Making the most of grass, planning winter forage ahead of time and focusing on heifers are three non-negotiables for a profitable suckler business this year and longer-term.
In episode seven of the Wynnstay Agri-hub podcast, Tony and I discuss what suckler beef businesses should focus on to enable profitability. Although input costs are unprecedentedly high, the current price of beef is buoyant, with good cull cow, finishing and store beef prices.
Sucklers can also add value to a mixed farm system. Farmyard manure is a valuable commodity this year and can be used to improve soil fertility, supporting arable production. Furthermore, sucklers can help with a steady flow of cash, by selling cattle throughout the year.
There will be a fine line between gaining or losing money on a suckler business this year. Focusing on efficiencies, knowing where sucklers add value and where they are a drain on resources and making decisions accordingly will be crucial.
1. Make the most of grass
The earlier part of April was too cold and dry to support plentiful grass growth. With 60% to 80% of grass grown from April through to July, concentrating on good growth from May onwards will be key.
Use rotational grazing
It’s possible to achieve 30% to 40% more growth in rotational grazing systems than in set stocking systems. Low-cost investments, such as a couple of electric fencing units to split fields in half and move the cows around more regularly can pay dividends.
Remember, grass grows grass. Keep three leaves on one grass plant, and it will grow more. But, if swards get down to the ground, they will take much longer to recover.
For best performance, put cows out to fields when the grass is 12cm high, and move them off when it’s at 6cm.
Staying on top of weed control will also help. While grass has had a slow start in 2022, weeds have cracked on. Applying a foliar feed with weed control provides an opportunity to grow some extra grass.
2. Plan winter forage
Now is the time of year to take action and plan for winter.
For years, grass silage has cost £90-95 per tonne of DM. However, in the last three months, the cost per tonne of DM has doubled to around £180, largely due to the increased price of fertiliser. There isn’t much scope to make money if silage cost has doubled, so reducing the cost of winter feeding is going to be critical.
Light soil farms may over-winter cattle outside. Even a stubble turnip crop, which cows can be turned out onto for a month to six weeks, can reduce silage requirements. On the lighter ground, it’s worth considering long term brassicas like kale or grazed fodder beet, as their cost of production is around half that of grass silage at the moment.
Another strategy is to avoid keeping any cows that could be a problem, such as empty cows through the winter and sell stock early to help cash flow while reducing strains on winter feed.
3. Focus on heifers
In the USA, it’s been shown that focusing on fertility and maternal traits can have five times the benefit in terms of improving profitability than growth rates and carcass weights. Improving the maternal traits of a herd is a long-term project, but, insemination for replacement heifers can be made with maternal traits in mind.
Age at first calving is another factor. If heifers calve at 24 months, this keeps calving blocks tight and improves efficiencies. In the UK beef industry, the average age of a heifer at first calving is 32 months. This is partly due to some waiting until heifers are three years old, if they are concerned about calving issues, especially when heifers are on the small side.
The basic target weight for heifer insemination is 380kg to 400kg, so she needs to maintain good growth to reach that. Making sure heifers do well on grass, selecting heifers for growth and maternal traits, and ensuring they calve at 24 months can vastly improve the profitability of a herd.
Making the most of grass, planning winter forage and focusing on heifers are discussed in more detail in the latest episode of the Wynnstay Agri-hub podcast, along with plenty more on ensuring a suckler business is efficient and profitable this year.