Rayner Reckons

Aug 13

Producing Optimal Carcasses

Posted on Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What does it take to produce an optimal carcass?  This is a question that producers often ask.  While there are a number of things we can do as livestock managers, I think the first step it to actually define what an optimal carcass means. 

In my mind, an optimal carcass is one that meets the target specifications for weight; fatness, eating quality – MSA Index and has a high yield of saleable meat. I also think this is something that producers need to do consistently, and do so with the most efficient use of resources.  There are a few steps I think producers focused on optimal carcass production need to consider.

  1. Clearly define the breeding objectives for your herd.  I’ve often talked and written about the importance of defined breeding objectives.  The reason being, these objectives define the type of genetics you need to use to meet your market and to breed cattle suited to your program.                                 
  2. Know what you are actually trying to achieve!  Markets are well defined for weight, fatness, and eating quality.  If you know what these specifications are, you can start to plan on the process of growing to meet these.  Specifications are readily available from processors and from feedlots.  So you need to get in touch or at least look at the specifications on company web sites and choose realistic options for your program.
  3. Focus on what your can control.  There are three key areas you control as a producer.  These are:
  • Maturity pattern:  This determines the ability of your animals to meet specifications.  It also impacts on productions traits such as fertility, so you need to consider both aspects in order to be productive and profitable.
  • Growth rate:  Your ability to choose the correct genetics, and to manage nutrition to express those genetics, has a massive impact on optimal production.  Using EBVs and feedback from previous sales can help you fine tune growth rates.  But you still need to manage pastures, crops and supplements to make that growth happen.

Finally, you need to manage the way you finish and sell animals:  The final stage of production, selling and transport can derail your program.  Stress, poor handling or other factors can impact on your eating quality index and cause you to miss the optimal.  So this final stage should be managed as carefully as your genetic decisions or feeding programs. 

Managing Growth

A large part of optimal carcass production is the management of growth of animals.  This actually starts with your choice of genetics.  The ability to select for growth using EBVs is an opportunity you shouldn’t overlook.  It’s well proven by many research and commercial trials that, EBVs do work and can be a very effective tool for producers.  

However, genetic potential can and is often limited by nutrition.  Growth is a function of the daily intake of energy and protein.  Ensuring your cattle have sufficient to maintain growth paths is the practical aspect of management.  

The CRC for Beef Cattle highlighted the impact growth paths have on carcass yield, fatness and eating quality.  The research showed quite markedly that slow pre weaning growth resulted in cattle that were smaller than normally grown cattle.  

However these slower grown cattle never catch up in weight, even in feedlot conditions.  The simple message being that to meet carcass weights, these cattle had to be grown longer, and this ran the risk of impacting carcass fat specifications or lowering MSA Index values.  Either way, slow pre weaning growth is not ideal

Slow post weaning growth was also researched.  It was found that slower than the optimal 0.7kg / day resulted in cattle that grow faster in finishing programs.  They tended to be a bit leaner and have less marbling.  So if this is an issue for your markets, this may also be a path to avoid.  

The CRC data really suggests we aim for 0.7kd / day for animals up to feedlot entry.  To do this, you should remember that your cattle will need to eat at least 3 – 3.5% of their live weight on a Dry Matter basis each day.  Ideally this feed would have a minimum of: 

  • Energy 10.5MJ / Kg 
  • Crude Protein 14% 
  • Fibre 30 – 40% NDF

A simple rule to remember is that the faster your cattle grow, the fatter (and slightly more muscular) they will be.

Eating Quality

There are many factors that have an impact on MSA Index values.  As producers, its important to focus on the ones that have a high impact and are controllable on farm.  High impact variables include Marbling and Ossification. 

Your genetic selection and nutritional management will influence your animal’s ability to develop marbling.  It’s a trait worth considering if this can be selected for without compromising your other production traits.  Ossification, can be improved by growth rates and achieving higher weight for age. Again it’s important to balance this with other traits that matter to you, like carcass fatness and marbling.

The amount of Tropical Breed Content will impact on your MSA Index.  But you need to be realistic. If your environment is nest suited to Indicus cattle, then you should use that to your advantage. You can still select for growth, marbling and fatness and achieve MSA Index scores that are quite high if you manage these traits well.

