Improving performance efficiency of the suckler cow

In recent times the topic of improving the efficiency of the suckler cow has been discussed on many occasions. With the tight profit margins available on a number of suckler farms, improving efficiency should not just be a target, but rather a necessity in order to ensure the farming enterprise is viable as a business going forward.

An issue within the industry is always having a level of uncertainty in the predicting of prices available when it comes to selling animals each year.

A recent report by Kevin McGrath, the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) beef and sheep adviser based in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, states that it is about doing the simple things right in order to improve the overall efficiency within a suckler herd.

McGrath stated: “Farmers operating at high management levels 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.”

He goes on to pinpoint three key areas which the suckler herd needs to focus on to improve profitability levels. This includes: grassland management; animal performance; and stocking rate.

Improving animal performance

According to the report, McGrath has highlighted that reducing the age at calving to 24 months is a management strategy that can reduce costs and improve efficiency. The average age of calving in Northern Ireland is 31 months old.

As part of research undertaken by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Hillsborough – in conjunction with Agrisearch – it demonstrated that by calving down heifers at 24 months rather than 36 months will achieve a £45/cow increase in margin/cow. 

Calving heifers at this age should be managed by targeting a 60-65% of mature weight at mating, along with using an easy-calving sire.

Image source: DAERA

The report also went on to state that it is becoming increasingly difficult for bigger cows to produce calves that grow efficiently.

McGrath noted: “As a rule of thumb, a suckler cow should be weaning a calf 45-50% her bodyweight at 200 days.”

Currently, many farms are achieving 40% or less. The lighter cow has been stated to have a major advantage in having lower maintenance costs, while enabling for a higher stocking rate to be achieved.

This cost reduction has been based on a cow converting 75% of all feed consumed for maintenance, which would result in a heavier cow requiring more feed for maintenance.

Counting the costs

The report has also released figures to provide support to these previous statements of lighter weighing cows having an advantage over heavier cows.

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 £2,500 over a 50-cow herd – with heavily muscled cows also requiring more energy for maintenance.

For a cow that will remain in the herd for six years, this additional £50/year will result in a total of £300 extra cost on feed alone.

Examining this in terms of stocking rates, 58 cows weighing 650kg can be kept on the same ground as 50 cows weighing 750kg.

Image source: DAERA

However, keeping progeny in mind, a balance is required between lower cow maintenance and the carcass performance of the offspring. Research has shown that a cow weighing between 600-650kg is best balance.

There should also be no room for cows not proving in-calf, with a 700kg barren cow consuming 1.5% of her liveweight/day or 4t in dry matter per year – which if fed baled silage over a 200-day winter amounts to £230.

McGrath stated: “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 Targets

Speaking about poor fertility within a herd, he explained: “Herd health, cow genetics, cow condition score, difficult calvings and bull fertility can all attribute to fertility issues.”

A suckler cow should have a target calving interval of 365 days. Taking a 50-cow herd achieving a 365-day calving index to the Northern Ireland average of 415 days, this scenario has been applied to selling calves as weanlings.

Calves on average will be 50 days older at sale, therefore, (415 days) – 50 days x 1kg gain/day x £2/kg x 44 calves = £4,400.

The output will be also be reduced, at an index of 415 days this means 44 calves/year, at 365 days this means 50 calves/year – which is an additional six extra calves/year equating to £1,500.

Considering the feeding cost of the empty cow, this will result in 50 extra days x 50 cow herd = 2,500 days x 87p/day = £2,175.

“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, or £161/cow,” according to McGrath.

Reducing calving spread

Reducing the calving spread should also be considered. With long, drawn-out calving periods indicating fertility issues within a herd, it also results in herd management issues, higher labour requirement, potentially higher mortality rates and general lower animal performance.

Image source: DAERA

Key traits which should be focused on at breeding is 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.

At breeding, using sires with high 200 and 400 day weights has attributed to larger cows. The environment which the cow is being farmed in should match her size, otherwise both fertility and performance will be compromised. As McGrath questioned: “Why keep heavier cows if they are less efficient on your farm?”

Concluding the report, McGrath explains: “Look at your farm system and be realistic when setting 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.”