Calving suckler cows at 24 months to get them working several months earlier can help reduce costs, which could prove crucial given the tight finances of many suckler herds.
The beef sector is currently under price pressure and recent years have seen a decline in suckler cow numbers. Figures from Eblex suggest even the average suckler cow producer continues to make a loss.
However, work carried out by the Agri-Food Business Institute (AFBI) Hillsborough in Northern Ireland shows calving heifers at 24 months instead of 36 months increases margins by at least £45 for every cow in the herd.
Francis Lively from AFBI believes most farmers serve heifers too big in the belief they have to be big and strong to calve. However, in doing so, they are adding unnecessary cost to their system.
“In Northern Ireland, the average age at first calving is 31 months, with most producers serving heifers at 70-75% of their mature weight. This is having a negative effect on cost, as you are keeping animals longer before they calve,” he says.
As a result, a two-year DARD Research Challenge Fund Programme, co-funded by AgriSearch, was set up to develop a monitoring tool for farmers to calve at 24 months.
Run across five commercial beef farms, the project has proved reducing age at first calving is achievable and beneficial. On average the farms reduced first calving age from 28 months to 24 months.
As part of the project, a number of heifers from each herd were weighed to give an estimate of mature weight. This was used to predict heifer growth rate requirements to achieve calving at 24 months.
Heifers were then weighed every three to four months to see whether they were on target. This information has been used to develop a BovIS online growth calculator linked to Aphis (the Northern Ireland equivalent of the British Cattle Movement Service), so farms are able to track heifer growth rates on their farms.
Dr Lively says the aim should be for all farmers to target 60-65% of mature weight at first service. In doing so, heifers would calve at 24 months and be working earlier, which would be beneficial to profitability and greenhouse gas emissions.
“We estimate a 10-15% reduction in greenhouse gas emission by calving at 24 versus 36 months,” he says.
He emphasises the importance of selecting an easy-calving, proven sire with good accuracy when serving heifers younger.
“You may lose a little on the performance of a lower birthweight calf, but over a lifetime, that heifer will be more efficient, as you are making up extra months in lost time,” he says.
To ensure heifers are on target, they should be weighed every three months. This will enable heifers that are below or above target to be split out and managed accordingly. All forage stocks should be analysed and used as a base for rationing decisions to ensure growth targets are met.
“To calve at 24 months, good-quality forage is crucial. You should be able to achieve an average 0.8-1kg daily liveweight gain off well-managed grazed grass,” says Dr Lively. To achieve this, rotational paddock grazing is ideal.
A big change in mindset
Reducing the calving age from 28-30 months to 24 months has helped reduce costs and improve efficiencies for the Kearney family, Plumbridge, Omagh.
Having taken part in the DARD Research Challenge Fund Programme, Cieran Kearney (pictured right), who runs 40 predominantly Simmental cross Limousin suckler cows with his father Patrick (pictured left), admits moving to calving at 24 months involves a big change in mindset.
“We used to serve heifers at 480-500kg, as we thought they needed to be big and strong to calve. Now we bull them at 400kg,” he says.
Mr Kearney believes you get an easier calving at 24 months compared with 30 months.
“At 24 months she’s leaner and fitter and calves easier, whereas at 30 months you often have difficulty keeping fat off them. The calves are equally as good. The only difference is it’s a slightly smaller cow.”
Mr Kearney says mature cows are now about 50kg lighter than before, which means there is the potential to carry more animals.
He hasn’t upped numbers yet, due to the poor state of the beef market, but says he has been able to make other savings that can only be beneficial in difficult times.
“Because animals are calving at 24 months, I’m saving six months’ feed before they calve,” he explains.
Weight recording is crucial and Mr Kearney weighs stock every three months. Information is then used by BovIS to see if heifers are on target to reach bulling and breeding weight. He says selecting an easy-calving sire is crucial when calving heifers younger.