Don’t let fertility slip as costs rise

This year’s sky-high feed prices are squeezing beef margins to their limits, but couple this with reduced fertility rates, and finances could be even more challenged.

According to DARDNI beef and sheep adviser Brian Hanthorn, many beef farmers focus on producing a top quality calf, but ignore the costs associated with slipping fertility.

“The cost of not getting a cow in calf is about £2.44 a cow a day for every day open. For a herd achieving a calving interval of 398 days this is an added cost of £80 a cow, compared to the target interval of 365 days.” And on a herd averaging 40 cows, this equates to a loss of £3200.

However, by assessing and tackling fertility performance, farmers have the potential to make significant cost savings.

“Fertility Challenge” is a DARDNI scheme, aiming to provide beef producers with farm specific information to tackle herd fertility. The beauty of the programme is that it uses information farmers automatically record in the Animal Public Health Information System (APHIS).

“Getting suckler herds to keep fertility records is difficult, however, because calves have to be registered by law, we can use this information to calculate calving interval and condense the data into a practical, farm specific report,” Mr Hanthorn says.

A number of regional farm groups are involved in the Fertility Challenge scheme, with members able to benchmark their fertility within the group.

Farmers receive five reports which summarise calving intervals for each cow, along with a separate report focusing on calving index for heifers from first to second calving.

“Information is displayed using a traffic light system; green animals have a calving index of 390 days or less, orange an index of 391-450 days and red 451 days or above,” Mr Hanthorn explains.

A report analysing reappearance rate – the percentage of cows calving in one year that calve again – is also made to help identify herds with high culling rates. Calving spread and age at calving is also detailed.

After being involved in a pilot scheme, Dungannon beef farmer Douglas McKenzie, Hackney House, decided to implement strict culling of poor performing animals, and has since boosted fertility in his herd of 70 Aubrac x Salers cows.

At the time of the first report, the herd was calving all year round with a calving index of 417 days. However, following analysis of fertility data, including calving spread, Mr McKenzie decided to move to block calving between January and April.

“The Fertility Challenge scheme identified switching to a spring calving system would be the most cost-effective for our farm.”

Spring calving suits this system, because the farm has a good grazing system, says Mr Hanthorn. “Because Mr McKenzie is at college, getting cows to calve in a tight batch will also help with ease of management.”

It took us a couple of years to tighten up the block, but we are now achieving a CI of 357 days as a result of strict culling and regular pregnancy scanning, explains Mr McKenzie.

“All cattle are now scanned mid-August and then again at Christmas – all those not in calf on their second scan will be culled out of the herd.

“When we were calving all year round it was difficult to monitor cull rates, however, now we are more on top of it with the aim to achieve a replacement rate of about 10%.”

Scanning is a service all farmers should use, says Mr McKenzie. “A lot of farmers just chuck the bulls out and forget about it, but scanning is an easy way to see what’s there. When an animal isn’t in calf, it’s a warning something is going wrong.”