£1/kg and still a profit…
A Northumberland herd of
almost 1000 suckler cows
is proving that a profit can
be made from finishing
the cattle even at
todays low primestock
values. Jeremy Hunt reports
EVEN at £1/kg theres profit in beef. The key is achieving maximum growth rate from low-cost feed and having cattle with the potential for high weight gain.
Thats the simple but effective approach at the beef unit based at East Horton Farm, Wooler, Northumberland, where weaned autumn bull calves, valued at £300, are eating £117 worth of feed to achieve an average slaughter price of £540.
"Its well below what we were getting two years ago but theres still some profit in there because we have reduced our feed costs by 30%," said farm manager David Sandiford, speaking at an open day last weekend on the beef unit, part of the 10,100ha (25,000-acre) Lilburn Estates owned by Duncan Davidson.
Finishing bulls on grass silage – a system Mr Sandiford said became too expensive – has been replaced by a grainbeet diet. The mix of brewers grains (£12/t) and sugar beet (£78/t) is fed in the ratio of 4:1 and currently costs £26/t.
Bull calves eat around four tonnes to achieve a 550kg sale weight by 13 months. Average dlwg during the six-month finishing period is 1.6kg at a feed cost of 50p/kg liveweight gain. All cattle are marketed through County Auctions, Wooler, by direct electronic trading, he said.
With more than 5000 breeding ewes, 6070ha (15,000 acres) of hill land and adherence to a clean grazing policy for lambs, the suckler herd is considered an essential part of the farms management.
"With extensification taking cow subsidy to £200 and lower feed costs its not all doom and gloom at these market prices," said Mr Sandiford.
The herd is split 50:50 into autumn and spring calving. As well as this springs calf crop, visitors saw yarded suckler bulls born over a 10-week calving period starting on Sept 15 last year.
The calves, which are creep fed on a rearing ration, are weaned (weaning weight 250-270kg) in early May after which their dams are turned out on to the hill. The bull calves are immediately switched to an ad-lib diet of moist grainbeet.
Both spring and autumn born heifers, which are reared to an 18-month sale weight of 450kg, achieve an average dlwg of 0.8kg.
Spring-born heifers are weaned in the autumn and over-wintered on a silage-based diet and finished off grass the following summer. Autumn-born heifers are also fed a silage-diet during their first winter, followed by a summer at grass and a final period inside on silage and rolled barley. Grainbeet may be tried on these heifers but Mr Sandiford feels there may be a risk of over-fatness.
The grainbeet is made on the farm in 400t batches and after mixing in a 4:1 ratio, is left to stand for several hours before being ensiled. The clamp is compacted and sheeted with polythene. Salt is put around the edges to exclude air. Feeding starts five days after ensiling, he explained.
The herd uses Charolais bulls, bought for the last five years from Colin Campbell and Sons Thrunton herd at Alnwick, on Limousin x Friesian cows. Replacements are bought as calves through a co-operative in the Midlands.
"Charolais have the growth rate and development potential which we can exploit under an intensive system," said Mr Sandiford.
His comments were reiterated by Gordon Dickson, consultant to Lilburn Estates. "We use Limousin bulls on the heifers and we have used some Simmental but the Charolais has consistently shown significant superiority in terms of growth rate, conformation and age at slaughter."
Prof Dickson added: "I am totally baffled how anyone, in any farming system, can contemplate taking cattle up to 30-months-old. What excites me about this system is that we have the cattle and the feed to give us a daily gain of 1.5kg and produce top quality prime beef at little over a year old."
Slaughter age 13 months
Slaughter weight (kg) 540
DLWG (kg/day) 1.6
Feed intake (kg DM/day) 7.3
Carcass weight (kg) 322
classification E/U 48%, R 40%
Fat class 3/4L 95%