Developing a workable suckler herd replacement strategy

Hill Farm, Eyford House Estate, Upper Slaughter, Cheltenham fact file
1,000 acres: 550 acres grassland, including 100 acres parkland plus woods and tracks; 450 acres arable with all operations contracted out.
190 suckler cow enterprise plus followers.
All progeny sold at weaning to finisher, apart from heifer replacements.
Staff: farm manager, Mark Webb plus one part time assistant during the winter housing period.

Farm manager, Mark Webb

Farm manager, Mark Webb

Suckler producers will have the opportunity to find out more about how Mark Webb is future proofing Eyford House Estate’s 190 cow herd having developed a successful replacement strategy with Beef Shorthorn, when he hosts an AHDB Beef and Lamb open day on Thursday 21 September.

“Maximising kilos of weaned calf sold per suckler cow is our livestock enterprise’s main objective. The estate’s farming operation has to stand on its own two feet, and we are continually tweaking the system to achieve our goals,” explains farm manager, Mark Webb.

“A spring calving suckler herd is the only option for the estate’s non-arable land which features traditional permanent pasture and parkland, however, we find there is continual scope for improvement as suckler genetics and management tactics develop. For example, most recently we’ve focused on improving cow efficiency.

“We became aware that suckler cows of a lower weight are, in general, more efficient at producing improved calf weight per unit of cow weight simply due to the higher cost of maintaining bigger cows.” During a 12-month period, 75% of feed consumed is used for maintenance by the animal which is directly related to cow size.

Five years ago, Mark subsequently introduced a new strategy, to breed smaller cows and in turn produce a higher number of saleable calves from the unit. “Our Continental cross suckler cows were averaging 800kg mature body weight. The issue wasn’t just size; we found these cows were losing their maternal traits including milk and calving ease – I no longer wanted to pull big calves. Temperament was also becoming an issue, as well as motherability – they were literally leaving their calves behind.

“At the time, a friend suggested I should go native and introduce Beef Shorthorn, a breed which appeared to tick all the boxes in terms of having a smaller mature weight and demonstrating those essential functional suckler cow traits. Beef Shorthorn was also noted for thriving on low input forage based systems like ours.” Since, a second damline has been introduced to enable a criss cross breeding strategy.


Having annually retained a portion of the Beef Shorthorn cross heifers for replacement purposes, Mark is firmly convinced the decision is paying off. “We’ve now had five crops of heifers coming in to the herd; they are going on to mature at 650kg to 700kg which is enabling us to keep 10% more cows on the same area farmed, whilst five to seven-month old calf weaning weight has remained consistent at an average 350kg for steers and 330kg for heifers, and they have a similar value to that we achieved for the Continental crosses. We keep in touch with the finisher; the latest crop of steers finished at an average 352kg at 480 days and surplus heifers at an average 321kg and 480 days, and they all killed out within the R4L bracket.

“Furthermore, the Beef Shorthorn crosses are demonstrating ease of management – they are calving one live calf with as little hassle as possible. Whilst I don’t bolt the back door at 11.30pm during calving, management is nowadays a lot less onerous and without assistance - I no longer have to deal with difficult calvings and the accompanying cost, and the calves are up on their feet and sucking within minutes.”

Correcting the unit’s natural mineral deficiencies has also added to the herd’s improved performance. “Last year we introduced trace elements, including magnesium and manganese, to the drinking troughs and it’s made such a big difference; fertility increased by 9% whilst the number of retained cleansings fell from 18% to 1%. Selenium and copper levels have been corrected and overall, we believe we have achieved the correct balance for this farm.”

Eyford suckler herd performance 2016/17

Calves born - 96%
Calves reared per 100 cows put to the bull - 94%
Cows calving within the first three-week period - 68%
Cows calving within the first nine-week period - 99%
Bulling period (cows) - nine weeks
Replacement rate - 20%

Source: Hill Farm, Eyford House Estate

He adds; “Whilst there’s quite a bit of luck going in to the herd’s commendable performance, I firmly believe that you have to make that luck and it’s called good stockmanship.”


Heifer replacements

”Heifer replacements are our closed herd’s future and have a huge impact on its future profitability,” explains Mark Webb who is currently retaining an annual 40 head. “I used to select what I thought looked to the best Continental cross heifers for replacement purposes, regardless of weight and other selection criteria. Nowadays, I’ve adopted a focused management approach with specific targets which is going hand in hand with the new Beef Shorthorn genetic make-up.”

Number of replacements required: determined by cow longevity and age at first calving. For the first time this season Mark has agreed for all cows to be culled that have given birth to more than 10 calves. “We used to keep our cows for as long as possible, however last year we noted that most issues were associated with those scheduled to calve their 11th and 12th.”

Age at first calving is strictly targeted at 24 months, an age which enables more calves to be reared per head per lifetime, combined with reduced time between generations resulting in speeding up the herd’s overall genetic improvement.

Sire selection tools: Beef Shorthorn selected from within the breed’s top 10% for calving ease, fertility and 200-day milk EBVs together with visual appraisal – he has to be ‘easy on the eye’, says Mark.

Heifer selection criteria: 50 head are initially selected on weaning weight – an average 350kg, reflecting her dam’s milkiness, the dam’s calving ability, and thirdly her temperament. The final 40 are selected on weight, genetic make-up, temperament and finally, looks.

Heifer management weaning to breeding: post weaning, seven and eight-month-old selected heifers are housed in October and introduced to ad lib silage and supplemented with 2kg per head per day 16% CP rearing concentrate designed to grow frame. “Target growth is 0.8kg per day and body condition score 3.0. To ensure the heifers stay on track, they are weighed at three intervals during the housing period and again at turn out in mid-March. Any which fail to meet targets are sold for finishing.”

At turn out, the 16% CP supplement is reduced to 0.5kg per head per day. They are rotationally grazed on a weekly basis throughout the season on a mix of reseeds and permanent pasture.

Service: having achieved 380kg to 420kg target weight at 14 months, the heifers are introduced to the bull for 63 days. Any heifers scanned empty are sold for finishing.

Breeding to first calving: the heifers remain in the same group in order to be managed separately from the rest of the herd. They are maintained in body condition score 3.5 throughout the summer period on a grass only diet.

On housing, the heifers are introduced to ad lib silage until December, when they are fed a maintenance diet of silage only to achieve a target average 580kg in the final two months of pregnancy.


Eyford heifer replacement performance 2016/17

Weaning weight - 350kg
Daily live weight gain six-month weaning to bulling - 0.8kg
Bulling weight at 14 months - 380kg - 420kg
Scanned in calf - 98%
Calves born per 42 heifers put to the bull - 96%
Calving period - nine weeks

Source: Hill Farm, Eyford House Estate

Herd health: maintaining a closed herd minimises health risks, whilst buying in restricted to new stock bulls. “We ensure all bulls are in a CHeCs accredited scheme, what diseases they are tested for and what the results are. If circumstances allow, newly purchased bulls are quarantined for six weeks. We vaccinate the cows and heifers for BVD, IBR and clostridial diseases.”