. But this will have to be endured if we are to achieve the flexibility of moving cattle on to a wide range of markets," he said.

Mr Forster predicted that normal trading in British beef was getting closer and prospective importers had clearly shown more confidence in British beef than EU scientists and legislators had expected.

The removal of the calf scheme would have an impact on disposal of black and white bull calves but the increasing demand for mince beef for fast food could create a useful market.

"We are living in an age when beefburgers have become as important as steak to many consumers," said Mr Forster.

Tackle overheads

DRIVING down the unit cost of production is the best way to secure a long-term future in beef farming.

ADASs Neil Pickard told visitors that where savings of 10% could be achieved on the cost of each kilo produced then the break-even cost of production could fall to 75p/kg and 73p/kg – compared with 92p and 83p – for suckled beef and an 18-month system, respectively.

"During times of low prices these differences turn potential loss into possible profit," said Mr Pickard. He cited herd replacements, feed and forage as having the biggest scope for savings on variable costs.

High cost drawback

IF beef continues to be sold on price and compared with pork and chicken it will lose a big market share to cheap imports from low costs systems.

The NBA says that more must be done with beef at the retail and catering level. If beef continues to be sold on the basis of challenging pork and chicken on price instead of on a mixture of price and quality the industry will never be able to cover high production costs.

NBA chairman, Robert Robinson – who runs 1000 suckler cows at Alnwick, Northumberland – said that most slaughterers and retailers preferred to ignore beefs potential for taste and flavour, and identified it simply as another meat. He was equally concerned about the inconsistent quality of beef.

"An open discussion on the advancement of a multi-layered beef market and an improvement in eating quality must be undertaken immediately by the MLC and those who care about the future of British beef," said Mr Robinson. &#42