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To finish cattle earlier will I need early-maturing breeds?

Reducing the average slaughter age of prime cattle from 27 to 24 months by 2030 is one of the measures contained in the government’s Climate Action Plan.

According to By Colm Kelly, B&T Drystock Adviser, Teagasc Galway/Clare, climate commitments through the Climate Action Plan are set to have a “fundamental policy” impact on beef production over the coming decades.

Also, within the marketplace across all sectors, ‘green credentials’ are increasingly now a condition of business to support marketing campaigns.

In his view, these are likely the ‘push, pull’ factors that will shape what the future holds for all farmers.

In this article, he answers common questions about reducing slaughter age in cattle.

To finish cattle earlier will I need early-maturing breeds?

Not necessarily, as it is achievable to finish earlier with continental breeding.

Animals that are more challenging to get good fat scores on tend to be very well muscled or exceptionally large, framed animals that will take more finishing.

There are likely genetic factors as well, which means certain bulls should be more suited to producing cattle for earlier finishing systems.

Early maturing breed characteristics should favour a shorter finishing period and lower feed input but may not have the same carcase weight and grade potential.

They also tend to be less efficient when finished indoors. Continental breeding trends towards longer finishing periods and higher feed inputs, but generally will achieve better carcase weight and grade results.

So, both can work singularly or in balance if properly thought out and resources on the ground are taken into account.

The lead into the finishing period also has a significant impact. If the animals are on good quality grass before finishing or housing and in good condition, this should reduce the finishing period also.

Will reducing slaughter age make financial sense?

To finish spring-born cattle at 24-months, it will mean finishing out of the shed.

In this case, the feed input and housing costs are significant. This requires:

This indoor feeding really requires high performance and good grades to make sense and for less specialised operators it is easy to feed away your margin.

An alternative option is to bring forward finishing to 18-20 months where a larger proportion you can finish off grass, which reduces input and housing costs.

Any farmers trying to finish at 20 months?

Yes, I have come across cases where 20-month finishing is working out well.

A big driver to actually try this system is farmers short of housing and frustrated with having cattle that were ‘the wrong colour’ for the mart.

The key markers enabling earlier finishing are:

  • Good weanling performance;
  • Good performance over the first winter;
  • Early turnout to decent grass in a rotational grazing system.

A lot of performance can go missing on beef farms between weaning and housing or over the first housing period.

The most challenging factor in finishing earlier is estimating fat score.

If you are over-cautious, it can run cattle up to requiring additional housing while underestimating fat score can lead to significant cuts on price per kg achieved.

It can be quite difficult to develop this skill and there is an element of learning from your mistake.

Where can I see earlier finishing?

Newford Demonstration Farm slaughtered spring-2020-born cattle in autumn 2021.

These cattle are bred by 5-star terminal Limousin and Charolais bulls crossed on AA/HE-cross dairy suckler cows.

On September 24th, it slaughtered 18 beef heifers and achieved an average grade of R=3=.

The average live weight was 572 kg with a carcase weight of 291 kg. The average sale price achieved was €1,295 at a group average 19 months of age.

They were 208 days at grass where they had an ADG of 0.77 kg.

The average feed input was 222 kg of a 12% crude protein ration during finishing, which cost €68/heifer, with feeding starting on July 26th.

Furthermore, it slaughtered 9 spring-2020-born bullocks on October 18th. From September 2nd, it introduced 2 kg of ration at grass and then built this up to 5 kg.

Bullocks averaged U-3- and a carcase weight of 372 kg from 697 kg live weight. From turnout to slaughter, they averaged 1.01kg ADG.

The group average was 194 kg of a 12% crude protein ration fed during finishing which came to €61/animal with a meal price of €314/tonne.

The average sale price for the 9 bullocks was €1,675.

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