Preparation ensures best
Preparation is the key to maintaining good suckled calf prices on one Somerset farm. Emma Penny reports
CREEP feeding, minimising stress, and careful batching for sales all help ensure a good price for suckled calves.
Thats the belief of David Powell, manager of Chargot Estate, Luxborough, Minehead. About 175 three-quarter beef bred March- and April-born suckled calves are sold off the farm through Cutcombe market each year at the Exmoor Suckled Calf Rearers Association sales.
Top price for a Chargot Estate calf last year was £525 for a 325kg steer, with all calves averaging £380. This was despite a much greater drop in heifer prices – which averaged £270/head or just over £1/kg – as a result of the BSE crisis.
Mr Powell aims to sell as many suckled calves as possible in early October, the remainder being sold in early November.
Sale preparation starts with the introduction of creep feed – a 16% protein nut – in mid-June to help maintain growth rates, explains Mr Powell. He is quite willing to pay for a quality cake as it has such a positive impact on growth rate.
"Creep is fed as soon as we think the calves will take it, and before summer drought starts to reduce grass quality and quantity. Grass is quite lush now, and calves are taking less creep, but they have developed a taste for it which is what really matters."
In the run-up to sales, steer calves will take up to 3kg/head/day, with heifers taking up to 2kg/head/day.
Straw is introduced in a big-bale feeder beside the creep in late August. This is to ensure calves continue to maintain condition and do not become too loose, particularly on the lush grass this season, he says. Silage is offered from September onwards, depending on grass availability.
"Three weeks before the sale we sort calves into four batches, and dose them all with Ivomec. We will keep some heifer calves as replacements, then heifers and steers for suckled calf sales are picked out, and the remainder, which are usually late born or poorer doers, are kept over-winter and sold as stores."
At the suckled calf sales, he aims to sell steers at 260-300kg, and heifers at 240-280kg. "To sell well, steers must be at least 260kg, but it doesnt pay to have them at more than 300kg. They may make more, but will not be as profitable relative to lighter animals. Heifers dont want to be too fit as they can look like they will run to fat too easily."
Steers and heifers for sale are put onto fresh grass, and stress minimised to help maintain condition. They are kept in separate groups, with steers receiving the best grass as befits their greater potential; this also ensures heifer calves do not become over-fat.
"We try to ensure grass runs out about two to three days before the sale. Calves then come back onto shorter grass round the farmstead and are fed more silage and less creep to help maintain condition before sale," explains Mr Powell.
Calves are not clipped; again this would increase stress, and its unlikely to pay for the labour involved, he says.
They are sorted into groups of four or six, matched by weight, shape, type and colour. "Trade for uniform lots is better – and, strangely, selling in batches of even numbers also helps prices."
Heifers tend to be sold in lots of six, while steers will go in lots of four, he says.
"It appears to be more important to have smaller batches of steers. Buyers seem keener on larger batches of heifers for some reason. And selling in groups of seven or more can adversely affect the price, even though they are a uniform lot."
He says that some might criticise him for doing his suckled calves too well, but he feels this is borne out by the number of repeat customers for Chargot Estate calves.
"Its important to have calves eating a reasonable amount of concentrate. If theyre yarded after sale they will at least continue eating and wont suffer a growth check unlike those which have received little or no feed."
Minimising stress in the run-up to sales is vital to keep condition on spring born three-quarter bred suckled calves, says Chargot Estates David Powell.
• Creep feed.
• Minimise stress.
• Uniform type lots.
• Even number batches.