14th March 2014

Importance of Correct Feed Regime for Beef Bulls Highlighted at Forth Monitor Farm Meeting

The importance of devising the correct feed regime for beef bulls was one of the main topics at the recent Forth monitor farm meeting, hosted by Duncan McEwen and his son, also Duncan, who farm Arnprior Farm, 12 miles west of Stirling.

The 815 acre (330 has) unit is one of the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland. The McEwens run a spring calving suckler herd of 60 cows, with all progeny, other than retained females, finished.

The heavy rain of the last two summers resulted in the grazing steers damaging the grassland and achieving disappointing growth rates. The high summer rainfall prompted the McEwens to re-evaluate their system, resulting in them deciding to keep the 26, 2013-born bull calves entire to finish them indoors, by July 2014. At weaning in November, at an average age of 203 days, they weighed on average, 282 kgs.

Two other monitor farmers – Andrew Baillie, the current Clyde monitor farmer, and Robbie Newlands, whose three-year term as the Moray and Nairn monitor farmer ended in July 2013 – both use a bull beef system for the male progeny from their suckler herds on ad-lib feed systems. Both also grow their own barley and they shared their experiences at the recent Forth monitor farm meeting.

Farm consultant, Peter Cook, who had been one of the Moray and Nairn monitor farm facilitators, provided an overview of bull beef, plus facts and figures on the enterprise.

Mr Newlands has been doing bull beef for 20 years and currently finishes all progeny (bulls and heifers) bred in his 150 cow herd of predominantly British Blue X Holstein Friesian, which start calving in March. Purchased replacement heifers run with a Simmental bull, while cows go to Charolais bulls.

Mr Newlands emphasised that the simplicity of his enterprise was a major strength. “Once weaned and housed, the bulls go onto a ration of propcorned barley, soya and minerals, mixed in the bucket on the front of the tractor, consuming a total of 2.3 tons of barley per head.”

The Newlands’ bulls finish at approximately 14 months, yielding an average carcase weight of 370 kgs, with an average daily liveweight gain from weaning to finish, of between 1.3 to 1.56 kgs.

Andrew Baillie runs an April/May calving herd of 60 cows – a mix of British Blue, Limousin and Hereford crosses. Breeding bulls are Limousin and British Blue.

He started his bull beef enterprise four years ago “when the barley price wasn’t great!” reminding the group that financial calculations for bull beef are heavily influenced by the value of barley. In the case of himself and Mr Newlands, the consideration was the value of barley to sell, compared to feeding it to cattle.

Regarding the nutritional feed value of barley, Mr Baillie recommended that given its variability between seasons, the protein levels of the barley should be established prior to calculating feed rations. In addition to finishing his home-bred bulls, Mr Baillie annually finishes a total of 120, eight-week old Holstein Friesian bull calves, purchased from two local dairy farms.

Target liveweight for the beef bulls is 600 - 650 kgs, with the dairy bulls – approximately 550 kgs.  The daily liveweight gain target is 1.6 to 1.8 kgs. They consume 15 - 20 kgs/day of a ration comprised of home grown barley and a purchased blend, which is equal thirds of beet pulp, rape meal and soya, supplemented with minerals.

Both farmers emphasised the importance of straw, for roughage, in the bull diet. They also ensure that their calves are introduced to creep feed while at foot, to help minimise any check when calves are weaned and housed.

Mr McEwen had unsuccessfully attempted to get his calves to take creep, offered from mid-October, prior to weaning in November. The group suggested that in future the cows be kept on tighter grazing, to reduce their milk, encouraging calves to look for more food and to place molasses buckets for the cows, adjacent to the creep feeders, resulting in the cows taking their calves with them when they went to the buckets.

Mr Cook explained to the group: “There used to be a considerable price discount on bull beef, but that price penalty has recently reduced, generating more interest in bull beefing suckler bulls.

“Testosterone equals muscle, with most of a calf’s profit made in its first year when more of the grain is converted into bone and muscle, rather than costly fat.”

Mr Baillie makes the most of the high growth rates of young bulls. His bulls are electronically identified and are weighed fortnightly to monitor performance.

“Once the daily liveweight gain of individuals starts to slow down, to say 1.2 kgs per day, they are converting feed less efficiently, so as long as they will hit the wholesaler’s minimum carcase weight specification, they’re on the lorry!”, he told the group.

“A bonus of the regular weighings is that each time they are weighed they run through a Formalin foot bath, which is in the race. The high starch content in intensive finishing rations can contribute to foot problems.”

With the McEwens inexperienced in the handling of beef bulls, the community group reminded them that they would need to be aware that the bulls could react unexpectedly to unfamiliar situations, in particular loading.

While much of the day’s discussion had focused on food conversion efficiency of bulls and how to feed and manage bulls to maximise daily liveweight gains, a word of warning came from Willie Harper, who runs a bull beef enterprise on his farm near Bridge of Weir. He reminded the meeting that one of the most important things the McEwens needed to do, as soon as possible, was establish who would buy their bulls, and at what price.

“A lot of folk are going into bull beef, especially in areas where grain and straw are plentiful,” said Mr Harper. “With most herds now spring calving, and all bulls finishing around the same time the following summer, there’s already an over-supply of beef bulls in May, June and July time, which looks as if it will get worse in the future. A glut could easily result in a drop in price!”

For further information, please contact the facilitator: Stephen Whiteford. Email: stephen.whiteford@sac.co.uk, Telephone: 01786 450964

For general information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings: www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitor-farms

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