How you sell your animals also has a huge impact on your ability to meet optimum carcass specifications, particularly for eating quality.  The work done by MSA highlights the impact that sale yard stress and handling has on eating quality.  Cattle sold through saleyards have MSA Indexes that are 5 units lower than those sold direct to processors.

Summary

Producing optimal carcasses does require some serious attention across genetics, nutrition, and turn off.  More importantly, if you don’t have a clear idea of what your optimal carcass requirements are, and utilize past feedback to fine-tune your program, you’ll find it a much harder challenge.  Having some clear objectives and using the tools that are now available is the key starting point for anyone determined to consistently hit their targets.  

It’s important to remember that if you are not entirely sure where to start, to seek advice or help to define your goals.  Its one of the services I’ve been delivering over recent years, and it's certainly something you may want to consider in your program.

Jul 04

Are you properly prepared to buy a new bull?

Posted on Thursday, July 04, 2019

Purchasing new bulls for a program is a significant event for any producer. While many people consider the immediate cost of the bull to be the most pressing consideration, there is much more to consider than his actual cost!  A bull will make a contribution to a herd that will extend for up to 15 years. So the lifetime cost of that bull in a herd is much greater than what you may pay at auction.

I spend a lot of time with producers looking at bulls before sales.  I’m often conscious that a large number of people I chat to have only a general idea of the characteristics of the bull that they want. As I wrote earlier, the question “what do I think of this bull?” is a hard one to answer. As we approach the spring bull selling season I’ve prepared a few suggestions to help producers prepare ahead of their next bull purchase.
  1. Know what you want to achieve in your herd
A new bull should be the source of genetics to help move your herd closer to your goals.  So you need to be very clear on what you want to achieve.  I’d normally start by considering:
  • Your current market – are your steers and heifers meeting the weight, fat and eating quality specifications?
  • Your environment – are your cows the size that suits your pasture growth patterns throughout the year
  • Is your herd fertility as high as it can be? Are your cows going into calf early, delivering calves easily and rearing those calves to weaning?  
  • Are there traits you would like to improve further or correct with genetics?
These are four key questions you should be focusing on as part of your business planning anyway.  In terms of seeking a new bull, the answers to these questions will give you a focus on the traits you should be seeking. It’s equally important not to rush this process!  You really need to take some time and review the market feedback you have, your fertility data and your paddock notes to see why you have been culling certain females from the herd.

2.  Search for bulls well before the sale

If you have identified the traits of bulls that you want bring into your herd, you should start doing some preliminary searching.  There are various ways to do this.  
  • Use breed websites to search for bulls with specific EBVs that meet you criteria.  This can be useful, however it may mean you need to do some additional searching to find the bulls you have identified with a particular breeder. 
  • I use on line sale catalogues available through the breed websites.  This option will bring up the bulls listed at your chosen breeders sale.  The easiest way to find the bulls that suit your criteria is to click on the option that asks if you would like to link to Breed Object. This will bring up the bulls with their EBVs and Index values, which makes searching much easier.
3.  Use the Indexes
Indexes were developed to help make selection easier in a couple of ways. The first is to remember that Indexes are developed to reflect both the short-term profit that would come from using a bull through his actual progeny.  While longer term profit is the influence his daughter have on a herd. The Indexes combine the animals EBVs for their impact on the traits that impact on a specific production and market system. 
I pe
rsonally tend to find the Index that best suits a program and look at the top 5 bulls in the catalogue.  If you need to adjust a trait for a reason, one that you have identified earlier, you can then go and fine tune your selection on specific EBVs.


4.  Talk to the Breeder Breeders have an interest in helping their clients. However you also need to make sure that the breeder you are approaching has the same focus or direction you have. Ultimately you have to be confident you are buying bulls from an operation that has the same focus and scrutiny you have for your own herd.  You need to do this well in advance of a sale.  Trying to make that decision on sale day is never a good idea!

