Make most of heifers
Heifers form the future of
every suckler beef herd. But
few make the most of their
potential. Marianne Curtis
went along to one Dorset
unit for some tips
CALVING beef heifers at two years old instead of three saves £150 a head a year on one Dorset unit.
But careful management in the run up to calving is critical to avoid difficulties getting them back in calf.
Signet beef consultant Ian Ross says that although there is widespread scepticism about calving beef heifers at two years old, lack of success is often due to poor management. "Typically, a young heifer will be caught by a bull and end up running with cattle a year older. Producers see how small she is and it prejudices them against calving at two years old."
But there are advantages to calving earlier, he says. "When claiming extensification, calving earlier means fewer unproductive animals contributing to limited stocking rate allowances."
Reducing unproductive cattle numbers also saves cost, explains Nick Harding who runs a 120-cow suckler herd on 400ha (1000 acres) at Preston Farm, Tarrant Rushton, Blandford Forum.
"Producers would struggle to keep a heifer for less than £10 a month. This amounts to £120 a year and including labour brings costs close to £150 a head a year."
But two year olds require careful management, in the period before calving, says Mr Harding. "It can be difficult to put enough condition on heifers before they calve. Calving them too thin makes getting them back in calf a problem."
Managing condition is a particular challenge on Mr Hardings farm as in-calf heifers are outwintered on rape and turnips until three weeks before calving in March and cold, wet winter weather can sometimes cause loss of condition. "We keep a close eye on heifers and when condition is suffering, supplement in good time with forage or concentrate."
The aim is for heifers to reach a target calving weight of 550kg by just after Christmas. "They are then fed more carefully to avoid calves becoming too large which can lead to calving difficulties."
But for target calving weight to be successfully achieved, heifers must be managed carefully from birth, not turned in the poorest field on the farm, says Mr Ross. Whether heifers are destined for beef or calving, targets are the same (table 1). "Aim for a gain from birth to calving of 0.7kg a head a day to calve heifers at two years old."
Mr Harding houses heifers at weaning for their first winter, when they receive grass silage and rolled small barley grains plus protein concentrate. Heifers also receive a little concentrate throughout their second grazing season, partly to ease handling, he says.
"We run a closed herd, so all replacements are homebred. A few years ago we had to cull 40-50 cows which were aggressive. This can be a problem when – unlike replacements sourced from dairy herds – calves are not bucket reared and may only be handled 2-3 times during their life before calving. Feeding heifers daily gets them used to seeing people, making them much quieter than before."
The decision to breed all female replacements at home was taken about 10 years ago. Previously, Hereford x Friesian cows were bought in, says Mr Harding. "We were becoming increasingly worried about introducing disease, having experienced an outbreak of leptospirosis. And the Holstein influence was having a negative impact on grading of finished stock."
Simmental strongly influenced breeding policy over the next few years. "Many cows were 15/16ths Simmental. After BSE we tried to finish bulls and heifers at 14-15 months old, but it was difficult to achieve high enough weight with heifers. The minimum abattoirs wanted was 270kg deadweight, but we struggled to go above 230kg."
Now all cattle are finished off grass at two years old. Three years ago, South Devon genetics were introduced to the herd. Using Simmental x South Devon suckler cows produces cattle ideal for this system, says Mr Harding. "South Devons are later maturing than Simmentals and the two breeds complement each other well."
Replacements are bred using a criss-crossing system, where a Simmental cow is mated to a Devon bull. Her female offspring are mated back to a Devon bull. Offspring from this mating go back to a Simmental and so on, says Mr Ross. "Criss-crossing introduces hybrid vigour, which improves fertility."
Each year, 60 home-bred heifers are served at 15 months old and a minimum weight of 350kg. "Of these, 30-40 will be in-calf. We keep 20 and sell remaining in-calf heifers. Heifers too small to serve are finished."
This year, two-year-old in-calf heifers have provided a much better return than finished heifers of the same age, says Mr Harding. "We sold in-calf heifers for up to £490 two weeks before they were due to calve. Finished heifers made £350."
Gross margin for heifer rearing to calving on the unit is £273 (table 2). *
Table 1: Targets for South Devon x Simmental hiefers calving at two years old
Date Weight Daily Age gain (months)
Mar 15 40 1.0 (birth)
Nov 15 273 0.7 8 (weaning)
Apr 15 378 0.5 13 (turnout)
Jun 1 400 0.7 15 (bulling)
Nov 1 500 0.4 20
Mar 15 24 (calving)
• Saves £150 a head.
• Care over nutrition.
• Flexible system.
Table 2: Preston Farm gross margin for heifer rearing to calving at two years old
Transfer from herd £182.00
Forage costs £54.03
Gross margin after £312.32