Rayner Reckons

Jan 19

In the last few weeks I’ve read several articles and discussions focused on beef production.  Specifically I’ve been looking for ideas or thoughts that I can bring into practice with my clients this year.  After all, my job is to work with producers to find better ways and more efficient ways to produce beef and make money.

One of the first articles I came across highlighted the huge difference between profitable beef producers and the majority of the industry.  This article from Beef Central, suggests that only 2 in 10 producers is actually making money.  Having read that, I was more struck by the fact this isn’t really news to me. 

For some years now it has been clear that the large majority of producers are not making nearly enough money to operate a profitable business.  It also seems that there really isn’t anything new in the way that the profitable operators are conducting their business.   In fact the profitable producers are focused on their practices on farm to producer kilograms of red beef efficiently and profitably.

So what is everyone else focusing on?  It seems the focus for the less profitable operators is on the peripheral things.  For some time I have been following an on line breed discussion.  The discussion is driven by participants desire to be more profitable.   However rather than sharing ideas to implement on farm or in the business, the discussion is now around issues that don’t really make money.

These issues include; why does “no one want to buy cattle from our breed?” “why do people overlook us in the sale yard” “we can’t advertise the same way the big breed societies do”. I actually find reading these points a little disheartening. 

It gets worse when the discussion moves towards more defensive positions.  These things include “well we had a good success in the show ring”, “our carcase competition results are always very good” “people say my cattle are great”. 

Its generally about then that I stop reading and go away a bit depressed.  In 24 years of judging carcase competitions, I’ve never actually met anyone who has been paid because of the results of a single animal in a carcase competition.  It seems a very weak argument to put forward when discussing ideas to change and be more profitable. 

Finally in one of the rural newspapers I read an article by an older cattleman who wrote about his work over many years, crossbreeding animals, and his focus on feed efficiency.  While these are both very important traits, I was a bit skeptical when it also suggested processors need to change their specifications to suit cattle producers.  I’m not really sure that any other business would think it’s a valid point to tell the customer to change what they want to suit the producer!

So what does this really mean?  I think it means many people are focusing on peripheral issues that are not the primary driver for business profitability. 

In my books a profitable beef herd is a highly fertile herd.  It must have not only high conception rates, it also needs to achieve those conception rates within a defined joining period.  For many herds this really should be within 6 to 9 weeks. 

Those cows should then be able to actually calve and rear that calve through to weaning.  And then be rejoined in order to produce another calf in a 12 month period. 

Having worked with many producers, across regions this is the crunch point for me.  The producers who achieve these things with their cows are already achieving higher levels of productivity and profitability for their businesses. 

The next key point is animal growth.  Growth isn’t just genetics.  It isn’t just nutrition.  It is the combination of genetic selection.  I think t be more specific, choosing cattle for your country!  Choosing the genetics, the breed type and the animal type that suit the environment you live. 

If you get that bit right you are already on the way to making nutritional management that much easier.   After all if the cattle suit the country, your management should complement the animals ability to use your pastures efficiently.  But if your cattle don’t suit the country because their maturity pattern isn’t quite correct, or for some other reason, you will have to spend more time juggling feed and cow condition to ensure they get into calf, rear that calf and that any progeny meet market specifications.

I know fertility and growth (from both genetics and nutrition) has a direct link to business profitability.  Its pretty clear from lots of industry studies, the herds that produce more kilograms of beef per hectare are the more profitable herds. 

What I don’t really get is if it is so clear, why do we ignore these areas to focus on the peripherals?  I’d get it if a producer was ticking all the boxes in fertility, in growth, in nutritional management.  If the were I would see that they were selecting animals for market specifications and selling tem to capture the value those animals are worth.  In effect, if you tick all the boxes it opens up the peripherals to explore and extract a little more value.

I know some producers will be defensive when they read this.  I’ve heard it in comments such as “my cattle are fertile”  “Its a very fertile breed”.  My response is how do you know?  I know not everyone pregnancy tests.  I know that not everyone selects for females that go into calf early in the joining period.  I know that many cows are joined for longer than 3.5 months. 

So what does it really mean?  This year I’m challenging all of my clients, old and new to look at the basics objectively and honestly.  To make sure we are ticking the boxes.  The peripherals that distract many in the industry won’t play a part in our decisions until we get the boxes ticked.  I’m actually excited by this! I’m confident it will set my clients up to either become part of, or remain well within the profitable sector of the industry. 