5.  Have a physical checklist for sale day

I’ve been to hundreds of bull sales.  I know that some people find them exciting and a great day out. Some people find them over whelming and get swamped by the event. You need to go to a sale with plenty of time and a mission.  In short you need to: 
  • Arrive early and spend as much time as you need looking at your chosen bulls.  Don’t worry about the other bulls in the pen, or what other people like or don’t like! Your herd is your concern and the bulls you’ve identified are the ones that meet your objectives.
  • Look at those bulls and have a checklist.  Are the bulls structurally sound?  Do they reflect your maturity pattern?  What is their temperament like?  Do they have the muscle pattern you need?  
Ultimately you need to use your research and stick to the chosen selection. These bulls are those that fit your needs.  Don’t agonise about who is better in one trait but not another.  If they are all bulls that are in your specifications, rank them in preference, but then treat them the same!  Then in the pens use your observations to chose the best on the physical traits that you want.   If you do that you’ll have a preference list.  These and only these are the bulls you need to bid on! 

If you do this properly you’ll have time to enjoy the steak sandwich and the social catch up!  You’ll also find that when you ask me ‘what do I think of this bull?” I’ll be able to have a much more useful conversation with you!

Jan 08

Understanding your feed test results

Posted on Tuesday, January 08, 2019

How good is the feed you are offering to your livestock?  I think this is a tricky question to ask.  I know that in 90% of the instances that I’ve asked a farmer this question, their response is generally “Oh its pretty good!” Sometimes the qualification is offered that someone they knew grew it, or that it cost a lot to buy!


Unfortunately cost isn’t actually an indicator of the feed value! 

 

Feed value is actually determined by levels of energy; crude protein; digestibility, fibre and the amount of moisture contained in the feed.  All these components contribute to the usefulness a particular feed has in meeting animals nutritional needs as well as impacting on the amount the animal can physically consume each day.

 

It’s actually pretty difficult to tell any of these things from a visual inspection.  And while looking at a hay, or silage you might be able to have a guess it the digestibility of the plant when it was cut and the general moisture content, its only ever going to be a guess.  

 

Over the past few months, many people have been full feeding their animals as the drought restricts paddock feed.  A lot of these rations have been well planned and meet the various needs of the stock.  However there are still plenty of rations put together on the basis of guess work!  And by guessing some classes of stock are being underfed.

 

Obtaining a feed test is the most reliable way to determine the value of a feed. Its also is essential if you want to develop a ration that actually meets the needs of your stock.

 

Feed tests kits can be obtained through private companies or state departments of agriculture.  Pretty much any feed can be tested.  The kits will provide instructions regarding the amount you nee to collect to send away. 

 

There are various levels of testing that you can request.  For most situations, a standard evaluation is enough to give you the information that will help you know how useful your feed really is.

 

The things I look for include the following key components:

 

DRY MATTER (DM):  All feeds contain some amount of moisture.  This moisture has no nutritional value.  When you prepare a ration, you need to allow for the water in the feed, and in many cases you will actually have to increase the physical or ‘as fed’ amount per animal to account for the moisture.  If you don’t, your rations may end up being lower than what your stock need each day.  Over a period of time, this can lead to significant underfeeding!

 

DRY MATTER DIGESTIBILITY:  This explains as a percentage, how much of a feed your animals will be able to digest. Digestibility and energy are positively related, so having high levels of digestibility not only means your animals can use more of a feed, it also means that the energy levels of the feed are at a level that will meet their needs. 

 

DRY ORGANIC MATTER DIGESTIBILITY:  A further measure of digestibility is made on the organic matter of the feed.  It is expressed as a percentage and again the higher the percentage, the higher value of the feed for animal production. 

 

CRUDE PROTEIN:  Crude Protein is expressed as a % of the Dry Matter.  Crude Protein is essential for rumen function.  Low levels will reduce the ability of a rumen population to effectively use a feed.  For maintenance cattle require Crude Protein to be a minimum of 8%.  Lower values may mean that you will need to add a protein source to your ration.

 

FIBRE:  Fibre is an important part of a diet.  Low levels of fibre can lead to digestive upsets.  More commonly, in rations I’ve seen recently, fibre is often very high. High fibre not only lowers digestibility (and energy) but it will also reduce the amount of feed an animal will actually eat.  

