31 May 2002

Top herds point the way to profit

Electronic tagging, dressing

specification and costs of

production were some of

the topics discussed at

Beef 2002, held at Wooler,

Northumberland.

Richard Allison and Jeremy Hunt report

TOP suckler herds are achieving gross margins up to 29% above the average by cutting replacement costs, maximising calf output and more targeted use of forages and grazing.

Announcing preliminary Beefplan results, MLC economist Duncan Sinclair revealed a large variation in performance with up to £84 a cow difference in gross margin between average and top third performing herds (see Business).

The encouraging aspect of these results is that factors leading to improved performance are within control of producers and are not subsidy dependent. These herds were characterised by having a higher overall output with higher calf sales and lower replacement costs, said Mr Sinclair.

He highlighted that for lowland herds, lower costs of herd replacement, increased number of calves reared and greater sale weight accounted for most of the 2.4p/kg lower cost of weaned calf produced in top performing herds.

"And more targeted use of home-grown feed and grazing helped top upland herds achieve 13% lower variable costs by cutting concentrate use, compared with average herds. Higher calf weights were also achieved in top upland herds."

Commenting on the results, ADAS beef consultant David Morris stressed that the number and weight of calves produced often reflects the breed used. Producers should ensure the calving and milking ability of cows are not compromised in their breeding programme.

"While there is much interest in three or four way cross breeding, it is not suitable for smaller herds. It takes a lot of management and is complicated." Breed also influences replacement costs. A herd may lose on cow longevity when adopting more Continental breed genetics, he said.

Age at first calving also accounts for differences in the cost of replacements between herds. Heifers should be managed to calve at 24 months, this can be achieved without compromising number of calves reared a cow.

Mr Morris believes there is still scope for many producers to feed less concentrates by adopting a more dairy like approach to grazing. "While grass for beef is often managed extensively, there is no reason why these swards cannot be managed to improve grass quality, cutting concentrate use."

Rotational grazing is one way to ensure a constant wedge of grass in front of cattle, said Keenan beef specialist Donald Brown. "This may involve cutting silage crops earlier to allow regrowth. In upland areas, silage aftermath fields are a useful source of high quality grazing."

To help producers identify cost savings, the MLC is planning to launch a new service to allow producers to compare their costs within local discussion groups and improve business performance, said Mr Sinclair. &#42

IMPROVING PROFITABILITY

&#8226 Breed important.

&#8226 Targeted grazing.

&#8226 Calve at 24 months.