22 March 2002

Heifer-finishing snags all

Heifer finishing may be

notoriously difficult to do

well, but one Dorset-based

unit has found a reliable

system which consistently

produces quality animals.

Hannah Velten reports

PROFITABLE heifer finishing relies on a two-year system, feeding high quality forages, with animals drawn based on condition rather than weight, says Gore Farm herd manager, Kevin Klakus.

The organic unit, near Shaftesbury, Dorset, runs a 120 head suckler cow herd, on 167ha (410 acres) of forage. More than half the herd is purebred Aubrac, a rare sight in the UK. The farms owner, John Eliot Gardiner, the orchestra conductor, became interested in the breed when he lived in Lyon, France.

By importing breeding stock from France, and more recently from Germany, the unit now has a nucleus herd of 60 Aubrac suckler cows and three bulls. These produce pure Aubrac heifers for replacements or finishing.

The rest of the 120 suckler herd is made up of crossbreds, including Simmental cross Galloways and Hereford cross Friesians. These are crossed with a high genetic merit South Devon bull and all heifers are finished.

Calving is during March and April, with calves weaned at 240-250kg on Nov 1, when they are yarded. During the first winter, growing heifers receive about 15kg freshweight a day of big bale red clover haylage, which is 50% dry matter. This supports a daily liveweight gain of 0.4kg, allowing them to reach 330kg at turnout in mid-March.

During the spring/summer they are on organic grazing, either ryegrass/white clover leys or National Trust downland at a stocking rate of 1.8 head/ha (0.75/acre).

"We run a clean grazing system, with grazing alternating between the 1050-head sheep flock and cattle to reduce worm burdens," says Mr Klakus.

With daily weight gains of 0.4kg a day at grass, heifers are yarded on Oct 1 for the second winter, at 18 months of age, weighing 395kg. Initially, they are fed ad-lib grass silage, from a mixed clamp of red clover and ryegrass/white clover silages.

All forages are analysed, allowing a balanced ration to be made up, says Mr Klakus. "While red clover silage provided 12.7% crude protein and 11.0 ME, we had disappointing crude protein levels of 7.8% for ryegrass/white clover silage this winter. Home-grown beans had to be added to the final stage ration to make up the protein shortfall."

This winter, after one month of pure grass silage, half of the grass has been replaced by maize silage and in addition heifers received 1kg of home-grown barley and 1kg of home-grown beans.

After a further month, maize silage was increased to 18kg a head a day and grass silage reduced to 12kg freshweight, resulting in intakes of 10.3kg dry matter. Protein concentrate was also raised to 3kg a day. This ration should provide for daily liveweight gains of 1.1kg, but actual rates are 0.8kg a day.

About 10ha (25 acres) of organic maize is grown successfully on Vale soils, providing 11.1ME and 8% crude protein. Ian Ross, the farms Signet consultant, says the starch content of maize breaks down slower than that in barley. "This steadier release of energy provided by maize means the rumen can make the most of available energy, rather than bursts of starch bypassing the rumen."

Heifers are drawn for slaughter from November, at 20 months old. "I decide whether they are finished by eye, based on condition rather than weight," says Mr Klakus.

Weight versus finish is the dilemma for heifer finishers, says Mr Ross. "Many heifers are either finished too light, below the 270kg required today and are price penalised, or they reach heavier weights, but lay down fat. Heifers need to be treated differently to bulls and steers; only the very best sorts can meet carcass targets on a 15-month system," he adds.

Performance figures show the 39 heifers finished in 2001 had a lifetime daily liveweight gain of 0.68kg in 730 days. They averaged 533kg liveweight and 284kg deadweight, grading at R3/4L with some Us, reports Mr Klakus.

But with the maize inclusion this winter, the 2002 heifer finishers are already showing an average of 315kg deadweight, without becoming overfat, he adds.

The heifer finishing gross margin (see panel) takes account of the organic premium – prices are £2.60/kg deadweight. Next year, if suckler cow quota is available at sensible prices, Mr Ross will look to include heifers as up to 40% of the premium claim.

Also looking forward, the breeding programme is moving towards producing Shaubrac suckler cows, which are Aubrac x Beef Shorthorn, says Mr Klakus. "Progeny should be more uniform and produce better meat quality and taste, which is essential for the quality end of the organic market." &#42

Gross margin (£) a head for heifer finishing at Gore Farm – Nov 1999-May 2001

Total carcass sales 721

minus total valuations 184

Output 537

Plus slaughter subsidy 25

Total output 562

Variable costs

Concentrate 101

Forage 23

Other feed 30

Bedding 42

Vet & Med 3

Other costs 16

Total variable costs 215

Gross margin after forage costs @ £21 326

Gross margin/ha @ 1.9 head/ha 615

FINISHING HEIFERS

&#8226 Fed balanced silage ration.

&#8226 Finished at 20-24 months.

Gross margin (£ a head)

for heifer finishing at Gore

Farm – Nov-May 2001

Total carcass sales 721

minus total valuations 184

Output 537

Plus slaughter subsidy 25

Total output 562

Variable costs

Concentrate 101

Forage 23

Other feed 30

Bedding 42

Vet & Med 3

Other costs 16

Total variable costs 215

Gross margin after

forage costs @ £21 326

Gross margin/ha

@ 1.9 head/ha 615

FINISHING HEIFERS

&#8226 Fed balanced silage ration.

&#8226 Finished at 20-24 months.

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