Finishing Beef cattle this winter

Outlined are 10 steps which can help you to make finishing cattle a more profitable operation for your farm business.

1 Budget: before you decide to finish cattle, you should carry out a few simple sums to see what costs are going to be involved in bringing the animal through to point of slaughter.

Always use costs and a beef price that is reflective of your typical farm inputs and cattle type.

If you have R grading cattle, then use a price that reflects this. Using an unrealistic price will make the exercise pointless.

The budget can also help to indicate what you can afford to pay for store cattle in the mart and, in some cases, it may direct you to changing from buying U grade animals to R and O+ types.

2 Know your market: to get the best possible price for your cattle, you should be focused on delivering carcases that meet market specification on weight and conformation.

For example, processors have fewer market options for bulls that are over 16 months, or carcase weights in excess of 420kg.

Having cattle that are consistently finished to market spec can be an advantage at times when processors are well-supplied with cattle, as you may avoid a delay in getting animals slaughtered.

3 Monitor weight gain: weighing cattle will give you a sound base to work from at the start of the finishing period.

Use this weight as part of your finishing budget as it will improve the accuracy of your finishing costs and break even prices. This will help you to make a more informed decision.

Once you have started to intensively feed cattle, weigh them approximately every 30 days to monitor daily liveweight gain, and also as an indicator of when the animals might be ready for slaughter.

When weighing, bring cattle out of the pens in their group and weigh one pen at a time, to help keep stress to a minimum.

4 Monitor feed costs: knowing the daily weight gain in finishing cattle allows you to work out the margin the animal is generating, in terms of carcase value, every day it is on farm.

From this, you can calculate the margin over feed costs. For instance, a steer gaining 1kg/day of liveweight will be gaining 0.55kg/day of carcase at 55% kill-out. At a beef price of £3.60/kg, the animal is generating £1.98 every day during the feeding period.

But, assuming the steer is eating 20kg of silage (£25/t) and 7kg of meal (£210/t), it has a daily feed cost of £1.97/day.

Therefore, the animal is just covering feeds costs at the outlined weight gain and beef price. Fixed costs are excluded from this.

Once the animal is at a suitable fat cover, you should market without delay as there is no economic advantage in holding it to reach a heavier carcase weight.

5 Group cattle to size and finish date: once weighed, group cattle according to liveweight and target sale date. This will cut down on the amount of bullying, or aggressive behaviour in the pen.

Grouping animals based on size or kill date will allow you to sell them as a group. You do not want to be drafting animals from several pens this winter, and then regrouping the remaining animals, as this can lead to increased aggression among cattle, especially bulls.

6 Housing space: when cattle are finished indoors, make sure they have adequate lying space. Remember that space allowance will decrease as animals get heavier.

For instance, for a group of eight bulls weighing 550kg at housing, and at a daily weight gain of 1.5kg/day, there will be an extra 84kg of liveweight in the pen each week. After seven weeks, there is the equivalent of an extra animal in the pen.

Over 100 days, the weight gained is the equivalent of adding an extra two animals to the group, which means animals can be overstocked without you realising. This will have a negative impact on performance.

Therefore, always pen animals based on finishing weight to make sure they have adequate lying space.

7 Animal health: finishing cattle perform best when they are in good health and free of parasites. Make sure animals have been properly wormed before they start the intensive feeding period. Also, given the wet second half of the year, fluke could be a concern this winter. Animals should either be dosed using a suitable product, or dung samples taken to determine infection status.

If cattle are bought in, isolate from the main herd for a period of 10 to 14 days. This will allow animals time to settle and show symptoms of any respiratory problems arising from the stress of moving onto a new farm.

Using an IBR vaccine is advisable on farms where cattle are regularly bought in for finishing, and on suckler to beef units with a history of respiratory issues.

Keep a close eye on the withdrawal dates for any treatments given to cattle.

8 Keep finishing diet simple: finishing diets should be kept simple. Rations should be high in energy, and lower in protein, than general-purpose beef mixes.

Whether you purchase rations, or mix your own feed, energy levels should be a minimum of 12.5 ME.

Protein levels should be kept to around 13%, if you want to get animals to an adequate fat cover, especially bulls.

Key ingredients include barley and maize, along with a limited protein source such as soya or distillers.

Straights that are high in digestible fibre, eg soya hulls or sugar beet pulp, can also be added.

When moving cattle from the growing ration to the finishing ration, do so gradually. Increase the levels of the finishing ration offered to animals over the course of one week to 10 days. When offering more than 4kg or 5kg of concentrate, it is advisable to split into two feeds.

If building up to ad-lib feed levels, do so over a period of 10 to 14 days to avoid any potential issues with acidosis.

9 Set a limit to the finishing period: There is little performance benefit in intensively feeding continental steers beyond 100 days. For early maturing traditional beef breeds, this feeding period can be reduced to 80 days.

Heifers will mature earlier than steers, so limit the feeding period to 50 to 80 days depending on breed type.

Bulls can be fed for 150 to 200 days on an intensive finishing diet and still give high levels of performance and remain lean.

Therefore, it is important that you are feeding continental animals the correct ration so that they have adequate fat cover when slaughtered.

10 Sell cattle in batches: cattle should be sold once they meet the required level of fat cover and finishing weight. Holding animals beyond this point will offer no real economic benefit as the larger an animal gets, the less efficient it becomes at converting feed to lean muscle.

There is also the risk of cattle falling out of market spec, which devalues the sale price.

If cattle have been correctly grouped for finishing at housing, they can be sold in batches which will help you to negotiate on price when talking to your meat processor.