Straw or slats: Which works best for beef heifer performance?

The winter finishing of animals is no easy task. There are many factors that make this enterprise very expensive. Giving the inclement weather experienced during the summer months and latter stages of 2017, the feed costs being endured by finishers are running at a higher level than normal. heifer

This is not helped by the cuts to the beef price in recent weeks, which has damaged finishers’ confidence on farms. However, these costs and price cuts are unfortunately out of the farmers’ hands and they must strive to run their operations as cost effectively as possible.

Weight gains achieved over the winter period, particularly in finishing systems, may be the difference between making a profit or a loss. Farmers should also pay careful consideration to the size of the shed available, as overcrowding can lead to a significant reduction in animal performance.

According to Teagasc, there is currently no legislation surrounding the space allowance and floor type that should be provided to beef cattle during the winter finishing period. However, concerns have been raised regarding housing systems currently in use.

Research

Recent research by Teagasc in Grange, Co. Meath, was carried out to investigate the effect of floor type and space allowance on the performance and welfare of finishing beef heifers.

The trial – which lasted 105 days – was carried out with 240 continental crossbred heifers, with an average weight of 504kg. The heifers were grouped according to their breed, weight and age.

Heifers were randomly penned to one of four environments:
  • 3m²/head on a slatted concrete floor;
  • 4.5m²/head on a slatted concrete floor;
  • 6m²/head on a slatted concrete floor;
  • 6m²/head on a straw-bedded floor.

Heifers were fed a total mixed ration (TMR) ad-lib and the dry matter intake (DMI) was recorded for each pen of animals.

In addition – every three weeks – the heifers were weighed, dirt scored and blood sampled. Blood samples were analysed for complete cell counts and serum samples were assessed for metabolite concentrations.

Furthermore, cattle behaviour was recorded with infrared cameras from day 70 to day 87. Heifers’ hooves were inspected for lesions prior to the study and again post slaughter. Carcass weights; conformation; fat scores; and hide (skin) weights were also recorded.

Heifer performance

Post-trial results indicate that the heifers housed on straw bedding (6m²/head) had a higher average daily gain (ADG) of 0.15kg than those housed on concrete slats at 6m²/head.

They also had higher hide weights, better feed conversion ratios (FCR) and dirt scores. In addition, the number of heifers lying – at any one time – was higher on straw than on the concrete slats. However, the carcass weight difference between the two was not significant.

Heifers allocated 4.5m²/head had higher ADGs than those on both of the other concrete slat environments. However, space allowance had no effect on the carcass weights when slaughtered.

As a result, it can be concluded that increasing space allowance above 3.0m²/head on concrete slats was of no benefit to animal performance. Furthermore, housing heifers on straw instead of concrete slats will have no bearing on carcass weights at slaughter.

Neither bedding type or space allowance had an influence on the number of hoof lesions gained or on any of the haematological or metabolic variables measured, the Teagasc research found.

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