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Maximising performance efficiency of the suckler cow

November 25, 2020

Recent months have been relatively good for beef producers. Prices have improved across all beef sectors.  Better prices are always welcome but uncertainty remains in the market.  In order to remain competitive as an industry, and maintain the viability of our farm businesses, we need to focus on improving efficiency.  We have to focus on increasing output and reducing costs. Profit is not built on sales price alone.

Kevin McGrath, CAFRE beef and sheep adviser Omagh, states improving profitability on suckler farms is a challenge that has been achieved by farmers operating at high management levels.  “These farmers know where they are in terms of costs and performance. They set targets with the aim of achieving and improving year on year.”

By benchmarking their performance they are able to identify areas in need of improvement. They can flag up issues which in turn should improve profitability.

The three main areas to focus on to improve profitability of the suckler beef herd are grassland management, animal performance and stocking rate.  If we focus on the suckler cow alone, what are the main areas that have been identified to improve profitability on farms?

Calving Suckler cows at 24 months can help reduce costs.  In Northern Ireland the average age of calving is 31 months.  Research undertaken by AFBI, Hillsborough, in conjunction with Agrisearch, demonstrated a £45/cow increase in margin/cow by calving at 24 months rather than 36 months. Farmers should be targeting 60 – 65% of mature weight at bulling with an easy calving bull used. If heifers are well managed and weight targets achieved 24 month calving has been proven to improve efficiency on farms.

Compact calving will reduce herd management issues

It becomes increasingly difficult for bigger cows to produce calves that grow efficiently.  Kevin highlighted, “As a rule of thumb, a suckler cow should be weaning a calf 45 – 50% her bodyweight at 200 days.”  Many farms are achieving 40% or less.  Lighter cows produce more kilos as a percentage of their weight.  The smaller cow has the advantage of a lower cost of maintenance than the larger cow whilst also enabling a higher stocking rate and more calves on the ground.

Often larger cows are kept because they look better, are bigger, may produce a bigger calf and have a higher cull value. There are costs however. Over one year 75% of all feed consumed by a cow will be used for maintenance. On this basis a larger cow will require more feed to maintain her body.

A 700kg cow needs 23% more energy for maintenance than a 500kg cow. This is estimated to cost in the region of £50/cow/year or £2500 over a 50 cow herd. Heavily muscled cows also require more energy for maintenance.  In terms of grassland, 58 cows weighing 650kg can be kept on the same ground as 50 cows weighing 750kg. Additionally, heavier stock will have a higher feed demand in times of challenging weather.

If a 700kg cow costs £50 extra per year to keep than the 500kg animal and lasts 6 years in the herd, you are looking at an extra cost of £300 on feed alone.  Is cull cow price enough to justify the larger animal?

However a balance between lower maintenance costs of the cow and carcass gain performance of the offspring must be sought, with research and other work showing the moderate sized cow of 600-650kg having the best balance.

A barren 700kg cow will consume 1.5 % of her live weight/day or 4 tonnes in dry matter per year.  To feed her baled silage over a 200 day wintering period will cost in the region of £230. “If grazed for 165 days at a cost of 53p/day, we are looking at a total grazing cost of £88. At a cost of £318 or 87p/day to feed over the course of the year, should she be culled?”

Breeding and fertility is one of the most important considerations when managing an efficient system.  Poor herd fertility has a major impact on herd output and return.  “Herd health, cow genetics, cow condition score, difficult calvings and bull fertility can all attribute to fertility issues.  What are the costs of poor fertility on the enterprise?”

A suckler cow should produce a calf every 365 days.  If we compare a 50 cow herd achieving a 365 day calving index to the Northern Ireland average of 415 days, where do we see the benefits?

Let’s compare the above scenarios selling calves as weanlings.  Calves on average will be 50 days older at sale (415 days) – 50 days x 1kg gain/day x £2/kg x 44 calves = £4,400

Output will be also be lower, at an index of 415 days this means 44 calves/year, at 365 days this means 50 calves/year.  6 extra calves / year = £1500

Finally the cost of feeding the empty cow.  50 extra days x 50 cow herd = 2,500 days x 87p /day = £2175.

“What’s clear from above, is by reducing the Calving index back from 415 days to 365 days this 50 cow suckler herd could potentially benefit by £8,075 over the year, £161/cow.”

Compact calving is another consideration. On many farms calving is spread over a number of months. This creates herd management difficulties. As well as a higher labour requirement and higher mortality rates these herds generally have lower animal performance. Spread calving patterns usually indicate fertility issues within the herd.

The breeding policy on farm should look to increase fertility and performance. Research has shown that using crossbred cows as opposed to purebred cows results in a 13% increase in the weaning weight of calves. Replacements should be bred using bulls with maternal traits. Milk accounts for two-thirds of the pre weaning gain of a suckler calf.

Using bulls with high 200 and 400 day weights have attributed to larger cows.  Fertility and performance will be compromised if the size of the cow does not match the environment.  “Why keep heavier cows if they are less efficient on your farm?”

McGrath concludes “Look at your farm system.  Be realistic and set targets. Monitor your progress and reassess. Fertility and productive efficiency will improve margins and reduce costs on farm.  One thing remains clear; we can’t complain about the market if we are continually ignoring efficiency issues within our own farm businesses.”