31 October 1997

Shorten winter by maximising grass intakes

By Jonathan Riley

and Sue Rider

BEEF finishers facing weakening cattle prices could maximise use of grass to reduce costs in areas where it is possible to achieve a long grazing season and high daily gains at grass.

The key issue is to shorten the winter, Tony Pettit, specialist adviser for Irish consultancy service, Teagasc, told a cattle conference in Co Kilkenny, Ireland, last week.

"Aim to maximise weight gain at grass; it is six times as cheap as putting on weight using silage and concentrates," he says. A kg liveweight gained off grazed grass costs 15-20p/kg against 90p for housed animals.

For cattle finished at 22-24 months, he suggests aiming for moderate winter gains – based on a minimum of 0.5kg a day for well grown animals – then maximising performance off grass.

"The key challenge is to achieve 200kg lw gain an animal over its second grazing season. This requires a long grazing season and high daily gains. Early turnout will be crucial."

On drier farms a 220-day grazing season should be possible by turning out in the third week of March and housing mid-November. Growth rates should then average 0.9kg a day throughout the grazing season, which will depend on adequate supplies of high quality grass.

Eddie ORiordan, head of Irelands Grange research centre, suggests extending the grazing season two weeks later than usual in autumn, and aiming for spring turnout three weeks earlier.

But to ensure adequate supplies of grass in spring, some of the farm must be closed or rested from mid-October onwards.

"A rotational grazing system facilitates an orderly closing of pastures in autumn. Decide now which fields you will want cattle to graze first in spring and close them this week."

He urges beef producers to adopt planned grazing techniques more familiar on dairy farms. Using paddocks instead of set stocking allows grass supplies to be measured and matched to feed demand. This ensures higher growth rateswhich can be sustained over a longer grazing season, reducing winter feed requirements.

Few producers take regional climate differences and the length of the grazing period into account when calculating winter store growth rates, says SACs Basil Lowman.

He explains that cattle housed for four months in Devon and gaining 0.5kg a day achieve a 60kg gain through the winter.

"In the same region cattle grown at 0.8kg a day will weigh 36kg more at turnout. To finish at the same time the next autumn a growth rate of 0.1-0.2kg a day extra is needed, but this is achievable with a long grazing season.

But the shorter grazing season in Scotland would mean an animal held back over winter would have insufficient time at grass to regain the weight and finish at the same stage next autumn.

ADASs Elwyn Rees also cautions that in areas where grass growing conditions are not ideal, it could be dangerous to restrict growth rates too much during the first winter.

He suggests gains of 0.5kg a head a day would be hitting many animals too hard, unless grass conditions were exceptional. "Aim for 0.5-0.6kg a day for heifers and 0.7kg for steers."

LOWER COST BEEF

&#8226 Shorten the winter when possible.

&#8226 Aim for moderate gains indoors.

&#8226 Maximise weight gain at grass.