Beef farmers need to know what the market wants

As specifications for finished beef cattle get tighter, achieving accurate marketing weights will become more critical, which is why producers need to be talking to their buyers.

And a trend which has seen bigger, heavier steers being produced is a concern, says EBLEX’s Clive Brown. “Cattle weighing more than 400kg deadweight are an issue with those extra kilos usually costing more to put on than they actually produce in terms of profit.

“As abattoirs find themselves with fewer major buyers the weight ranges needed are becoming tighter, so it’s important for finishers to make sure they produce cattle that hit those specifications – those that don’t will end up being discounted and that means time and resources have been wasted,” says Mr Brown.

He urges producers to take the time to talk to buyers – even those buying cattle liveweight – and to see their cattle on the hook.

“Taking chances on finishing weights is becoming a costly business for finishers at a time when it’s never been more important to earn the highest price a kilo.”

And finished cattle falling outside the most sought after carcass specifications demanded by major meat buyers can mean producers forfeiting up to £100 worth of potential value. So getting it right ensures a beast achieves the best return.

That’s the view of Gavin Davidson, site managing director of the Dunbia meat plant, Sawley, Clitheroe, Lancashire which currently handles more than 90,000 finished cattle a year.

“High priced store cattle can often make finishers focus on extra kilos to try and get back the extra pounds they’ve had to spend. It means cattle are sold at heavier weights and that leaves us with carcasses that are too big for our mainstream trade.

“A 400kg carcass is problematic for us and produce cuts and joints of a size the mainstream trade can’t cope with. With meat sales in the hands of fewer major retailers it’s essential finishers understand that hitting the most wanted specification will consistently achieve the best price from the market,” says Mr Davidson.

Cattle falling into the R3/4L classification and producing a 300-360kg carcass are “ideal” according to Dunbia, but the company is quick to point out other issues associated with missing the target on specification that producers need to be aware of.

“Heavy cattle producing cuts such as big fillets have led to some restaurant chains taking fillet steaks off their menus because they are too big and too expensive to offer customers. That’s not something we want to see happening with any cuts – fillets, sirloins or joints.

“Consumption of red meat has held up well despite the recession. What the beef industry doesn’t want to see is a situation that makes red meat too expensive – or leads to certain cuts being removed from menus – and drives consumers onto other meats.”

Although finished cattle have eased back by a few pence in recent weeks to about £2.70 a kilo, Mr Davidson is confident most finishers with cattle coming out of winter yards in the next few weeks are increasingly aware of the financial advantage of hitting precise specifications on weight and finish.

“Fat is still a huge drain on our production costs. For every kilo of fat we cut off a carcass we’ve got to pay 15p to get it off the site so finishers must realise the more fat we get the more those over-fat animals have to be discounted which means they’ve been shovelling in feed and getting no return for it.

“When these cattle are presented with the right amount of fat cover at the right weight the finisher gets a better price, we get a better carcass to cut and our buyers get the commodity they want.”

Dunbia maintains relating cattle on the hoof to carcasses on the hook is still the best way for finishers to learn how to most efficiently assess the carcase potential of their live cattle.

“We are more than happy to hold live/dead days at Sawley to help farmers understand what we want in terms of a beef carcass. It’s by far the best way to help them get a true picture of both ends of the beef market.”

Case Study: Steven Crabtree, Bolton Abbey, Skipton

One producer not willing to take a chance on finishing weights and has engaged with his deadwight buyer is Steven Crabtree, Bolton Abbey, Skipton.

Steven Crabtree 
Steven Crabtree has developed a close relationship with his buyer to help “fine tune” his beef production.

He has been “fine tuning” beef production from his 120 sucklers at Bolton Park Farm by developing a close relationship with his deadweight buyer which has resulted on a move away from producing extreme continental-type carcasses.

And the system, which produces more mature, finished animals at about 24-months-old, has also set about tackling many of the hidden costs that can insidiously erode margins.

“Our aim is to get the best return by making every effort to produce the type of cattle the buyer wants and that’s led to an off-farm finishing arrangement and a move to easily managed suckler cows with lower maintenance costs,” says Mr Crabtree.

Although some cattle are marketed through the family’s wholesale beef business Bolton Abbey Foods, about 60 head a year are sold deadweight to Dunbia. For the last two years they’ve been finished off the farm which as involved moving the cattle at about 20-month-old to a farm near York – about 35 miles away.

“We get charged a price a head a day and it’s working well. On a hill farm like this straw is a huge input cost – £15 a tonne just for delivery – and making use of cheaper feeds isn’t an option up here because of our location and haulage charges. It’s cheaper to move cattle to the feed, rather than move the feed to the cattle.”

The herd – which is now using a Stabiliser bull to produce female replacements and a Limousin bull as the main terminal sire – is split into spring and summer calving cows to produce finished cattle at about 24-months old.

Spring-born calves are grazed in their second year to grow frame “as slowly as possible” and then housed at home in the autumn. For the last two years just over half the animals have been moved off-farm in February for the final finishing period during which time they are monitored and drawn for slaughter as required by Dunbia field staff.

“The cattle are off the farm for 12-16 weeks and we’re aiming for finished animals at about 24-months-old weighing approximately 600-650kg for steers and 550-600kg for heifers at slaughter. They’re on a straw-based diet of potatoes, vegetables and brewers grains.

“By working closely with Dunbia we’re producing what they want as meat buyers while still making use of a cost-effective finishing system that we couldn’t achieve on our hill farm at home.

“We do finish some at home on concentrates but when cattle are eating up to 10kg of cake a day it certainly makes you focus on costs. We now have a comparison of a system based on lower-priced alternative feeds with one based on concentrates, and even without straw and labour our finishing costs per head per week at home can easily be £15 a head.”

Cattle bred at Bolton Park Farm are moving away from the influence of extreme continental type and believe the Stabiliser/Limousin combination is producing animals well-suited to the system.

“The Stabiliser-bred cow is a good converter of forage and is doing well up on this type of farm, but she’s equally able to produce a Limousin-sired calf with the potential to grow frame and to produce a well-fleshed and good-shaped carcass at 24-months old.

“The current grid price system used by all abattoirs doesn’t offer significant enough price differentials between the standard R3L, 4L or 4H which attract the base price, and the price paid for carcasses that classify as E. So where’s the incentive for the higher costs of production needed to try and hit the top grade with extreme types of fast finishing cattle with questionable beef quality?

“I know some will say I should have finished cattle off the farm at 14-months-old, but on this type of hill farm we’re trying to run cows that are economical to keep – hence the move to the Stabiliser – and yet still produce the best return from finished animals. If we pushed cattle with these genetics onto a fast-finish system we’d have poor quality, over-fat animals.

“The aim is to try and match what the farm is best at producing with what the market wants and to achieve that based on the most economical costs of production,” says Mr Crabtree.

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