Replacing cereals with forage can increase beef gross margin by £115 a head

Replacing some cereals in the diet with a high energy forage for finishing beef steers can increase daily liveweight gain and increase gross margin by £115 a head.

Researchers at Harper Adams University trialled finishing weaned, spring-born South Devon suckled steers on an ad-lib cereals-based diet compared with a maize and cereals total mixed ration (TMR).  

They discovered that, while the TMR-fed steers finished 8.4 days later, they achieved higher slaughter weights (+33kg), carcass weights (+16.7kg) and based on values at the time of slaughter, higher carcass values (+£71.47).

The research concluded that replacing 50% of cereals in the finishing diet with good-quality, high-energy maize silage should be considered if resources are available to make, store and handle the forage.

See also: How three huge roundhouses are improving beef performance

Simon Marsh, principal lecturer at Harper Adams University who led the trial, said it must be stressed that the forage needs to be top quality and high energy.

“With maize, you’d be looking for an energy level of 11.5 ME or higher and 32-33% starch,” he advised.

“But I would expect similar results with any top-quality, high-energy forage such as wholecrop or grass silage.”

Mr Marsh acknowledged that if the market is there for finished bulls, this might be the best option for a finisher, but this cost-effective method of intensively finishing steers provides an alternative system for those who would face penalties for bulls in the abattoir.

“The forage-based TMR is a good healthy diet, it avoids acidosis and helps good rumen function. They transitioned well on to the ration,” he said.

“And I was impressed with the South Devons. They produced a handy carcass at 335-350kg and R grades at fat covers of 3+/4- suitable for all market outlets.”

With some markets penalising bulls, intensively finishing weaned late-maturing breed suckled steers offers potential for respectable margins and to market ‘in spec’ carcasses.

Handling bulls can sometimes cause management problems. These South Devon steers were extremely placid and docile and performed very well, commented Mr Marsh.  

The research methods

Feed is the main variable cost of finishing beef cattle, and with volatility in cereal prices, the research aimed to evaluate the effect of replacing cereals with high-energy forage in an intensive finishing system.

The 34 steers were split into two equal-sized groups by a randomised method according to liveweight and Quality Beef Index of the sire, to create balanced treatment groups.

The animals were group housed in straw-bedded yards with three pens of five to six calves per treatment group.

The finished cattle were slaughtered at ABP Shrewsbury and carcasses classified by Video Image Analysis (VIA).

The animals

  • 34 eight-month-old South Devon suckler bred steers weighing approximately 379kg
  • South Devon is a late-maturing breed
  • Spring-born
  • Purchased direct from WJ Wright and Son, Oxey Farm, Leicestershire, which retained a further 30 male calves with higher EBVs as entire bulls
  • Steers were bred by sired with top 1-10% Quality Beef Index/EBVs and out of South Devon dams
  • Weaned three weeks prior to delivery
  • Backs clipped out
  • Had been offered creep feed
  • Vaccinated for respiratory and clostridial diseases

The diets

The two diets were formulated to be iso-notrogenous, which means they each supplied similar quantities of protein. Mineral supply was also identical.

Prior to the trial starting, all steers were fed 14% crude protein (CP) concentrates and maize silage.

The control ration (the cereals-based diet) was fed via hoppers and gradually introduced over 10-14 days. The maize silage TMR was fed in troughs. Both diets were fed ad-lib.

The cereals-based diet (the control diet)

The maize silage and cereals TMR

Ad-lib 13% CP concentrates based on:

  • Rolled barley
  • Sugar beet pulp
  • Soya bean meal
  • Distillers’ dark grains
  • Molasses
  • Minerals

Containing 36% starch in the dry matter (DM)

Plus ad-lib straw

Ad-lib 13% CP TMR made of 50% good quality maize silage and 50% concentrates (19% CP) on a DM basis. Concs formulated from:

  • Rolled barley
  • Soya bean meal
  • Distillers’ dark grains
  • Minerals

The maize analysed at 37.4% DM, 11.7ME MJ/kg DM, 8% CP in DM, 35.8% starch in DM.

The TMR analysed at 46.8% DM, 12.1 ME with 34.2% starch in the DM.

The overall performance of the steers was very good, with those slaughtered at 14.3 months old having carcass weights of 334-351kg.

Growth performance

The steers fed the forage-based TMR had higher intakes of dry matter and metabolisable energy (ME). They saw a daily dry matter intake (DMI) of 8.54kg and ME intake a day of 104.5MJ, compared with 7.22kg DMI and 92.2 MJ, respectively, in the control group on the cereals diet.

This would explain the higher daily liveweight gains of the TMR group of 1.4kg compared with 1.29kg in the control group. Overall, the cereal-fed steers ate 1,562kg/head of concentrates, with the TMR steers eating 2.3t of silage and 868kg of concentrates.

Weight gains compared



Maize: Cereals

Start weight



Slaughter weight



Days to slaughter






Age at slaughter – days

434 (14.2 months)

441 (14.4 months)

Carcass comparison

The TMR group did take 8.4 days longer to finish, at an average slaughter age of just 441 days. However, the slaughter weight of the TMR group exceeded that of the control group by 33kg, weighing in at 650kg.

Carcass classifications were very similar in both groups and both groups scored low on liver scores, indicating minimal issues with acidosis in the forage-based diet. All of the carcasses were deemed ideal for processor and supermarket specifications.

Based on prices at the time of killing, the carcass value of the maize and cereals TMR-fed group was £71.47 higher per animal, at £1,290.21 a carcass, which was £3.68/kg.

Carcass characteristics




Carcass wt (kg)



Kill out (%)



Carcass daily gain (kg)



Carcass DG from birth (kg)



Conformation1 (1-15)

8.12 (R=)

8.38 (R=/R+)

Fat class1 (1-15)

9.39 (3+/4-)

9.56 (3+/4-)

Liver score2 (1-5)



1 Europ carcass classification: conformation: P-=1 and E+=15, Fat class: 1- =1 and 5+=15.

2 Liver assessment: 1= healthy liver and 5 = severe abscesses (due to acidosis).

Financial performance

Feed costs were lower in the TMR-fed group at £271.72 a head, compared with £315.52 in the control group.

Because of the higher carcass value in the TMR-fed group, the margin over feed was considerably higher at £1,018.49, compared with £903.22 in the cereals group, a difference of £115.27.

Overall, the steers returned a gross margin of £77 and £191 a head, for the cereals and TMR-fed groups, respectively. This is based on a calf purchase price of £805 (366kg at £2.20/kg) per head.

Financial performance



Maize TMR

Carcass price (£/kg)1



Carcass value (£)



Total feed cost per head (£)2



Daily feed cost (£/head)



Margin over feed (£/steer)



Feed cost/kg live weight gain (£/kg)



Feed cost/kg carcass gain (£/kg)



1 Carcass price standardised to the ABP price grid with a base price of £3.65/kg. 

2 Feed costs as follows: maize silage @ £96/t DM (£35.52/t fresh wt), 13% CP ration @ £202/t, 19% CP TMR ration @ £202/t.