2 November 2001

How to make money frompure black-and-white bulls

By Robert Davies Wales correspondent

FINISHING pure dairy bulls is generating a profit of £40/head on one Pembrokes unit. But success depends on tightly managing costs and claiming subsidies.

When NFU vice-president Michael Paske visited the beef enterprise at Upper Haythog, Spittal, producer Peter Scales told him it was difficult to make a modest margin finishing pure Holstein bulls. Healthy, low priced calves, cheap cereals and suitable buildings must be available for boisterous or aggressive older bulls, says Mr Scales.

"You cannot afford to pay more than £20 for a dropped calf or more than £75/t for grain. It is also important to market correctly, trying to pick up quality bonuses."

Calves for the 120 bull finishing places on the farm are bought directly from dairy farms. Because of difficulties involved in obtaining movement licences and disinfection procedures, sellers have agreed to hold calves until they have a group of about 12.

"Of course we pay more to cover any rearing costs involved and have to take mixed bunches," says Mr Scales. After weaning at 12 weeks old, calves are transferred from the open fronted rearing shed to more robust penning in the finishing house. Finishing rations are based on home-grown cereals and a protein balancer, which is supplied by the operator of a mobile mixer wagon that visits the farm fortnightly.

Exploiting the growth potential of bulls means finishing at about 14 months old and avoiding feed quality compromises, says Mr Scales.

"On the correct feed, bulls gain 1.4kg/day to 10 months old and 1.25kg/day from then to slaughter. They must go as soon as they are ready, before weight gained is worth less than it costs to put on. On average, bulls eat 2t/head of finishing concentrate."

Most Upper Haythog bulls are finished on a fixed price contract. The specification is for carcasses weighing between 250 and 350kg and a bonus is paid for conformation scores better than O minus. This has been as high as 14p/kg on carcasses classified O+, says Mr Scales.

"This is a significant premium on a base price of 140p/kg. But we have no control over the grading. Cattle go to the abattoir and we receive a payment which we have to accept. At one time, two-thirds of our bulls were O+, but this has fallen to one-third."

While signing up to a contract guarantees a buyer, it dictates a finished price a year ahead of sale. Uncertainty about the way beef prices will move in the wake of foot-and-mouth means Mr Scales is undecided about agreeing a contract on the latest batch of calves.

Peter Scales (left) told NFU vice-president Michael Paske that Holstein calves must be healthy and cost no more than £20 to leave beef finishers a profit.

DAIRYBULLFINISHING

&#8226 Profit £40/head possible.

&#8226 Calf cost up to £20.

&#8226 Claim subsidies.