15 August 1997

Quality heifers nice earner

A switch from cereal-fed bulls to high quality heifer rearing, careful marketing and an increase in sheep numbers has helped one Somerset producer to cope with the post-BSE beef market. Jonathan Riley reports

BEFORE the BSE announcement on Mar 20, 1996, Roy Louds 130ha (330-acre) Alstone Court Farm, Highbridge, Somerset, supported a suckler herd of 15 commercial and 15 pedigree Simmental sucklers.

These produced 25 steers and heifers, finished at 24 months old. A further 30 heifers were bought in at 260kg and finished at 510kg and 30 bought-in bulls were finished on cereals at 13 months.

Bulls were sold through electronic auctions at 232p/kg dw but once the export ban was imposed prices fell to 160p/kg dw.

"Despite this we were already contracted to buy more bulls; we switched them to a silage based ration to cut costs. Concentrate levels were reduced from 8kg to 3kg a day during the winter and we still finished the bulls at about 13 months," says Mr Loud.

Heifers and steers at grass were offered supplementary concentrates, rising from 0.5kg to 3kg a head a day to match the fall off in grass quality. This sustained growth rates of about 1kg a day and cut finishing times by a month so saving maintenance feed costs and avoiding rehousing in the autumn.

Heifer prices immediately after the export ban were low because heifers attracted no subsidy and their carcasses were too light for many UK outlets, explains Mr Loud. These low prices enabled him to buy 60 three-quarter bred Simmental heifers for only £260 a head. "These were high quality animals of good size and we now have the option to finish them or use them as replacements for the commercial suckler cows.

"Our commercial suckler herd has been increased to 25 cows to rear more of our own stock and so improve traceability," says Mr Loud. This increase has been supported by renting an extra 28ha (70 acres) of grass which enables stocking rates to be kept below 1.4 livestock units/ha (0.57/acre) and extensification payments maintained.

His pedigree herd will be kept at 15 animals to produce top quality stock bulls to cater for increased demand as more beef producers consider operating a closed herd policy.

The aim for the pedigree herd is to continue improving carcass quality by using semen from bulls with high estimated breeding values. Mr Loud also plans to calve pedigree cows in December so that bulls have reached 18 months when demand for stock bulls is at its peak in the late spring.

But the most significant boost in returns for the unit was achieved with the ewes. The extra rented grass also enabled an increase in the flock from 400 to 650 January and March lambing ewes. These produced 1000 lambs and achieved prices of about £47 a head increasing outputs to about £85 a ewe.

Roy Loud (right) and his Signet business consultant, David Evans… Restructuring the beef enterprise to cope with changed market conditions.