Focus on efficient throughput to survive beef subsidy cuts

Beef farmers are being advised to focus on feed and fixed-cost efficiency to optimise their farm performance ahead of the decreases in subsidies.

Next year, the new basic payment replaces the single farm payment and many beef farmers will see their direct payments fall in the coming years.

Key to efficiency is looking at profit an animal place rather than profit an animal, said Jimmy Hyslop, beef specialist at SAC Consulting.

“High throughput is the key determinate to the overall profit-generating capacity of the system,” he said.

Dr Hyslop was advises farmers to produce a slaughter animal as young as possible. A fundamental fact is that younger animals are more efficient at converting feed, he said.

“Should we try to slaughter cattle at a younger age? The average slaughter age is 23-24 months and 50% [of slaughter animals] are older than this. The answer is undeniably yes.”

If you are feeding an animal for 24 months you have to maintain it for longer than an eight-month-old, he said. And all the time you’re feeding it for maintenance, you’re not feeding for carcass gain. The more days you do this for, the more inefficient your system is.

“Feed costs may be comparable on a daily basis, but the longer you have to feed it, the more inefficient it becomes.”

Dr Hyslop says there is little point in putting animals through a winter store period when farmers can take advantage of the higher feed conversion efficiency of young animals.

“Store periods are very inefficient. Maintaining an animal at low growth costs a lot of money in feed, bedding and fixed costs.

“Get them fed and gone rather than waiting to exploit compulsory growth on spring-born calves after storing them over the winter. Putting finishing animals out to grass is not cheap if growth rates are slow,” he added.

Feed efficiency

Apart from animal type, it is also important to consider the practicalities of feeding to improve feed efficiency.

Cattle must have the capacity to eat their maximum voluntary intake. A 10% decrease in feed intake will result in a 20% decrease in growth rate, as energy is always used for maintenance first, before growth, said Dr Hyslop.

The best way to maximise voluntary intake is to have feed available 24 hours a day with 30cm of trough space an animal. If this is not possible, trough space should be increased to 60-90cm an animal, advised Dr Hyslop.

“Feed trough availability can be a hidden problem in feed efficiency,” he said.

Ration costs

Once these issues are resolved, farmers should then be looking to exploit the cheapest feeds available, many of which will be forage based.

Good silage management is key to reducing wastage, senior beef and sheep scientist Mary Vickers told Farmers Weekly.

“Conserve it well and during feed-out keep a smooth, tight face to minimise exposure to oxygen. Equipment that cuts the silage out of the clamp and minimises disturbance to the face is best for reducing spoilage.”

She also advised farmers to move across the face rapidly rather than into it and use a long, narrow clamp to reduce exposure of the face to the air.

Jimmy Hyslop’s ration tips

  • Energy is key to finishing – don’t overdo protein as cattle waste energy to remove the excess
  • Adding fat – for example, brewers’ grains, distillers’ grains or dark grains – can improve feed efficiency at 7% fat in the DM or less. High levels effect rumen digestion of fibre
  • Don’t overprocess cereals, cracking husks is enough
  • If concentrates will be more than 50% of DM, build up over two weeks to avoid acidosis
  • Clean feed and water troughs to improve intakes and reduce disease
  • Get silage analysed and spend money on the right minerals
  • Feeding excess minerals wastes money
  • Ensure minerals are thoroughly mixed throughout the whole diet