 

Fibre is measured by either; Acid Detergent Fibre (ADF) or Neutral Detergent Fibre (NDF). Acid Detergent Fibre (ADF) is a measurement of cellulose and lignin while 
Neutral Detergent Fibre (NDF)is a measurement of hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin.  Its possible to calculate how much of a feedstuff will be consumed by an animal by dividing 120 by the NDF.  

 

Lower NDF figures will see your animals eat more, and so potentially achieve their needs more easily each day.

 

METABOLISABLE ENERGY (ME): The energy that an animal can actually use in its daily needs is refereed to as Metabolisable Energy (ME).  It is expressed as Megajoules (MJ ME / kg of Dry matter).  To maintain cattle the ME of a feed must be at least 8MJ.  If a feed is below this level, you will need to add an energy source in order to achieve your stock requirements.

 

Knowing the levels of nutrient in your feed places you in a pretty powerful position!  This knowledge will determine if the feed is suitable for the stock you are planning on feeding.  


It will also help you determine the amount you need to feed. This information not only allows you to manage your animals more effectively.  


It also means you will be using your feed more efficiently and getting the best return on the money you’ve spent to purchase it and feed it out!


Don't forget, you don't have to work these things out on your own.  I'm always available to assist you with your feed tests, developing your rations or helping plan your strategies.  If you want a hand, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me!

Jun 13

Some drought feeding tips

Posted on Wednesday, June 13, 2018

When I was commencing my agricultural degree, one of the subjects we were required to study was agricultural paradox.  The best description I have seen of a paradox involves contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time.  I guess we see that a lot in agriculture.  Situations that are incredibly important for one sector of the industry are detrimental to another. 

I think drought feeding is a paradox that many producers are grappling with right now.  In the first instance the greatest challenge for most producers who have chosen to feed stock is affording and sourcing feed in sufficient quantities for their stock.  There’s no doubt this is a huge challenge and an increasingly difficult one.

On the other hand, I think full hand feeding is much less complicated than supplementary feeding to address quality gaps.

Why do I think it is less complicated?  Supplementary feeding involves addressing a specific deficiency in pasture.  Generally it’s about “topping up” protein to stimulate rumen activity. This leads to increased intake and may require a ration readjustment to add in energy as feed is consumed.  To carry out a supplementary feeding program effectively requires constant monitoring and adjustment to meet changes in pasture and livestock needs and matching those to feed suitability. 

Drought feeding, or full hand feeding is less complicated in many ways as the focus is on providing a complete ration.  So the choice is really down to providing energy for daily animal needs, balanced with protein to ensure adequate rumen function.  When there is no pasture left, full hand feeding can focus entirely on these issues and it is much more straightforward to manage.

Most of my work in the last month has been to provide advice to producers who are now implementing full drought feeding.  There are a few common themes emerging that are important to share.

  • Full feeding is about energy first.  Energy has to be balanced with protein.  Feeds should be chosen on the basis of energy.  The more energy described as Metabolisable Energy (ME) per kilogram of feed the more efficient it will be to feed livestock.
  • Protein supplements such as dry licks; blocks and roller drums are not designed for drought feeding.  These products are designed to provide protein in situations of abundant dry feed.  Quite simply these products can’t provide the energy your stock need each day.  If there is little or no paddock feed then you are wasting money
  • Feed should be compared on ME / kg / Dry Matter.  Not all feeds are the same.  If you are feeding products with low ME values, or low Dry Matter  (DM) values, you will have to provide higher total daily amounts to achieve the same outcome compared to higher ME valued feeds or feeds with different DM levels.
  • Test all feeds before you use them!  Feed values vary enormously. A feed test is a very quick way to check the energy levels, protein levels and fibre of a product.  All of these will determine how much you need to provide to each animal.  Never assume that something is the same as the last load!  And don’t rely on your nose or fingers!  I don’t think its possible to smell energy or protein!
  • Don’t guess how much to feed!  There are easy ways to determine how much your animals need to eat every day.  If you want help please ask me, or your own advisor.  Make your calculations on those amounts.   Then weigh out that amount so you know.  A shovel full varies from place to place!!  And don’t get me started on a bucket size!  If you are going to feed at least be accurate.
  • Check your feed choice is actually suitable for your stock!  I’ve seen recommendations lately from some sources that are incorrect and could lead to animal deaths.  There are well-published guides on feeding animals products that range from grain, to hay, silage and white cottonseed.  If you haven’t used a product before, do some homework.
  • Get advice from qualified experts.  Not everyone really knows how to feed stock.  What was acceptable in the drought of the 1960s may no longer be relevant, safe or even available now! 
  • Lastly don’t waste your feed!  I’ve seen paddocks where stock have been fed hay and cattle and sheep are trampling on it, sleeping on it and covering it with dung.  We know this level of waste can be about 30 – 35% of your daily feeding amount.  So can you really afford to waste that much feed?

