25 September 1998

How to improve heifer weights in shorter time

Successfully finishing heifers

at heavy weights requires

careful management, but

there are financial benefits.

James Garner reports

HEIFERS average 290-300kg carcass weight on one Oxon farm, but could reach heavier weights with careful feeding and good management, helping to boost returns.

All progeny are finished at Meads Farm, Ixhill, where suckler producer Peter Hawes keeps 120 Simmential cows, equally split into the autumn and spring calvers.

Spring-born heifer calves are normally finished in 18-20 months, while most autumn-born heifer calves are selected as breeding replacements.

"Heifers reach 500kg or more liveweight comfortably and we could grow them on with no worries about them becoming over-fat. Our problem is the time they take to reach these weights," says Mr Hawes.

"This year, spring-born heifers will be 20 months or older when sold, while the few autumn-born heifers finished will be approaching two years old. We need to improve this because we dont want heifers still in yards when we start housing cows and weanlings," he adds.

Mr Hawes markets his cattle through a local agent who wants heifers as heavy as possible. "There is a market for heifers of this size, and theres little alternative; selling stores brings a poor return."

"Heifers qualify for steer price when our agent sells to St Merryn Meats. This means a premium of about 5p/kg, but they need to kill out at over 300kg to qualify. I feel its debatable whether the extra time, food and interest on working capital makes this profitable," says Mr Hawes.

Spring-born calves are weaned and housed at six months old and are finished inside during their second summer.

"Heifers arent turned out because some of our grazing is a distance from the farm and its all permanent pasture, so quality varies. Also we need a large silage making area because we finish most progeny and so have a lot of mouths to feed over winter. Keeping heifers in over summer helps management and keeps them away from the entires and stock bulls," he says.

After weaning they are put on a hay or straw based diet depending on availability, combined with 3kg of concentrate/day – two-thirds 16% protein nut and one-third home-produced barley.

This year, heifers grew at a disappointing rate of 0.5kg/day until April, when silage replaces hay or straw as they move into the finishing period. "They have grown at 0.9 kg/day since then, which is better," says Mr Hawes.

"Storing over their first winter is essential to ensure they reach heavy weights, although we would prefer them to grow more quickly than they did last winter, so they dont take as long to finish. Car-cass quality isnt a problem, they average R4L and never go to fat."

Breeding is a vital part of achieving this, says Mr Hawes. "Its important to have the right animals at the start, and Continental cattle do grow into larger carcasses and are leaner.

"Its a fine line between success or not where heifers are being fattened to these weights. Its important to get the principles of compensatory growth right, and its crucial to have quality breeding stock."