Measuring cow efficiency: Cost effective use of time and investment in equipment

Low Houselop Farm fact file
273 acres, LFA grassland
80 suckler cows
550 ewes, all lambs finished
Newly established deer enterprise

Dr Debby Brown, veterinary nutritionist

Dr Debby Brown, veterinary nutritionist

Do you know which of your cows are most efficient? “Biggest is not always best,” says veterinary nutritionist, Dr Debby Brown. “Smaller suckler cows are in general more efficient at producing calf weight per unit of cow weight, consequently they don’t cost as much to keep compared with the high 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.

“As a rule of thumb, a suckler cow should be weaning a calf 50% of her body weight at 200 days. Additionally, a replacement heifer is ready for bulling at 55% to 65% of her mature body weight at around 14 months of age,” she explains.

“Since future farming looks even more uncertain than ever, stepping up efficiency and making the right decisions to ensure your livestock unit remains profitable will be the priority, and that means making the right selection decisions. However experienced your eye, an animal’s looks can deceive, consequently there’s every reason for putting both cows and calves over the scales at weaning.

“Weight recording will help you to decide which cows to breed from again, and which heifers to retain as replacements. Yes, weighing can be a bit of a hassle, however it’s not too much; let’s say it will take an extra hour to weigh and log the data for 80 cows at weaning, after you’ve weighed the calves. If you already have a decent handling system but no load bars, then you’ll soon achieve payback on investing approximately £1,500 in the kit.”

She adds: “Whilst calving heifers at two years of age may not suit every herd, if managed well it can significantly improve herd productivity. It allows fewer groups of stock to be kept on the farm and at least 10% more productive cows in the herd than when calving heifers at three years of age. Work in Ireland has demonstrated that for spring-calving, grass-based suckler systems, reducing age at first calving from 36 to 24 months of age for heifers that had achieved target weight at 14 months, increased net margin per acre by 50%.”

Beef Shorthorn cross cows demonstrate efficiency

At Low Houselop, one of AHDB’s Strategic Farms, David Monkhouse is continually striving to make more profit by improving the unit’s efficiency. “Putting some milk back in to our herd of Continental cows was amongst the measures we’ve taken,” he explains.

David Monkhouse of Low Houselop Farm in County Durham

David Monkhouse of Low Houselop Farm in County Durham

“We steered away from introducing dairy genetics because they eat, eat, eat and they lose the flesh,” he says. “We were aware of Beef Shorthorn, the breed’s maternal traits, hardiness, longevity and a wider pelvic area, so we invested in 27 Continental cross Beef Shorthorn heifers; they were forage reared and from a high health status herd. Whilst we like the Continentals, we also like our Beef Shorthorn crosses, they are demonstrating real hybrid vigour and they’ve reintroduced the milk we were looking for.”

Improving efficiency has been brought in to greater focus since David started to weigh and body condition score the cows and calves at weaning, says Debby Brown who is facilitating the AHDB Strategic Farm. “For starters, it confirmed his decision was the right one. Continental cross Beef Shorthorn cows are slightly smaller, and they’ve proved they were are efficient in terms of rearing a calf with a higher daily liveweight gain.” See table 1.

Monkhouse Table 1.jpg

David continues: “The Continental cross Beef Shorthorn cows also proved to be the most efficient in terms of overall performance,” See table 2. “I prefer to have 100% calves reared, and that’s what they achieved. Furthermore, 100% calved naturally without any assistance, the calves were soon up sucking and they are growing in to a nice shapely animal that finishers want to buy.”

Monkhouse Table 2.jpg

Towards improving herd fertility, David has commenced selecting amongst the first-born heifers as replacements. He is also starting to fast forward age at first calving to 24 months from an average 36 months. “Starting to monthly weigh the heifers after weaning has led us to discover they were doing 0.8kg DLWG; they were already tipping the scales at 420kg or 65% their mature body weight at 14 months and in body condition score 2.5 to 3, whereas before we were keeping them to reach an excessive 550kg at two years,” he says

He adds: “Taking heifer replacement selection a step further, we are planning to introduce pelvic measurements.”