Calf to Carcase on a Low Cost Outdoor Forage System: A Feasibility Study

Project number:          61110047

Lead Contractor:         ADAS UK Ltd

Start and end dates:  01 April 2016 – 31 October 2018

 

The Problem:

The drive to increase efficiency of production for beef systems continues. There is scope for beef finishing systems to further reduce the use of bought in concentrates or home grown cereals, in the drive to control costs. Stocktake figures show that the average 16-24 month finisher is losing £208.91 per animal. Stocktake also shows the heavy reliance on concentrates and the reduced period in which cattle are utilising grass or forage. It is very clear that the introduction of efficient grazing and forage systems will reduce costs of production and improve the overall viability of beef finishing units.

 

Aims and Objectives:

The aim of this project was to create an intensive grass and forage based system which will maximise stocking rates through the use of high yielding crop fodder beet and intensive grazing.

– Compare the performance of two dairy bred types from calf to finished animal (to include live weights and live weight gains)

– Measure grass output & fodder beet yields and record stocking rates achieved, and then calculate kg liveweight/ ha achieved on both grass and fodder beet crops.

– Document key management techniques to ensure successful transition of cattle for both the transition to rotational grazing at the end of calf rearing and also from grass to fodder beet at the end of the 1st summer.

– Calculate the economic output of the system.

– Develop a ‘blue print’ detailing target weights at each stage and the required growth rates throughout.

– Assess the soil management requirements.

– Record routine veterinary inputs and document any health problems associated with the system.

 

Approach:

The project utilised rotationally grazed grass and fodder beet with minimal supplementation to maintain high growth rates and stocking rates throughout the rearing/finishing period and will compare the performance of two different breed types. The project identified the key messages to be disseminated to the wider industry via various knowledge transfer activities.

 

Results:

Dairy-beef production offers farmers a flexible means of producing beef with a range of possible finishing systems that can be adapted according to the resources available on farm. Feed and wintering costs are two significant variable costs of these systems, and it was these costs that this study aimed to reduce.

The objective of this study was to investigate the feasibility of growing and finishing Hereford cross and Holstein-Friesian steers using predominantly grazed grass and fodder beet over the winter with the aim of finishing cattle by 22 months of age. Minimal reliance on cereals or other bought-in concentrates and no housed period after the initial rearing of the calf.

The system under investigation consisted of four distinct stages which can be summarised as below:

Stage Time period  
1 Winter 2016/17 Calf rearing
2 Summer 2017 Growing during first season at grass
3 Winter 2017/18 Over-wintered on fodder beet
4 Summer 2018 Finishing during second season at grass

The study sourced a total of 70 autumn born steers with the aim of comparing the performance of 35 Hereford cross Holstein-Friesians with 35 pure Holstein-Friesians.

Calves were transferred from a rearing unit to Harper Adams in February 2017 and transitioned from ad-lib straw plus concentrate onto moderate quality baled grass silage and compound before being turned out in March to permanent pasture. Cattle were moved to the grazing platform in April, where they were rotationally grazed. Grass growth was measured on a weekly basis.

Cattle of both breed types fell short of the growth rate target (>1.0kg/day) but Hereford X cattle did achieve the target weight at transfer to the fodder beet with Holstein-Friesian cattle slightly below target.

The cattle were moved onto the fodder beet in October. Prior to moving they were given a clostridial vaccine, a high iodine bolus and booster vaccines for IBR and RSV. Cattle were transitioned gradually onto the fodder beet to minimise digestive disorders. The target was to achieve growth rates in excess of 0.7kg/day over the winter period and a weight of 460kg at the end of February. Disappointing DLWGs on fodder beet from December to April are likely to be attributed to the atrocious weather that occurred, especially in February and March with a combination of above average rainfall and below average temperatures.

Cattle were turned back onto grass on in April 2018. Weights were significantly higher for the Hereford X cattle on transfer to the grazing platform in the second grazing season. Cattle of both breed types exhibited high levels of compensatory growth in the early part of the season.

 

The summer of 2018 was noted as being one of the driest and hottest on record. The dry weather started to impact on grass availability and on 13 July the cattle were removed from the grazing platform as they were really short of grass. The cattle moved back onto the grazing platform on 17 August and trough feeding commenced on the 21 August. Feeding continued at grass until the fifth batch of cattle were sold on 30 November. The remaining Holstein-Friesian cattle were housed and fed ad lib grass silage, which was gradually replaced over a two week period with maize silage, plus concentrates.

Cattle were selected for slaughter at target fat class 3/4L for Hereford X steers and fat class 3 for Holstein-Friesians. Live weight at slaughter tended to be higher for Holstein-Friesian cattle whilst Hereford X cattle tended to have slightly heavier carcases. However, Hereford X cattle achieved a higher killing out %. Hereford X carcases were significantly fatter and had better conformation than Holstein-Friesian carcases. Carcases from Hereford X cattle graded on average as O+ 3/4L compared to the Holstein-Friesians at P+/-O 2/3 (leaner than target).

Target growth rates and slaughter weights were drawn up at the start of the study as follows:

Target

Actual performance
  Hereford X

Holstein-Friesian

Live weight of reared calf at end of 3 months rearing period (kg)

120

138

140

Live weight at turnout in March (kg) 180 180 182
–         Target DLWG at grass (kg/day) >1.0 0.86 0.80
Live weight at end of October (kg) 370 379 362
–         Target DLWG on fodder beet (kg/day) >0.7 0.44 0.32
Live weight at end February (kg)* 460 460 (18 Apr) 428 (18 Apr)
–          Target DLWG at grass during second grazing season (kg/day) 1.3 1.06 1.03
Live weight at slaughter (kg) 620 623 633
Hereford x carcase weight (kg) @ 53.5% KO grading O+/R 3/4L 335 321 @ 51.6% (O+ 3/4L)
Holstein carcase weight (kg) @ 50.5% KO grading P+/-O 3 315 318 @ 50.2% (P+/-O 2-3)

The two breeds of cattle both generated a positive full economic net margin of £113.98/head for the Hereford X and £99.94 for the Holstein-Friesians. When this net margin is applied on a per hectare basis at the stocking rate of 2.88 cattle per hectare (2.88 0-12 month and 2.88 finishing cattle in the system) a net margin of £328.26 and £287.83 is created.

It is clear that the low input dairy beef system is profitable. By purchasing cattle at a younger age than traditional dairy beef finishing systems the aim is to generate a larger gross output whilst controlling variable and fixed costs to increase profitability, even though the cattle are on farm for a much longer period before finishing.