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News > Monitor – Manage – Improve Performance: The key to increased suckler cow productivity


Monitor – Manage – Improve Performance: The key to increased suckler cow productivity

February 14, 2023

CAFRE benchmarking confirms in suckler to beef enterprises that the top 25% of farms had an output per cow 20% higher than those in the bottom 25% and the fundamental to achieving greater output is maximising weaned calves from females bred. 

Darryl Boyd, CAFRE Senior Beef and Sheep Adviser looks at what should be measured and when.

With spring calving underway on many farms, record keeping, and analysis can often be forgot about.  However now is a significant time in the calendar when good records should be kept.  “We, as CAFRE advisers, can produce many useful reports for farmers, such as calving indices, spread and re-appearance rates.  However, the best data often comes from the farmer themselves.”  For example, having a herd calving index of 365-375 does not necessarily mean good fertility as barren cows which have been culled will not be included.  Having an empty rate of > 15% after 9 weeks breeding and replacing empty cows with larger amounts of heifers is not ideal particularly when you consider the importance of cow longevity.

A much more important figure is weaned calves from animals bred.  The target, admittedly difficult to achieve, should be 90%.  Achieving above this figure is extremely rare and Nuffield reports have agreed that even a slight increase to 92% is an unrealistic target.  “To put this in perspective, if you breed 50 animals over a 9-week window, an excellent scanning result of 95% means 47-48 in calf.  Probability would suggest from scanning to calving, one foetus will be lost through re-absorption or abortion which means you can only lose 2 more calves out of 47 from calving through to weaning to achieve 90%.”

To improve your farms performance, you need to know your baseline and where the losses are coming from.  You can identify what changes in management are required by having individual figures for

  1. breeding performance at scanning
  2. losses between scanning and post calving
  3. losses from post calving to weaning

The change needed may be across more areas than this article can cover; bull selection, nutrition, vaccinations, calving hygiene etc.  However, a good starting point is to breed replacements from the best cows on the farm using what information you have such as weaning weights, breed details and her individual calving interval and calving history.  Boyd suggests to always look behind the figures, “I would be wary of selecting cows to breed from purely based on one low calving interval.”  A very low calving interval could suggest a cow that has improved from a poor position the previous year.  “I would rather breed from the cows that consistently, year in year out, calve in the first three weeks of your calving period.”  These cows will have fertility traits that you will want to pass on into your future herd.

Analysis from a group of top performing herds engaged with CAFRE in the past proves how difficult achieving 90% is across nearly 800 breeding animals.  Scanning averaged 93% after nine weeks, a further 2% was lost from scanning until calving and another 3% from and including calving until weaning.  However, there were individual herds within this who achieved 90% and over.

“Ultimately the target for your own farm is one step above last year.”  Improving from 80%-90% inside 12 months won’t happen.  However, over time this can be achieved and if we look again at a herd of 50 cows, weaning 90% compared to 80% means 45 calves compared to 40.  In terms of finished beef (an average carcase weight of 360Kg and price of £4.50/kg) this is an increase in output of £8,100 and each small 1% improvement is another £810.