Suckler Beef Production: the future
Henry Scholefield University of Nottingham student studying BSc Agriculture
Beef Shorthorn Cattle Society’s Beef Student of the Year 2018
British Cattle Breeders Club Conference presentation, Jan 2019
The greatest challenge facing UK agriculture at present is, undoubtedly, the potential impact Brexit may have on the sector. Suckler producers must improve the efficiency of their herds’ performance to make their businesses more profitable and resilient in order to survive these challenging times.
The current economic and political climate has generated tremendous uncertainty with a lack of clarity regarding what will happen when the UK leaves the EU. This poses a challenge to beef farmers who, as Table 1 shows, are subjected to low profit margins which are highly sensitive to market fluctuations. The potential reduction in farm subsidy payments coupled with the danger of cheaper food imports flooding our market post Brexit mean beef producers must improve the profitability of their systems or face going out of business.
Through reducing input costs associated with feed and fertility whilst maximising saleable beef, a sustainable suckler herd needs to make a sufficient gross margin to cover their share of the farm’s fixed costs independent of subsidies. A functional suckler cow should be able to achieve this by efficiently utilising the farm’s resources to produce beef that meets buyers’ specifications. Beef Shorthorns have developed from a dual-purpose breed and their wide range of desirable traits encompassing fertility, hardiness, milkiness and feed efficiency make them ideally suited to become more prevalent in British beef systems.
A suckler herd must maximise the kilograms of calf (output) produced per cow each year as calf sales account for the majority of herd output. This can be achieved through improving fertility, targeting a 365-day calving interval and maximising calves sold per 100 cows bulled. Table 1 shows a suckler cow costs £227 per year to keep (without including fixed costs like labour), therefore barren cows are a disaster for a farmer in terms of profitability as these cows are not producing any output to pay for themselves.
A compact calving period is required to make herd management easier as well as producing calves with higher and more consistent weaning weights, increasing output (QMS, 2015). Table 2 shows a calf born in the 6th three-week block can be 115kg lighter at weaning than a calf born in the first period. A cow calving in an earlier block is likely to conceive sooner as it will have had longer to recover before going to the bull (AHDB, 2014).
The later calving cow is therefore less likely to be successfully served before the bull is removed, becoming out of sync with the other cows. Although farmers are often reluctant to cull these cows due to the hefty replacement costs, it will be more profitable in the long term to replace them with fertile and therefore more productive cows. Many native breeds such as the Beef Shorthorn are naturally fertile, with some herds achieving 100% of cows calving within two months, maintaining a compact calving period (Beef Shorthorn, 2017).
A functional suckler cow must be able to calve easily as assistance requires labour, creates risks for cow and calf and may incur veterinary costs. Assisting calving elevates the risk of the cow suffering from subsequent uterine infections which will delay oestrus cycling thus increasing calving interval as the cow takes longer to conceive (NADIS, 2017). Body condition scoring and monitoring is vital in avoiding calving difficulties, with a score of 2.5-3 optimal prior to calving minimising the risk of difficulties being caused by the cow being over or under conditioned (AHDB, 2014).
Calving ease can be improved through the currently under-utilised Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs). The values for direct and daughter calving ease, gestation length and birth weight are particularly important for calving ease therefore these figures should be evaluated when selecting breeding stock. Many native breeds such as Belted Galloways or Shorthorns are renown for ease of calving therefore these cows could be crossed with continental breeds which have traditionally faced calving problems due to the high birth weight of calves.
Replacement heifers cost over £1000 to rear or buy with no cash return on this investment until the heifer’s first calf is sold up to two years after calving. Rearing home-bred heifers requires space and feed, limiting the farm’s capacity for rearing other stock. Should replacement heifers be purchased, the farmer risks importing diseases such as BVD and IBR (AHDB 2015). Longevity is therefore an essential trait of a functional suckler cow to minimise costs and cash flow implications as well as improving biosecurity.
Increasing herd life by one year can lead to a £22/cow gross margin improvement (SAC, 2017). As well as increasing output, improved fertility reduces replacement costs as infertility is the major reason for culling. Longevity can also be improved through breeding decisions, both by selecting hardier breeds such as the Beef Shorthorn but also by using EBVs for longevity to inform selection of breeding stock. If buying in replacement heifers health testing of purchased stock is vital to avoid the debilitating effects of BVD, Johne’s or IBR on herd performance. Breed societies must follow the lead of the Beef Shorthorn society by making testing for such diseases compulsory for all animals sold at their sales, minimising the risk of ‘buying in’ such diseases (Beef Shorthorn 2016).
