Profitable future is possible for Continental-cross heifers

CONTINENTAL-CROSS heifers currently release up to £300/head on a Wilts unit, but following the removal of subsidies next year that figure will considerably reduce if nothing is done.

Chris Awdry and his father Pat already focus on producing quality finished stock. Ashton Hill Farm, West Ashton, traditionally had Simmental and Hereford x Friesian cows.

“However, cows were giving too much milk early on in their mothering life, causing bags to slacken, reducing longevity.”

To resolve that problem, they moved to a half Continental-bred cow using a Charolais or Blonde D”Aquitaine. “This way, cows were lasting longer with the added bonus of better quality calves,” says Chris.

The Blonde sire now used on the 250-cow herd comes from Mr Awdry’s own pedigree herd. “We have 17 females from which we breed replacement bulls for the suckler herd and to sell,” he explains.

The commercial suckler herd calves from February to May. “We pregnancy test everything at the end of December and those not in calf will be sold before the first cow calves.”

Mr Awdry has strict culling policy whereby a cow with anything wrong in the udder or feet must go. “We often average about 5%, but this year we will be nearer 8-9% as we have more heifer replacements coming through.”

All calves are block weaned and wormed on Nov 1 at the same time as cows are housed. Both heifers and steers are taken to Pat’s farm for the winter. Once there, they are fed a diet of grass silage and 3kg/day of a home-grown wheat and bean mix through a mixer wagon.”

They are then grazed for a second summer before returning to Ashton Hill in September for finishing. “Finishing diets consist of half grass silage and half maize silage with a 2:1 ratio of wheat and bean included. This is fed at 5kg/day for heifers.”

This is the second year of feeding wheat and beans in heifers’ first winter, as previously cattle were offered a liquid feed. “Due to the price of corn and the desire to monitor what cattle were eating more efficiently, we opted for a concentrate mix,” says Chris Awdry.

He reckons heifers benefit from a little concentrate to firm them up while finishing. “Finishers are weighed and grouped and then fed according to requirements.

“Although our current weight average is 290kg deadweight we aim for a carcass weight of above 300kg for which we are paid a premium of 5p/kg.” But finishing heifers to target weights can be tricky, as they can quickly go over fat, he says. “Providing they weigh 270kg deadweight I’m happy.”

Finished cattle are sold from the start of January until the end of March with the intention on one double decker load going to Southern Counties Fresh Foods, Somerset, every fortnight, he says.

Since changing to the half Continental cow, grades are steadily improving. On the heifers alone, half of them grade R4L, with about 20% of them grading U-. “We have had the odd U+ which is predictable for the Blonde breed, but there are still some O-‘s creeping through.”

Currently heifers are not pushed hard, as many are on retention for suckler cow subsidies. “However, this will change post-CAP reform and heifer management at Ashton Hill Farm will be reviewed.”

With subsidies currently included, Mr Awdry reckons heifers are releasing a margin of about £300/head. With the removal of subsidies next year this is likely to drop to about £100, so a change to the way cattle are finished is inevitable.

“We could intensify. Cattle would be pushed harder, numbers would increase and everything would be off the farm by 15-16 months of age.”

But the alternative – and most likely approach – is to shorten the grazing period by making the best of spring grass and house before the start of August. This would allow heifers to be finished by October-November, he explains.

This would also free up space for calving cows in winter, so numbers could increase to up to 300 cows.