Droughts test your resilience and it’s important that you make sure to stop and reassess your position.  Good plans need reevaluation.  While drought feeding is straight forward, you need to check your feeds and amounts are correct for your stock.  This is vital as animals go through production changes such as calving or when the season changes.  Wet cold winter weather can have a huge impact and you need to be prepared.

Finally, if you think you need some advice, don’t hesitate to ask for it.  I’ve been working with producers across NSW and into QLD over recent months. So while I am out and about its very easy to for me to come and spend some time looking at what you are doing and then talk through ideas and offer some reassurance and the chance to make sure you are doing ok.  

Apr 07

What’s the point of recording that?

Posted on Saturday, April 07, 2018

This week I was tagged on Facebook under a comment regarding data collection.  The comment referred to a practice of recording the ratio of weaning weight against dam weight.  This is a comparison often used in the U.S. 

I have to be honest; my initial reaction was to be a bit surprised.  Not by being asked if it was a method I used or recommended.  Rather, my surprise stemmed from this data itself.

I’m not saying this data isn’t useful.  For some people I’m sure it could be a useful piece of data.  However, for me, and for most of my clients, its not the first thing I’d be looking at when I’m analyzing a business.

In previous blogs I’ve talked about focusing on the important traits within a herd, and on the importance of using data to drive innovation.  I’m still not sure that many producers are doing either of these as well as they could be.

I’m a very strong believer that making the most of your resources and investments to date is the first thing you should focus on.  Too often I see producers chasing fads, pursuing new options without ever realizing the potential of their current program. 

The only way you will ever realize your programs potential is to measure it and compare it over time.  The measurements have to be relevant!  There has to be a point in recording it. 

The point of recording is to establish where you are, and then to set some plans in place to maintain or improve your position.  So the whole point of recording is to focus on the resource you have! 

My second strong belief is you should always grab the big wins first!  To me, weaning ratio against mature cow weight isn’t a big win for most people.  Its something you may choose to focus on when you’ve ticked all the big-ticket items off.

So what are those big ticket items?  I know I’ve written about them before.  However for a breeding program they are:

  • Conception rate (number of cows pregnant / number joined x 100)
  • Weaning rate (number of calves weaned / number joined x 100) 

There is an important point to this.  Weaning rate isn’t the number of calves weaned from the total number of pregnant cows.  It’s against your total breeders joined.

There is an additional big ticket item, which is calving percentage (number of calves / number joined X 100).  Again it has to be measured against total joinings.

The point of this?  Well it helps you identify fertility rate in your herd.  It assists you to clarify calving losses and weaning losses against your total numbers. 

I’ve come across many issues that happen post preg testing. These range from mid term abortion losses to dystocia and predation.  Having data helped focus problem solving onto those issues that were costing the program in a big way.

My additional big ticket items?  Well I like to know the numbers of cows calving at the start, middle and end of a set calving period.  If the numbers indicate a trend towards the middle and end, that highlights a real risk that cows are going into calf late.  If it isn’t addressed, those cows run a risk of falling out of a 12 month calving interval. 

In turn that lets me ask about weaning weights and perhaps then I may start looking at ratios.  But by then I reckon we have gotten the big ticket items sorted, and now we can start selecting on individual performance. 

So my question to you is what’s the point of the data you’re collecting?  Is it able to be used to fix the big-ticket items?  Can you use it to maximize the resources and investments you have?  If it can’t, then maybe you need to re-evaluate your collection.  And if you think you have the big tickets sorted, now you might be ready to fine-tune your program further with more targeted individual data.

