23rd March 2015

Forth Farmers Review Bull Beef Production

Lessons learned from the performance of the 2014-born bulls and heifers generated much discussion at the recent Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) Forth monitor farm meeting.

At the meeting, the group discussed the McEwens’ second group of bullbeef bulls. Born in spring 2014, they were housed along with their dams on 30th November and weaned on 19th January.

The bull beef enterprise on the Forth monitor farm is relatively new, starting when the monitor farmers – Duncan McEwen and his son, also Duncan, decided to keep the 2013-born male calves entire. With their first monitor farm meeting, being in November 2012, the community group has been involved with the learning of the bull beef venture since its inception.

Duncan McEwen Junior reminded the community group that the 2014 crop of calves had received creep feed from mid-August, which he said was “with the intention of improving performance and reducing finishing time.”

In an effort to keep the cows outside for as long as possible and to ensure good grazing for tupped ewes, the McEwens moved the cows and their bull calves to rough grazing in late October for the five weeks prior to housing. The calves continued to receive creep feed, and the cows were supplemented with hay.

He commented: “At housing, I was concerned that the bull calves had not grown as I had hoped in the weeks prior to housing. When we weighed them at weaning, my pessimism was confirmed. The young bulls, despite having received creep for months and being weaned ten days later, were on average two kgs per head lighter than the 2013-born bulls at weaning, which had not been creep-fed,  -280 kgs versus 282 kgs.”

Mr McEwen commented: “I’m kicking myself now that I hadn’t acknowledged just how dependant on the good grass the calves had been.”

He was also keen to thank the community group for their support and input. He said: “Thanks to attending grassland events and taking advice from speakers and discussions at our own monitor farm meetings, we’ve learned that as calves grow older, they compete with their dams for the best grass. So if we wean earlier and house the calves, instead of them checking in the autumn they should continue to sustain good growth rates. Also the housed bulls will be fed at an open feed barrier from day one, instead of in creep feeders, which will resolve any issues of reluctance to enter creep feeders.

“Away from their calves, the maintenance requirements of the cows will significantly reduce, so they can go onto the rougher grazing earlier, helping to ensure plenty of good grass for the sheep as they head into autumn. The cows can stay outside until the weather dictates they need to come in.”

The McEwens rotationally grazed their cows and calves around fields through the 2014 summer.

“I measured the kilos of dry matter per hectare in each field before turn-in,” explained Mr McEwen.

“We aimed to move the cows and calves onto the next field once the pasture had been grazed down to approximately 1200 to 1300 kilos of dry matter per hectare. Using 3% of body weight to determine the kilos of dry matter required per head, per day, I calculated how long to graze the cows and calves in a particular field. Calves were included in the calculation once they weighed around 200 kilos.”

“Before they went to the rougher grazing we were really pleased with them, but it’s clear they didn’t thrive once they and their mums were on the poorer grazing, despite still receiving creep. It’s obvious to me now that it was because they were missing the good grass they’d been on all summer. I’m certainly not making the same mistake again!

“We intend to rotationally graze cows and calves again this year, but to avoid repeating the disappointing performance of the 2014-born calves we will wean the calves earlier (around 150 days old) and house them at the same time,to make sure they don’t experience a drop in feed quality.”

He added: “Interestingly, this year’s heifers were heavier than the previous year’s crop at 261 kgs versus 239 kgs. After the cows and calves were housed in November, I noticed that prior to weaning, the heifers were clearly consuming more creep feed than the bulls, with the young bulls seeming reluctant to go into the creep feeders.”

Now on a ration of 75% barley, 25% beans, (4 kgs/head/day), along with ad-lib straw and silage, the bulls are out-performing last year’s group at the same stage. Recently weighed they averaged 334.61 kgs (1.56 kg DLWG) compared to the 2013-born group, which had averaged 328 kgs (1.27 DLWG).

The next meeting of the Forth monitor farm will be on May 19th. 

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