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!
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!
The annual bull-selling season is a time when many people seem to ask questions about EBVs. The questions are not restricted to the usefulness of EBVs. They also include what do they mean, how do we actually use them and most frequently, why bother with them!
This year I was tagged on Facebook to make a comment on an American article that questioned EBVs, or as they are known in the US EPDs (which is Expected Progeny Differences). It was a pretty long article that questioned the science and mathematics that underpin the calculation of Breeding Values.
I had to read the article about three or four times to properly understand it! However two lines stood out for me. The first asked if EBVs were a tool or a toy. The suggestion was that EBVs were a dangerous toy being used unthinkingly and that it was a cult like behavior! The second was the summary line quoting a Tom Lasater, founder of the Beefmaster breed who said: "Breeding cattle is easy. The difficult part is keeping it easy!"
The article made me think a lot about my advice and the work I’ve done with producers for over 20 years. The comment about breeding cattle is easy, and the difficult part is keeping it easy is a good place to start.
Breeding cattle is easy! You can buy a bull and leave him with a group of cows all year. You don’t need to spend a lot, and you don’t really have to do much.
However, breeding cattle and making a profit is not so easy! Profit is driven in beef herds by the average price you receive and the kilograms of beef you produce per hectare. The average cost to produce a kilogram of beef in Southern Australia is $1.74 and in northern Australia its $1.75
So to be profitable, you can either increase your average price per kilogram, or reduce your costs or increase your kilograms of beef produced per hectare. Of these three options, the one with the greatest variation and the most potential to be manipulated in the kilograms of beef you produce per hectare.
Increasing your kilograms per hectare requires you to focus on two key areas. Nutrition and genetics. I actually find it hard to prioritise one over the other. In most situations, nutrition often limits the genetic potential of cattle. I have seen many herds with genetics that were capable of producing more kilograms of beef, but those genetics were never going to be expressed with the level of nutrition on offer.
Conversely genetics offer the opportunity to increase the ability of animals to grow faster, to be more muscular or more fertile or to have the traits that contribute to market compliance. It’s just as important to ensure your animals can fully utilize the nutrition you provide, so that investment in pastures, crops or feed isn’t wasted.
Increasing your production is a result of focused nutritional management and clear genetic improvement to capture the traits that help you produce cattle that suit your environment and your markets.
The difference between this and a basic, ‘simply put the bull out with the cows program’ is the simple option remains unfocussed. Cows calve when they calve. Weaners hit weights at varying times. Marketing is done ad hoc! Essentially this is a commodity production system where breeders have little opportunity to take advantage of market specifications or industry programs that can increase the average price per kilogram.
So in my mind, profitably breeding cattle isn’t simple! You need to manage the complexity of nutrition in varying seasons and localities. You need to consider market specifications as well as programs such as MSA that can increase your average price per kilogram. And you need to invest in genetics that will allow you to lift your production to be profitable.
The hardest thing with genetics is you can’t actually see them in an animal. When you look at a bull or a cow, you can see its physical appearance. It’s a direct result of its individual background, its nutrition and environment allowing it to express its genetics. Will that be the same in your business? How do you know? You have at best a guess that he may or may not suit your program.
The use of EBVs and particularly those that have high accuracies mean you have a better estimation of the genetic potential of that animal to contribute those traits into your herd. High accuracies mean that data on those genetics has been recorded on numerous programs and environments. This offers you a better insight into the genetic potential of an animal and therefore an opportunity to make a more informed selection.
I’ve never considered an EBV as a crystal ball. Its an estimation based on recordings and analysis. I would never consider them a toy! I use EBVs as a tool that help me select a number of bulls that would contribute the genetics my clients require to increase their production of beef per hectare. Once I have those bulls identified, I need to physically assess them. If the bull is unsound, or has a poor temperament or displays attributes unsuited to my client, I don’t recommend him!
So when I’m asked how useful are EBVs, I always answer that EBVs are a very useful tool. And that tool is to help refine your search for a sire down to a manageable number that you will then physically assess.
Breeding cattle is simple. Being a profitable cattle breeder takes a bit more work and focus. However if you want to be profitable there are tools to help make your job a bit easier. Every tool has a limitation, and if you know the limitations and use them as they are meant to be used, I reckon you can make breeding profitable cattle a bit easier than some people make them out to be!
Over the last few months I’ve been considering the role of benchmarks in business. I’ve always thought that benchmarks are important. However the question really is, why are benchmarks important?