And if you’re not really sure and you want to have a fresh set of eyes have a look, maybe its time to give me a call and get the independent assessment your business needs!


Mar 07

How do you prioritise risk?

Posted on Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Its vey common to hear how much risk there is in agriculture.  I know I hear the phrase “farming is a risky business” fairly frequently.  To some degree that’s true.  There are risks with the weather and the markets.  There are risks associated with production from diseases and pests.  There are the risks working with machinery, animals and working in isolation. 

However choosing to focus on the negative side of risk is also a risk.  Choosing not to do something, simply as a reaction to a perceived level of risk might actually be the wrong thing to do for your business or for yourself.

Lets face it; risk is part of life! There are risks with everything we do.  The way we manage those risks depends on our experiences, our knowledge of similar or past events.  It includes an appreciation of the situation and a decision to way up the possible outcomes of that response.  So risk management is something we all do!

In day-to-day life making risk management decisions needs to happen in our head, and often quite quickly!  However for a business, making risk management decisions on the fly, often leads to missed opportunities or costly mistakes that time and money to correct.

So how do you look at risk?  How can you plan for risks and develop a business structure that is robust enough to respond to risk and capitalize on opportunities that often come along?

One of the tools I find most useful comes from the work health and safety industry.  Called a risk score calculator, its basically a way to plot the level of risk to an activity or an event.

The tool plots the Likelihood of something occurring.  

There are five levels, from Almost Certain to Rare.  

The way I use these levels is to look at the data I’ve collected on the business.  Has it happened before, is it happening often, does it happen all the time?  In my mind, that’s the whole point of collecting data!

The second step is to decide what are the consequences of an event happening?  Is it Catastrophic – which if you prefer is an easy way to say if this occurs will someone die, or will huge losses occur?  And then through Moderate to insignificant consequences. 

When you determine that level it’s fairly straightforward to decide if the risk you are considering is extreme, high, medium or low. 

Effectively using this tool helps you prioritize your actions and future plans.  Extreme risks are the ones you need to fix straight away.  

Quite simply you need to consider what can you change to lower that risk?  Is it a change to the way you operate?  Is it a physical change to infrastructure?  Does it require you to invest in skills and training?

Setting priorities is a huge part of risk management.  You can’t do everything at once!  And while there are always jobs to do, some of them are probably less important and can wait a while. 

I reckon the real value of using this tool comes from actually sitting down and having a rational and objective assessment of the situation.  As I said previously, your data will help you decide if the situation is likely to occur or not.  The consequences of the event help set its place on your list of priorities.

I’ve recently been working with a producer using this tool to evaluate the impact of weather extremes.  Their farm data shows clearly rainfall is coming in more intense events and the periods between rainfall is growing.  

The pasture data shows changes in growing days as well.  That data shows that it is likely they can no longer rely on certain species of temperate pastures to finish cattle for their traditional market. 

The consequence of that is major impact on the business.  The risk to that business is rated as High.  So we have been working to develop pastures that suit the changes recorded, with more sub tropical species introduced into the mix.  We have also started focusing on alternative markets so that cattle hit the specifications.

These are all big business changes.  But we are making them to respond to a clearly determined level of risk.  More importantly with my clients, we have a set of priorities to focus on.  In sitting down to discuss the ways to respond, we were able to look at opportunities and new directions before choosing the best option for this business.

It also highlights the importance of collecting good data.  I like using data to drive innovation on farm.  Responding to and lowering risk needs some innovative ideas!  If your data can’t help with those decisions, then you really do need to rethink how you are operating.

Over the next month I’m visiting several new clients to look at their programs and offer some advice.  One of my first questions will be how do you manage risk?  You can be sure we will go through this exercise and work up a few priorities! 

Don’t forget if you want a hand to help set your priority list in order or to look over the data you need, I’m always happy to come and ask the questions and get you going!


Feb 04

Profit - is it a numbers game?

Posted on Sunday, February 04, 2018

“How many cows should I be running?”  “Is a higher stocking rate more profitable than a medium stocking rate?”  Over the last few years, these are questions I’ve been asked on occasion.  Following my recent post on the basics profit drivers, a few people have approached me with similar questions.

