Making every measurement count

The difference between selling at exactly the right time and getting it wrong can mean a drop in carcass classification grade.

And for the Edmondson family of Penrith, Cumbria, that can mean a loss of 5p/kg.

For Peter, his brother Robin and father Alf who will finish more than 200 head on their Walloway Farm, Penruddock this year, maximising profitability through regular monitoring of performance is a must.

The family switched to beef after foot-and-mouth claimed their dairy herd.

Initially setting out to produce store calves, they now finish everything and buy-in another 100 head.

The 229ha (550-acre) all grass farm, which runs from 850ft to 1400ft, has invested heavily in new buildings for the beef herd costing about £90,000.

All this is being achieved on a system that buys-in its replacements as cows with calves at foot – usually costing less than £800 an outfit – and using bulls without performance data.

“The Limousin bull cost £1000 from a neighbour and the other is a Belgian Blue x Limousin that we kept from one of our own cows,” says Peter.

Regular weighing ensures progress of every finishing animal on the farm is monitored and the weight of every bought-in store is noted when it arrives.

The handling demanded by the fortnightly weighing produces cattle that are quiet and unstressed.

And there’s no rush to wean calves from the 150 Limousin and Belgian Blue-sired suckler cows.

Calves continue to suckle for up to nine months and spring-born calves are left on their dams throughout the winter housing period.

A strawed forward-lying area is provided for calves during winter.

“Cows are still full of milk when they come in, so we leave calves with them, but don’t offer any creep.

Calves have access to silage and bull calves stay inside after weaning before moving straight onto the finisher ration.

“Heifers go out to grass the following spring which means we make a considerable saving on creep feed,” says Robin.

Although calves weigh about 300kg at weaning, the Edmondsons want that weight to increase.

A recent batch of bull calves gained an impressive 2.2kg a day in the first 28 days post weaning, reaching slaughter weights of 580-630kg at 12 months.

Killing out percentages can reach 69% and average 60%.

Feed costs per kg of live weight gain are about 59p.

All cattle are currently sold deadweight to Rose County Foods, but the Edmondsons want to produce more butcher’s-type beasts capable of earning £1.50/kg through the live auction.

“We’re selling cattle off the farm every fortnight, but we’d like to be selling every week.

A range of stores are bought to spread the marketing in terms of time and options with heifers coming in at 270-330kg and bulls and steers from 400-450kg,” says Robin.

Last year’s heifers were given some creep in early autumn just before housing, but it piled on weight without frame and hampered their potential.

This year’s bunch of 75 heifers won’t have creep and will be taken to 570kg to finish.

“We take every animal to the weight we think is its optimum.

There’s no point taking a bull from 570kg to 630kg when it’s only going to put more fat on.

That’s where regular weighing is critical,” says Robin although he reckons the export trade could want bulls up to 700kg.

Typical margins are also easy to estimate.

A 500kg heifer switched from the all-silage pens to the finishing yard to gain 70kg takes about 45 days.

When the heifer costs £445 and is sold at £645 it leaves £200 less feed giving a margin of about £125.

“We aim for a tonne of cake to finish each animal over an average finishing period of 12 weeks.

Our average classification grade is U-/ U+,” says Peter.

The Edmondsons are receiving £1.98/kg for R grades, £2.02 for U and £2.06 for U+. All cull cows are now being finished and after four weeks on the final regime could be worth £550.

“Cull cow income could make a significant contribution towards replacement costs, although we’ve thought about buying cow and calf outfits and finishing the cow after she’s reared the calf.

Finishing our heifers generates £600-£700, but we can usually buy a cow and a calf for under £700.

Retaining our own heifers would tie up too much cash for too long,” he adds.