The original use of the term benchmark related to marks stone masons would chisel into stone so that leveling rods could be placed onto the stone bench. The mark allowed the masons to return accurately each time the rod needed to be reused.
In business I think we use the term in slightly different ways. Ideally a benchmark is about setting a mark, or a measure on the factors that determine your production and profitability. They should be measures that can be repeated each year so that you can determine if your business is meeting your own goals.
Unfortunately I reckon too many people see benchmarking as a form of competition! I not sure where that impression came from. I guess some people are naturally competitive and try to be the best at everything.
Many producers work in groups to share their benchmarks and to learn from each other, so perhaps there are some people who just like to compete on everything!
So when I am asked about benchmarks, my first point is that it isn’t a competition with anyone!
My second point is that benchmarks should be yours. By that I mean, you need to set the marks in place that let you come back and assess your progress each year. They have to be realistic and reflect your business model. There’s no point trying to compare what you are doing to anyone else in the first instance. So if you are operating a breeding business, your benchmarks should focus on those areas around fertility. You should know:
- Your pregnancy rate for heifers, first calf heifers and cows.
- Calving spread over your calving period
- Weaning weights and numbers
There are more measures that you could record. However these will at the very least let you determine if your herd is operating efficiently.
If you are operating a finishing program can you record growth rates; compliance with specifications; age or weight at turn off?
There are quite simply plenty of measures that your business should have. I talk about this data as being useful to drive innovation. Quite simply it is using these results to fine-tune your management to improve and achieve better results you’re your business.
Setting some on farm benchmarks gives you a chance to take a critical look at your program. I know in my own business it’s very easy to get caught up in the cycle that is best described as “busy being busy!”
Having some set measures in place makes you stop and look at what you are doing. The chance to stop and look is critical. You really need to look at how you are spending your time, effort and money? If its not working as well as it should – i.e you are not hitting your benchmarks, then you can take control to correct the issues.
I reckon the third and most significant reason for using benchmarks is to give you a focal point to stop and take a critical look at the business. It’s difficult to argue with hard data. The data you collect gives you the information to reflect and ask critical questions.
This brings me back to my earlier points. In my mind, asking critical questions and looking at your progress each year, is fundamental to operating a successful beef business. Should you try and compare against other people? Well comparisons can be useful. They can help you see the potential for improvement or highlight areas of opportunity. But just making comparisons wont change anything! It’s nice to know what the national Cost of Production is and where yours relates to that. But if you don’t use that information to change your own practices, well I reckon you aren’t achieving anything for your business.
In the last few weeks I’ve been through an experience that has altered my view of succession plans. I’ll be honest and say that until recently, succession planning was something I didn’t think would directly impact on me. I think I really felt it was something that was important for farm families and businesses rather than in my own life.
However just recently, the vital importance of a succession plan for all businesses and organizations was bought home to me. In my involvement with the fire brigade, we have seen our Captain retire after some 40 years in that role. Almost at the same time our senior Deputy Captain retired on medical grounds.
These departures have had a profound change on the make up, and the atmosphere amongst the crew. The question of succession had never truly been openly discussed. While we knew retirements were coming, there was no clear plan as to how leadership would be handed over.
There were a lot of assumptions. A big assumption was I might have been appointed to lead the team. I know I made that assumption. There were assumptions that other long serving members would then be appointed to the deputy positions.
When it came down to it, none of those assumptions played out at all! It turned out not everyone shared the general assumptions. Other members wanted their opportunity to use their skills, or to strive for more responsibility. And that is not necessarily a bad thing! Opportunities do come and its important to grab the chance when it appears.
However this process highlighted some real issues that I reckon exist in any organsiation, business or family. The first is that assumptions can’t be relied on. You have no idea what could be around the corner for you or any one else!
Secondly, I’ve learnt we all have different motivations and desires. Just because groups of people all work together, it doesn’t mean they all want the same thing. If you don’t know what your family members, your partners or even the staff within your business want for their future, you could suddenly find your comfortable assumptions are completely wrong.
I found myself wrong footed in this experience. My assumptions about succession and my role in the organsiation were completely wrong. I also discovered that people had different motivations and expectations about their positions and the contributions they wanted to make to my own.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But I wish now I had of known that before embarking on a process that ended up being, quite frankly, suprising, disappointing and painful!
I’ve also wondered about when do we actually hand leadership over. I saw a very interesting article this week that said only 49% of mid west farmers in the US have actually identified a successor. Around 15% have no intention of retiring. The Australian figures aren’t much different. Only 54% of farm businesses have a formal plan.
