Faced with the alarming statistic that 75% of UK suckler herds aren’t leaving any profit, it’s no wonder single farm payments are now propping up our beef sector. It’s a situation that has far more to do with how suckler herds are managed rather than their dependency on income generated by the end market price.
While latest EBLEX costings reveal the average and top third upland suckler herds recorded gross margins of £267 and £312 a cow respectively, it makes worrying reading to find that when fixed and non-cash costs are deducted, these cows actually lost £299 and £176 a head.
That level of loss is clearly unsustainable, but how can beef producers turn loss into profit without relying solely on an increase in market price? That’s the challenge now facing UK suckled calf producers and one that has been taken up by Farmers Weekly with the launch of its new project – the Harper Adams/Farmers Weekly Beef Excellence Farm.
Over the next year, in conjunction with beef specialist and senior lecturer Simon Marsh of Harper Adams University College, we will be following the month-by-month progress of an upland suckler herd that’s consistently performing in the top 1% of all costed herds.
The achievements of this herd will prove how a return to profitability is well within the reach of many UK suckled calf producers by addressing key management issues to improve technical efficiency.
Hosting the Beef Focus Farm project is Peak District farmer Simon Frost, who runs a herd of 125 Limousin-cross cows at Hopping Farm, Youlgreave, near Bakewell. His 420-acre farm is 800 ft above sea level and includes 80 acres of rough hill ground. Rainfall is around 34in and soil type is light loam/clay over limestone.
There can be no better inspiration for suckled calf producers to take up the challenge to improve their profitability than taking a glance at the first set of weaning weight figures recorded for the 2010 crop of bull calves bred at Hopping Farm. They show calves weighing 391kg at 212 days – equating to a 200-day weight of 370kg. That’s an impressive daily liveweight gain of 1.63kg. The heifers weighed 329kg at 221 days, which equates to a 200-day weight of 302kg and daily gain of 1.31kg. The suckled calves are then sold direct to finishers Alan and John Dore of Glapwell near Chesterfield.
When these figures are benchmarked against EBLEX recorded producers (see table), this is 43% and 36% higher than average and top third of producers respectively, which is tremendous performance, says Mr Marsh
And while beef price is a factor affecting profitability, top-quality breeding, feeding and health are critically important for these figures, he adds.
“For too long, the UK beef industry has relied on support payments and it has stifled incentive to strive for efficient production.
“Unfortunately, quite a lot of information on beef production generated by the commercial beef industry and by breed societies lacks facts. Figures quoted are often those achieved by the better-performing cattle,” says Mr Marsh.
“What we want to do during our year on the Beef Focus Farm is to independently monitor the performance of Mr Frost’s herd so the information generated is ‘fact and not fiction’.
“Our aim is for UK beef production to ‘survive and thrive’ without support payments, and while not everything will run smoothly during the year ahead, we will truthfully disclose all the trials and tribulations involved in maintaining a suckler herd that’s in the top 1% on performance.”
Breeding,, feeding and health
The beef industry has to move forward and become profitable in its own right, without being dependent upon any form of subsidy – and it has to move forward scientifically and not subjectively.
That’s how Mr Frost believes UK beef producers can secure a sustainable and successful future, and to achieve it he believes a total overhaul of the breeding, feeding and health issue of UK suckler cows is essential.
“There’s no future in suckled calf production where herds are losing £300 a cow. We are over reliant on support payments and now it’s time to prove it’s possible to make suckler cows profitable. The tools are there, we just have to make sure everyone knows how to apply them correctly to put profitability back into suckler cows,” says Mr Frost.
He wants more farmers to recognise that a high price a kilo in the market does not automatically mean an animal has left a high margin. “These are the fundamental mindset changes that have to take place because there’s massive potential to increase profitability.
“But we have to see all parts of the production chain working together for the same aim. It begins with the pedigree breeders and they have to start being honest with us about the performance figures and statistics of the bulls they’re selling to suckled-calf producers.
“There is a direct correlation between fast growth and muscling and a deterioration in calving ease and an increase in birth weight.” Mr Frost puts his Limousin-cross Holstein cows and 25 bulling heifers to Charolais bulls with top 1-10% terminal indexes with focus on calving ease, 400 and 600 day growth, muscle depth/eye muscle area, retail beef yield and negative fat depth EBVs.
Mr Frost says getting as many kilos of gain at the youngest possible age is the key to profitability. “I want ease of calving and fast growth. Cattle with high growth rates make more efficient use of feed, therefore feed costs a kilo of liveweight gain – and daily carcass gain – are reduced as is time to slaughter. That is the precursor to profitability.”
Calving interval is another area of herd management that Mr Frost believes can influence profitability. In a recent EBLEX survey of English suckler herds, the calving interval was 414 days and the calving rate was 88.3% .That equates to 77.8 calves produced for every 100 cows in a calendar year – and it’s nothing to be proud of. The target we must aim for is a minimum of 95 calves for every 100 cows.”
Technical areas for focus
* Maximise economies of scale and focus on output
* Adopt easier systems with low labour requirements
* Maximise hybrid vigour and focus on breed improvement
* Use top-ranking sires with 1-10% Beef Value/Terminal Index figures
* Use sires with very high 400 and 600 day weights, muscle scores
* Use easy-calving sires identified by EBVs with high accuracy figures
* Don’t be afraid to buy “ugly bulls” if their EBV figures are good
* Don’t be obsessed with “pretty-faced” masculine bulls with big back-ends
* The highest-priced part of the carcass is the loin – so why this obsession with big back-ends?
* Strive to improve herd fertility and block calve
* Strive for correct cow condition scores – especially at bulling
* Improve DLWG and reduce slaughter age
* Focus on feed costs and make more use of home-grown forage
* Improve herd health and reduce calf losses
* Target commodity or niche beef markets to maximise returns