Don’t forget if you’d like to step up and take the challenge, I’d love to hear from you! 

Jan 12

Shade for your cattle

Posted on Friday, January 12, 2018

The first few weeks of 2018 have seen temperatures in eastern Australia rise to levels well above average.  Hot temperatures challenge livestock as well as challenging people.  With another month of summer still to come, its unlikely the heat will ease that much.  So it’s worth taking some time to think about how you may help your livestock cope a little better.

Hot weather is an issue for livestock welfare and for livestock productivity.  Cattle generally have a core body temperature of around 390C.  There many be some slight fluctuations, but in general cows work pretty hard to maintain the core temperature.

As well as generating heat from their metabolism and from movement, environmental influences also impact on the cows temperature.  Hot conditions either from air temperatures, solar radiation – and direct sunlight, relative humidity, air flow and the length of time hot conditions persist all impact on the heat load of cattle. 

In general, cattle have developed strategies to off load excessive heat.  However, when temperatures and humidity are very high it becomes much more difficult for cattle to cope.  If cattle don’t have an opportunity to off load heat, they will start to become stressed and may die.

Cattle off load heat in various ways.  Drinking cold water absorbs heat and helps lower the animal’s temperature.  Heat can also be conducted from the animal to the ground by lying down.  Standing in water is an obvious way of transferring heat.

The effect of shade on livestock is just as important.  Work by Dairy Australia has shown that cows with access to shade receive 50% less solar radiation than exposed cattle.  The movement of air through branches helps the transfer of heat from cattle to the atmosphere and will further reduce the heat load. 

When cattle can access shade they tend to rest until the cooler parts of the day before grazing.  I recently read some research that showed cattle prefer shade over water in hot conditions and they actually spend more time resting and less time chewing their cud as temperature rises.

Without shade cattle will camp close to dams and water supplies.  They will often group together just to get some shade from their heard mates.  While this does provide a little shade, it also means more heat absorption from the close contact with other animals.  Where they can cattle will look for places where there may be a breeze to help provide some air flow and allow heat to be transferred from their bodies.

In practical terms, along with access to sufficient good quality water, providing cattle with access to shade is probably the most effective method of helping them cope with hot temperatures. 

Trees are a more effective option to provide shade for livestock than artificial structures.  I’ve spent some time talking to researchers who have shown that trees not only reduce radiation on cattle.  They also reduce the air temperature under the tree by around 10

While that seems to be only a small reduction, it does mean that the ground under the trees is also much cooler.  Cows can lay in the shade and transfer heat more easily than if they were in an exposed paddock.

Trees also cool the air around them through a process known as evapotranspiration.  This is the process of water evaporating from the leaves of the tree.  As this occurs it helps reduce the amount of radiant energy left to war the air.  In some ways trees act as a natural air conditioner!

However there is a catch!  Evapotranspiration is much more effective when a tree is growing well ad in good health.  There is plenty of data that shows single trees, and trees in poor health are much less effective in this process.  There is some research that suggests that heavily compacted or poorly aerated soil will reduce the amount of evapotranspiration is 75% lower than in healthy trees.  Quite simply the tree can’t absorb enough water from the soil for the process to happen.

So what does this mean in practical terms?  I reckon the first is that natural shade is vital.  I guess a single tree is better than nothing.  But for a big mob of cattle a single tree wont really do much. Having a big group of stock crowding around a tree will place a lot more pressure on that tree.  The soil is likely to be more compacted and reduce the ability of the tree to absorb the water it needs. 

I really think that in periods of hot weather, your cattle will be much more able to off load heat if you grazed them in paddocks with plenty of trees.  If they can spread out they will find their shade, and spend less time standing in dams, which often results in fouled water.  (This has its own set of problems!) 

Longer term you may even consider planting more trees.  More trees in places will take pressure off those old single trees, and will give you and your cattle some useful options to cope with the hot days in the future.

Lastly, excessive movement creates heat and prevents cattle from finding ways to off load the heat they have accumulated.  Moving or working cattle should be done early in the day or later in the afternoon.  This lets your cattle find some shade when its hot and avoids building up unnecessary heat.

Its important not to forget that water consumption (even with plenty of shade) will be much higher in hot weather.  So make sure you check your water supplies regularly to make sure there is enough good quality water for all your cattle!

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