My own experience isn’t really that different. There was no formal plan to follow when the leader of the crew decided to retire. For the past 10 years retirement had been mentioned, but no one was game to talk about handing the leadership to another person before retirement. No one had factored into their assumptions what would happen the chosen successor became ill, or didn’t actually want the role. And no one was really prepared for younger members to want their contribution to be greater.
The experience I’ve been through has shown that apparently stable organsiations are actually quite brittle. The stress of change combined with the transitions of leadership, leave people feeling everything from resentment and anger to, acceptance or apathy. Some people may never get over the change.
So if this can happen in an organisition with a formal structure, how much more difficult will it be in your farm or your business? How great will the pain, anger, frustration be if the assumptions your family have found comfort in for years actually turn out to be completely wrong? I can’t imagine it.
I don’t think a succession plan means you are being forced out or into retirement! It means you need to work with your family or your team to plan what is best for you all. To forget the assumptions and be honest and respectful of each others, needs, wants, desires and motivations. I know that isn’t going to be a necessarily an easy process. But, you can believe me, it might help avoid the painful shock when the assumptions all break when change does come.
You don’t have to do this on your own either. There are some very understanding, professional people who can help you, your family and your business develop the right plan. If you do anything this week, its at least start the conversation with the family. Investigate the services of an advisor.
Don’t neglect this one!
After all we are all working to build and grow something together. You don’t want it ruined because there was no plan for the next phase!
I think pregnancy testing is one of the most powerful insights you can have into your breeding herd. I’ve been offering pregnancy testing for the past four years. In that time I’ve come to look at pregnancy testing as not just a service that I can offer. I’ve come to value and appreciate the opportunity testing offers to evaluate a lot of management strategies in each herd I visit.
So why preg test in the first place?
I do have producers who tell me they don’t need to preg test. The reasons vary. Some people won’t because the think its too expensive. Others because they feel their fertility levels are spot on and pregnancy testing wont do much to change their fertility. I’ve also had other people tell me they are yet to be convinced in the need to test.
So lets think about the reason why you would test. At the very basic level, pregnancy testing allows you to determine the number of calves you expect to be born each year. The profit of any beef herd is driven by the kilograms of beef produced per hectare. Having live calves on the ground to grow and sell directly influences profit.
Unlike a sheep flock where the ewe will grow a fleece that can at the least offset, and hopefully exceed the costs associated with her management and maintenance each year, you cant shear a cow! You can’t cover her costs in any other way unless you sell her or she produces a calf to grow and sell.
In my mind the first reason to test is to make plans based on the number of calves you expect. It also lets you assess the cows that are not contributing to the productivity and profitability of the business. The ones that are not pregnant and will consume feed that really should be offered to the productive females first!
So what about these excuses not to test? The first is that it’s too expensive. I know my testing rates per head are less than a cup of coffee. For that price you receive information that allows you to plan the year ahead, and to save a lot of feed on non-productive females.
I actually calculated a price to feed non-pregnant females recently using some oats and hay. Based on the NSW DPI Drought Feed Calculator, I worked out the cost of feeding a cow and calf. The results were really interesting.
Basically a 550kg cow with a calf at foot would eat 9.68kg of Dry matter a day. Based on the cost of grain and hay, this would cost you $2.16 / day or $65.00 a month. So in my head, spending less than $4.00 would allow you to save the cost of feeding a non-productive female.
More tellingly, you could choose to feed that non-productive female and sell her into the market at a slightly higher value. Either way, I reckon it’s still pretty cheap to test and a better way of making a decision than waiting until calving and seeing how many calves are on the ground.
What about the people who think their fertility is spot on?
I saw an interesting slide yesterday from another consultant. It said, 80% of farmers think they are in the top 20% for production. That may be true. Having tested a lot of cows now, I know that many people overestimate their fertility levels.
In my mind, fertility isn’t just cows in calf. It’s also about knowing when your cows went into calf.
Productive and profitable cows are cows that can repeatedly conceive, calve and rear a calf every 12 months. In practical terms this can be hard to achieve. With a cow’s pregnancy lasting for 282 days, it takes a cow in average condition around 40 days to return to oestrus. So there are really only about 2 heat cycles left in the year to go back in calf.
You can select for females that are more fertile. Basically by selecting the ones that go into calf earlier in the joining cycle. This not only means you hit the target of a calf every 12 months. It also means that her calves are born earlier, and will be heavier at weaning and at sale time. It also means your replacement females will be heavier at joining and more likely to go into calf and successfully rejoin next time around.
