22 August 1997

Weight and vigour matters

Maximising prices by raising calf sale weights and providing potential buyers with as much assurance as possible are the aims for one Powys suckled calf producer. Jonathan Riley reports

AT 400-720m (1000-1800ft) above sea level, beef production on the Watkins familys 56ha (140-acre) Grafog Farm, Pengenffordd, Talgarth, is constrained by low grass growth and a lack of available cereal feed.

Any management changes to improve margins after the BSE crisis began were, therefore, limited to improving the marketability of the suckled calves produced.

The first step taken by Ivan Watkins in the winter of 1995, after the first BSE scare, was to move towards a closed herd policy for the 40 Limousin cross suckler cows.

"Because we had never had a case of BSE we wanted to avoid buying it in with dairy bred replacements. By closing the herd we hoped to improve traceability and provide potential buyers with more assurance on herd health status," explains Mr Watkins.

Replacement heifers are selected from moderate sized, easy calving cows with good temperaments.

"These factors are important because of our poor grass growth. A larger cow would need more maintenance feeding and that would be too expensive."

Mr Watkins opted to continue calving some cows in the autumn despite higher winter feed costs. The autumn born calf has a higher weight than the spring born calf at sale the next autumn. And the two calving periods suit the new replacement strategy.

The aim is to calve heifers at 30 months, and to do this spring born heifers will join the autumn calving group while the autumn born heifers will join the spring calvers.

"Our main concern is maintaining milk yields and hybrid vigour which could suffer if we continually breed beef cross cows to a Limousin bull," he says.

A second bull has now been bought to reduce the bulls workload and hence shorten the calving period. This makes feeding management more efficient because more cows are at a similar stage of pregnancy. It also means calves can be marketed in tighter batches.

"We have also brought the spring calving group back a month to calve in April which means we will be able to sell a larger calf in the autumn," says Mr Watkins.

Knowing that some buyers wanted a higher degree of assurance, Mr Watkins joined the FABBL scheme to increase the number of outlets that would take stock.

"We also joined the Brecon and Radnor Suckled Calf Rearers group last summer because animals sold through the group consistently achieved higher prices at sale."

To become a member there are several criteria which must be complied with. Housing must be inspected and achieve a set standard. Bull calves must be castrated and disbudded as early as possible and marketed within a certain age bracket.

"After an inspection we were allowed to join the group in June last year. A further stipulation is that members must creep feed calves. We began offering creep – sugar beet pulp and maize gluten – in late summer in a five-space feeder," he explains.

At the autumn sales Mr Watkins says the appearance of the calf was notably better with tighter bellies and sheen to their coats. Sold singly, spring born calves sold for well over £200/head at weights 20-30kg higher than the previous year, with autumn calves reaching weights over 350kg and achiving 10p/kg higher than the average price.

"Our calves were sold individually but we noticed that batches of four or five calves sold better and so this year we will batch calves for sale – a process made easier by the tighter calving period," he adds.

MANAGEMENT CHANGES

&#8226 Closed herd policy.

&#8226 Tighter calving period.

&#8226 Calve earlier.

&#8226 Quality assurance.

Calving a month earlier in spring will boost calf sale weights in autumn, says Powys producer Ivan Watkins, whos keen to improve marketability.