20 November 1998

Winter cost burden to British stock industry

By FWlivestock reporters

HIGH winter costs are the main competitive problem for British cattle and sheep enterprises, according to Peter Cook, head of the rural affairs department at the Scottish Agricultural College.

"We need buildings, feed stores, expensive processes like silage making, machinery and concentrate feeds to maintain stock in winter. That puts us at a serious disadvantage with New Zealand, Australia, South America and parts of Africa which have grazing for up to 10 months a year," he told the college outlook conference in Edinburgh.

"If we are to adjust to a new, lower price environment with beef returns at about 80p/kg, then we have to reduce the cost of winter."

Grazed grass can lower the cost of liveweight gain in a beef enterprise to 30p/kg compared with between 55p and £1/kg for a typical winter ration.

Beef producers should aim for winter feed costs of 55p/kg of liveweight gain, said Mr Cook. "To achieve this, look at least cost rations using by-products and ways of producing high yields of silage."

Just maintaining animals is expensive, explained Mr Cook "An animal walking about doing nothing needs feeding, probably costing about £250 a year for a dairy cow. The aim must be to increase return/unit of maintenance cost and to also lower that cost.

"The best mix is fast growth rates to minimise maintenance costs and maximising grass use, the cheapest feed, resulting in 17-18 month finishing for beef."

Making more from grazed grass has become part of dairy production in parts of the country. "But there are principles that can be learnt in less suitable areas."

"However, where there are constraints such as land area and environmental difficulties, producers may be better off with fewer high-yielding animals," he said.

Grassland consultant Paul Bird agrees in some cases this might be right. "However, where land is limited, quota is leased and concentrates and silage must be fed to meet targets, it would be more profitable to produce the level of quota owned.

"When producers own large amounts of quota an acre, high yielding cows might be the answer. This is often stated as normal in UK dairying to justify high cost systems, but I dont think this is the norm," says Mr Bird.

Beef producers should also consider making better use of grazed grass, said Mr Cook. "Consider ideas like earlier turnout, keeping stock out for longer, improving grass budgeting and putting in tracks and gateways to improve access.

"Extending grazing may, however, work better for sheep as they damage grass less and production, such as May lambing, can be geared to make better use of grass."

However, independant consultant Lesley Stubbings believes that attacking fixed costs is more important than trying to cut winter feed costs.

"Increasing some inputs, such as foot-rot and toxoplasma vaccines has massive benefits in terms of reducing pressure on labour, especially in big flocks," she says.