I reckon the opportunity to make these decisions and evaluate each cow on its fertility is incredibly powerful. Personally I love the opportunity to collect this data and talk at the crush about the options for management of dry cows, which heifers to select as replacements, and to discuss herd health strategies. In fact the chance to do this in the yards as the cows come through shapes and focuses many management decisions for the remainder of the year.
For me, the next two months will see me in yards all over NSW testing cows and planning to use the results to make some more money. If you are still tying to decide if you should test, all I can say is that one test is much cheaper and more powerful than a cup of coffee!!
Recently I judged a local shows commercial and stud cattle sections. I really enjoyed the chance to look at a range of cattle and to provide some comments about the animals I assessed. However on reading through the report of my judging in one of the major rural papers, I’m not sure my comments were heard as clearly as I thought I had made them!
If you believe the report, my judging was influenced as much by the recent hot, dry summer as anything else. This had apparently caused my to lean more towards Bos Indicus cattle than British breeds. Well if only it was that simple!
I can confidently say that weather doesn’t influence my judging or indeed change the criteria have in my mind for cattle! Climate and environment or the other hand, do play a role. I think a lot about suitability of a breed to an environment. But its not the first thing I think of!
I assess cattle for three key attributes. The first is that they must be structurally sound. When I talk about structure I am referring to the skeletal system of the animal; as well as other physical traits.
So first off, I look at the way the animal walks. If an animal can place its feet in line with each other, with no over stepping or under stepping by the hind feet, then I start to feel the structure of the legs, hips, and shoulders are acceptable. I then like to look at how the animal stands, and I have another look at the angel of the shoulders, and the way it stands with its hind feet and legs in a normal standing position.
Its then that I have a chance to decide if the animal is standing too low on its hind feet, or two high. Both of these are a result of legs that are either curved or too straight, and its something I may not have noticed when I was watching it walk. I also want to see if the hocks are bowed in outwards or inwards.
What I really want to determine is how sound is the animals feet legs and shoulders? Can it walk a long distance each day to graze and water, and will it be able to carry the weight of its body without causing it to have sore joints that could lead to swelling, lameness or arthritis.
I reckon these traits are important for the longevity of animals within your herd and contribute directly to your overall profitability. If you have cows that can conceive, calve and wean a calf every year that is the first part of profit. The second is to have cows that can do this up to 10 years old.
When I run the figures on herd profits, those that have cows that are fertile and staying in the herd because they can get about, look after themselves and a calf have a higher profit margin. That’s often because they are selling a few more surplus heifers, and the heifers they do retain for breeding are the select group of genetically and physically better heifers.
As part of my structural assessment I look closely at teats and the udder to make sure that the quarters are all even and the teats are well shaped to support a calf sucking. I also want to see that all four teats can be used and not left un-milked as this can contribute to mastitis, which is pretty painful for a cow and will result in lower productivity.
When I’m happy with structure I look for the traits that add to productivity and profitability. We are breeding cattle to produce red meat, so I will always select for muscle. I look at the shape of the animals, the width depth and length of each animal to determine its overall muscle volume. You can have muscle in females, and it wont reduce your fertility. So I select for it.
I also like to think about maturity pattern and frame size. Large frame later maturity females will naturally require more feed to achieve their body requirements for maintenance, let alone for reproduction and growth. Remember you can only grow so much pasture or put out so many supplements.
And if you want your animals to do well, you need to feed them properly. Large frame later maturity animals may mean you run less numbers in your herd, and so may impact on the total number of kilograms of beef you produce each year.
Whenever I assess cattle, temperament is my other key trait. I like cattle to have a quiet temperament. Aggressive or overly excitable cattle are both dangerous and less productive; due to the impact temperament has on eating quality.
Ideally, my preferred animals are those that are structurally sound, well grown, well-muscled females. I prefer them to be moderate maturity and quiet temperament.
Ultimately I prefer them to suit the country and environment and to suit their target markets in both size and breed.
If I can help my clients have a breeding herd like that, I’m very happy. And when I’m judging I’ll always try and select those females first, regardless of the weather on the day!
Do you consider yourself an efficient beef producer? I guess that is a challenging question for a lot of producers. Having worked with hundreds of producers for almost 25 years, I have to say there is a huge range between producers’ levels of efficiency and profitability.
I’m also certain that there some people thinking about that question, and wondering what do I mean by efficient? One of the best definitions of efficiency I’ve come across is “a system achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense”.