Animal injury was the second largest cause of agricultural fatalities from 2012-2017, therefore functional suckler cows must be safe to handle and manage (HSE, 2017). Although any breed can be highly dangerous, Beef Shorthorn is known for being quiet and docile. This temperament makes the breed useful for grazing public access land, for instance in National Parks. Crossing Beef Shorthorn with flightier breeds could improve the offspring’s temperament.
Feed can account for 75% of beef farmers’ variable costs so savings here could substantially increase profitability (Teagasc 2017). Grazed grass is by far the cheapest feed; Table 1 shows concentrates cost over £200 per tonne, therefore minimising concentrates fed to cattle by maximising grazing is essential. Grazing management is key to maximising efficiency of pasture utilisation and grass intake. Paddock grazing systems where cattle are grazed on a small area for a short time results in a 92% increase in useable dry matter yield per hectare compared to a set stocking grazing system (AHDB, 2016).
Many farmers are reluctant to adopt such a system due to the investment in fencing and water infrastructure and the time required to implement the system. The fact that grass yield is almost doubled using no more fertiliser inputs means paddock grazing will lower the forage variable costs per cow substantially from the £75 seen in Table 1 as well as reducing the need to purchase bulk feeds, quickly repaying any initial investments in fencing.
Smaller cows are the most feed efficient as their smaller size means they require less energy to maintain themselves resulting in lower feed requirements than larger cattle. Adult size is very much influenced by breed, with continental breeds typical heavier than native British breeds. Their smaller size and ability to forage enables native breeds to thrive off poorer quality, less fertilised pasture whilst requiring minimal concentrate feeding, lessening the £26/cow concentrate cost seen in Table 1.
The ability to thrive off poorer pasture coupled with their docility make native breeds such as Beef Shorthorns ideal for conservation grazing. Cattle play a pivotal role in controlling coarse vegetation and improve sward structure of difficult to manage, ecologically diverse areas such as Lowland Heathland. Grazing such areas with native breeds entitles farmers to £45/hectare under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (DEFRA 2018). With post Brexit subsidies looking likely to be paid for environmental services such as these, farmers must capitalise on these potentially lucrative schemes where possible.
As Table 1 shows, bedding costs £48/cow. Outwintering cows can save on bedding and feed costs meanwhile freeing housing for the farm’s younger cattle (NBA, 2012). Outwintering is only applicable to drier farms where welfare issues and excessive poaching can be avoided. Durable, thicker skinned native breeds such as the Highland or Beef Shorthorn will respond better to outwintering than for instance less hardy, dairy-cross suckler cows.
Through improving suckler cow’s maternal traits it is possible to maximise the kilograms of saleable calf whilst minimising input costs. Selecting cows renowned for their milkiness can facilitate excellent calf growth rates. A strict culling policy for cows lacking milk, suffering mastitis or not milking on all four quarters is necessary both to maximise calf growth and reduce time and money spent hand feeding calves. Many beef producers use Holstein/Friesian cross suckler cows to enhance milk production in their herds. Dual purpose breeds such as a Beef Shorthorn could replace dairy cross cows in these systems as, whilst producing ample milk to rear a calf, Shorthorns are hardier, require fewer inputs and produce offspring with superior carcass qualities when compared to dairy cross cattle.
With the modern market demanding lean, small cuts of meat, heavy and fatty carcasses are financially penalised when sold. Although human management and feeding is fundamental, breed affects size and meat quality. As figure 1, below shows, 49% of cattle do not meet ideal market requirements, therefore functional suckler cows must produce saleable calves which meet buyers’ specifications (AHDB, 2017).
Closer co-operation with buyers is needed to help farmers better understand the quality of carcass required. Enhanced co-operation can result in schemes such as the Morrisons Shorthorn Beef Scheme whereby Morrisons pay a 20p/kg bonus on Beef Shorthorn and Beef Shorthorn cross heifers and steers under 30 months old (Morrisons, 2016). Provided the cattle meet the correct carcass conformation and fat level, this guaranteed premium reduces price uncertainty, particularly valuable given the future uncertainty regarding agricultural support policy. As well as tender and flavoursome meat, consumers demand beef from herds of high health and welfare status. Post Brexit, the beef industry must make better use of the UK’s exemplary welfare standards and the supreme quality of our native breeds’ meat in marketing British beef both to defend it against cheaper imports and to encourage exports to a wider range of non-EU markets such as China.
To be sustainable, a functional suckler cow must ultimately be profitable. Through excellent maternal traits and fertility, suckler cows need to produce highly sought-after calves from minimal inputs. Beef Shorthorns meet these criteria as these fertile, docile cows can thrive in lowland or upland environments due to their hardiness and versatility. Being low input, high output, Beef Shorthorns constitute a modern day, market-orientated, functional suckler cow.
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