These are questions producers have grappled with for a long time.  Where is the benchmark for profitable beef production?  First of all, what does it cost to produce a kilogram of beef in Australia?  The latest figures I’ve seen from ABARES suggest that in Southern Australia, the cost is around $1.74 and in Northern Australia it is $1.75

Looking a little further into the data, it becomes clear that herds with small numbers are much more impacted on by costs associated with production.  In southern Australia, herds with less than 100 head don’t produce enough beef to cover the costs associated with the business.  Herds over 200 head are slightly more marginal.  Often they break even because the business model relies on unpaid family labor!

Moving over 400 head is where the operations seem to start to become less marginal and more profitable.  In northern Australia, the figures seem to be similar, with herds around the 400 – 1600 mark relying on the unpaid labor to get through and over that 1600 mark the systems become more profitable.

There is no doubt that higher numbers have a key influence on profit.  It’s very hard to capture economies of scale with a small operation.  However, its important to look beyond the simple argument that more cows means more profits.  Increasing numbers needs to be considered fairly carefully. 

I have been looking at some work on the relationship between stocking rate and profitability conducted in Queensland.  These have been very interesting to read.  The studies have looked at the relationship between stocking rate and gross margin for growing enterprises and for breeding programs. 

The key findings from the studies include:

  • Increasing stocking rate does lead to an increase in production per hectare
  • However this increase is offset by lower production per head
  • There is a point where increased numbers will not increase production per hectare and may actually reduce production levels
  • Lower production levels per animal will lead to price reductions for fat or MSA compliance.  These often reduce any increase in gross margin achieved through the higher numbers.
  • Increased stocking rates increase the demand for supplements and lengthen the time period of drought feeding
  • Breeding herds tend to be less efficient with lower conception rates, lower weaning rates and lighter cull cow weights

From this work it appears that increasing stocking rates to high levels offers only short-term increases in profitability.  In my own experiences with producers who have pushed their stocking rates to high levels, it is a strategy that seems to increase risk to uncomfortable levels. 

By that I mean increasing the risk of seasonal conditions impacting more swiftly and to a greater degree.  Putting pastures under high stocking rates puts more pressure on plants and plant root systems.  Without a corresponding increase in fertilisers or plant nutrition, it doesn’t take long to see pastures become sparser, composition changes and animal performance decreases. 

The change in composition is a significant issue.  I have been working on the restoration of grazing properties in the south of NSW that have had a long history of high stocking rates and insufficient pasture nutrition.  Much of my work now is associated with programs to eliminate invasive weeds and replant desirable pasture species. 

Any increase in income from more animals has long been spent on worm control, supplementary feeds and now weed and pasture work. 

There is no doubt there are times when you need to manipulate stocking rates for specific outcomes.  I’ve recommended it with producers planning to renovate pastures, and we have used high levels to graze pastures right off in preparation for cultivation.  But that has been a short term management strategy.

I think the numbers discussion needs to be treated with some caution, and more importantly some realistic objectives.  I don’t think increasing numbers in the chase for more kilograms of beef per hectare is justified if it sees your animals struggle to meet production targets.

I can’t really justify the drop in conception rates for breeders or the drop in compliance rates for sale animals just to run a few more head.  So if you wanted to increase stocking rate and maintain high animal performance, you’ll most likely need to increase your fertilizer program, or your use of supplements or even both.  If it requires you to spend more to make that little bit more, is it really worth it?

When I am asked about the right number of animals, or what stocking rate to consider, I can’t give a definitive answer! What I can do is to work through the opportunities to use pastures efficiently and in a way that doesn’t compromise the long term viability of pastures, ensures high levels of animal production and doesn’t increase the ability to respond to changing seasonal conditions. 

So when you do look at stocking rate, take the time to look beyond the raw numbers.  If you are pushing stocking rate to the point where your animals are inefficient, or its costing you more in inputs than you are producing, you need to re-evaluate your program.  

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! 

Mar 07

Pregnancy testing - Less costly than a cup of coffee

Posted on Tuesday, March 07, 2017

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!!    

Jan 18

The financial rewards for cattle selection

Posted on Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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?

Structure

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

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!


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