In beef production terms I guess the word efficiency relates to the levels of production achieved compared to how much input goes into the system. This could be measured against production per cow, kilograms of beef per hectare and the cost to produce one kilogram of beef.
In early January 2017, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) released the Global Benchmarking Results for Beef producers. Its an excellent report, and has given me lots to think about. I’ve also seen it reported on in several of the rural media outlets. Now depending which site you read, this report is both full of good news for Australian beef producers, and at the same time has plenty of bad news.
The good news is that Australian beef production is considered to be an efficient beef producing nation with a low cost of production. The downside? Well Australia is seen as having a moderate to low level of calf weaning weight and lower cow herd productivity. We are also seen as achieving moderate to high weight gains in southern systems and low gains in the northern extensive systems.
I reckon that it’s easy to just take these reports and look only at the good news. Yes we are an efficient producer of beef. However take some time to read through the report. There is a big variation in key indicators of efficiency. A good example is weaning rates (calves per 100 cows). In general southern systems record weaning rates of around 90% and northern systems much lower at 50 -80%.
Having said that, not all southern systems are running herds with their weaning rates. The key measure is calves weaned per 100 cows. I know plenty of herds with much lower rates. There are herds with weaning rates that range from 78% to 88%. So somewhere along the line 12 to 22 cows in every hundred are not rearing a calf to weaning.
If that is the case what happened to the calf? Did the cow conceive? Did she lose the calf before calving, at calving or somewhere between calving and weaning? Increasing calves born per cow makes a dramatic difference to the overall profitability of any breeding business, so its worth looking at your records to see how well you are doing.
I was also interested to look at the measure of total live weight produced per cow. According to the report, the global range is between 100 - 480kgs produced per cow per year. The Australian systems fall in the middle, with ranges from 210 – 340kg. How many kilograms produced per cow per year is the result of may factors, from the genetics you use, the maturity pattern of your cows, the nutritional system you provide and the fertility of your herd.
I reckon these reports are incredibly valuable if you are prepared to look beyond the good news headlines! I’ve just picked two areas that producers can look at in their own systems and decide if they are really as efficient as they could be.
Don’t just accept the blanket statement that Australian beef producers are some of the most efficient in the world. Spend the time to think about your own system. If you can push yourself to get maximum return for the efforts you are putting in, you might be surprised how much more productive and profitable your business can be.
If you don’t know where to start looking, then why not give me a call? I’m happy to have a look at what you’re doing. I reckon we could come up with a few easy ways for you to become a more efficient beef producer.
One of the more rewarding jobs I’m asked to undertake for producers is to select their replacement females. The rewards for this job come in various ways. Firstly it’s great to be trusted to make decisions that will impact on the long-term direction of a herd. Secondly, I find a great deal of satisfaction in participating in a process that has a direct impact on the financial returns from a breeding herd, not to mention influencing the overall productivity of that herd.
I’m often surprised in the way many producers approach selection. I often encounter herds that have only one criteria for selection, which is that cows must have a calf every year. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with this criteria. But that’s only one area to consider.
So what should you consider during selection?
Structural soundness is fundamental in a herd. The ability of your cattle to walk and forage directly impacts on their individual performance and on your herd’s productivity. Cattle that have poor leg structure suffer from arthritis; are prone to lameness and find walking distances to access feed and water more difficult, especially as they get older.
The flow on effect of this is a reduction in the ability of individual cows to meet their feed demands for maintenance, growth and production. Cows with a lower condition score at calving take longer to start cycling again. A late cycle puts the cow further behind in calving, and this cascades to a point where she may have only cycled once in the 12 week joining period.
Her ability to deliver a calf unassisted is also impacted on by structure. The angle between her pins and hips has a direct influence on calving ease, as does the width between her pins.
Teat size and udder structure are also important in the structural assessment process. Achieving the genetic potential of your calves to gain weight to weaning is greatly dependent on the cows milk supply. Poor udder attachment, badly sized teats are common causes of everything from poor suckling to mastitis and reduced milk production.
Maturity pattern should be a focus in selection. In the back of your mind you need to consider if the cattle you are producing will have the right level of fatness for your target markets. But you also need to think about the cows and their energy demands. Larger framed, later maturity cows require more feed, and if you don’t have the feed to met those demands you will either have lower fertility levels, or you will have to run less cows.
It’s equally important to have an even group of cows. Evenness will help you manage feed supply to your cows more effectively. You will find the process of managing joining and calving more efficient than if you are trying to juggle the different needs of big and little cows.
