25 February 2000

Mind your business to thrive

Producing what the market

wants is vital to ensure the

UK beef industry thrives,

according to speakers at a

recent beef conference.

James Garner reports

BEEF producers must become more business and production minded if they are to build a successful future for the UK industry.

Speaking at a conference organised by Keenan, the companys food alliance manager Donald Brown challenged beef producers to think of themselves as production managers and not farmers.

He told delegates at last weeks conference, Tightening up your Beef Production, held at Newark and Notts showground that other manufacturing industries had strived to take variation out of their products and it was time for beef producers to do the same.

"The beef industry is supplying consumers who have a definite buying pattern and therefore require high standards."

Returning to his original theme, Mr Brown said there were two types of production manager. The first was production orientated, a manager who would produce a product and assume someone will buy it. He warned that other industries had been forced to change attitudes like this, or be driven out of business.

The other type of product manager was market orientated, producing what the market required and so had a customer to buy it.

He based his argument on poor beef marketing figures within the UK. Only 37.4% of animals slaughtered hit processors and retailers target specifications. Producers must concentrate on improving this, instead of criticising processors or marketing bodies, he warned. "It is time to get our own house in order. When 80-90% of our product hits required specs then we can begin pointing the finger at processors and advertisers."

Other manufacturing industries, such as wine making, had eliminated variation from their products. This industry had overcome factors such as climate, and the beef industry had to follow suit.

Mr Brown said most manufacturing industries exhibited variation, but had squeezed it out of the system; it was time for beef farmers to do the same. One area where they could improve was to feed animals more effectively.

"We have gone too far down the processed feeds route, which means we have been treating cows like pigs, feeding them over-processed feeds." Any gains in performance during this time had been because of breeding and genetic improvements, he believed.

He added that the UK beef industry needed to get-back to feeding cows as ruminants and that meant using the scratch factor. "When a diet contains some long material – such as straw – it scratches the side of the stomach, which stimulates rumen bugs and helps bring up cud to chew."

Feed conversion efficiency – how efficiently an animal used feed – was vital, said Mr Brown. He believed that too often cattle were over fed, meaning there was much waste. That, he added, was the difference between the top performing MLC recorded herds and the bottom third.

Top performing herds fed 3t of feed a head a year, compared with 4t a head in the bottom third. But there is a dramatic difference in bedding costs too; the bottom third of herds using 24t of straw a cow a year, compared with 14t a cow a year in top third herds.

"The extra tonne of feed being fed in the bottom third of herds is coming straight out of the cow, meaning it costs more to bed pens."

In all phases of beef production, from growing cattle to finishing Mr Brown argued there could be improvements in feeding. "We are doing something wrong when it comes to heifer management – they are too often finished as short, dumpy animals."

Last years MLC figures show that 32.4% of heifers finished overfat and weighing only 271kg. "Heifers want to be 3in taller, and this means focusing on growing them taller when they are young."

To stimulate this he advised using a high protein, high fibre diet providing a medium level of energy. "Keep barley away from them. Ad-lib cereals provide too much energy."

Heifers also required high mineral diet with calcium to help their bones grow, he added.

BEEF PRODUCTION

&#8226 Be managers, not farmers.

&#8226 Change of attitude.

&#8226 Eliminate variation.

Over-feeding cattle causes more waste to come straight out, meaning extra bedding costs – some herds using 10t more straw a cow a year – says Donald Brown (inset).