Lets not forget that having a range of cow sizes will also mean a range of weaner sizes. If you are trying to manage for a drought, not to mention hit a specific turn off time or weight, various sized weaners will cause you no end of headaches.
The Other Traits
Temperament is one of the most important traits to select for. I really don’t like cranky cows, flighty cows, or those cows you just can’t trust! Selecting out the quieter, less nervous cattle will improve your handling experiences, for both you and your cattle!
And never forget that quiet cattle produce a quieter calf. This in turn that is directly related to their eventual eating quality.
I also use the time to select for those cattle that have the traits that add value to your turn off. I try and select cattle that have superior growth for age (within the maturity pattern suitable for the area), and for cattle that display a higher degree of muscularity.
Can you put a price on it?
Its actually not that hard to put a price on the benefits of improved selection. Not so long ago I ran a comparison on a clients herd. I looked at the impact selection had when we changed operations to keep cows in the herd for 2 more years, and to tighten calving from 16 weeks to 12 weeks.
Focusing on an early maturity pattern did help us tighten joining. We also managed nutrition more effectively during joining so that the cows were on a rising plane of nutrition.
These changes impacted a number of areas across the herd. It changed the number of replacement heifers we were keeping, changed the age structure slightly in the cow herd, and changed the value of the weaners being sold. The value story was interesting as this was the influence of having a greater number of cattle at a similar age and weight, rather than smaller numbers across a couple of different weight categories.
When we I ran the numbers I found we had actually increased the gross margin by 19%! That was a huge lift in productivity and profitability, and we really hadn’t done anything other than change some selection criteria.
Now this was a pretty big shift, and I reckon not everyone will get a huge lift. Although there are gains to be made trough the sale of more surplus females, tightened joining, improved time management and so on.
Ultimately I reckon it proves that focusing on these traits is financially worth doing. And as someone who enjoys doing this work, I’ll always be happy to come and do it for breeders. Its one job I know more than pays for itself!
As food producers do you connect with the broader community? I know many farmers, and for that matter, people in country Australia feel there is a disconnection between the farm and the plate.
In some ways there is a huge disconnection. Society as a whole has changed so rapidly that we are all grappling with the challenges in our daily lives. People have moved closer to large centers for work. Increased mechanization and efficiencies on farms mean less people have direct jobs in agriculture. So somewhere along the way a gap has opened between the farm and the people.
While we often talk about this disconnect, I reckon we often overlook there is a deep interest and support from the broader community for farming. In my work I’m often asked to speak about farming to the broader community. I always come away feeling there is a deep desire to understand more about farming, its challenges, its rewards, and more importantly I sense a real value for farming among the people I talk to.
One of the more important roles of the Sydney Royal Easter Show is to showcase agriculture to the broader urban communities. The livestock pavilions and the district exhibits are consistently rated as the most important attractions to the public.
So, as a farming community or as an individual producer, how can we connect to our consumers and meet their interest in our business? I guess there are plenty of ways that we do this. I did mention our traditional activities such as the Easter Show. But its just as important to see the local show as part of this connection.
Increasingly I see farmers sharing their stories through social media. There are Facebook pages, twitter accounts, and Instagram posts showing the variety of a day in Australian agriculture. I personally enjoy the blogs from the contributors from Central Station.
These are great ways of sharing stories. However I think the next step will be to show our skills as producers and business operators. I think this may happen through the connection of our farm data with other data sources.
If you think of the demand for traceability and food safety, there is a great story for us to share. The challenge is to link our on farm QA records with our industry systems like the NVD system and with processor information and present it to the consumer as a whole of life story.
This week a company called Aglive (www.aglive.com) showed me their progress in linking our on farm data with industry QA systems and processor information. I have to say I think systems like these will be part of how we connect with our consumers. True I think they will still want to see our stock at the show, read our stories and see our pictures on line. However I reckon these connections will become stronger as they start to see the things we do on farm with the data we capture being used to sow how clean and safe our food systems are.
I think the next few years will be pretty exciting, and hopefully see a narrowing of the gap between farms and consumers as we share what we do in new and engaging ways.
- Are you feeding enough?
- Have you really considered what you are feeding?
- Dont rush to judge during this drought
- Critical decisions for your cows
- Some drought feeding tips
- Using fat scores on farm
- What’s the point of recording that?
- How do you prioritise risk?
- Water has no nutritional value!
- Profit - is it a numbers game?
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