During the various phases of the BETTER Farm NI programme, the farms that finish spring-born male calves as young bulls under 16 months of age have usually recorded the highest profit levels.
This has not happened by chance. Bull beef finishing, especially for spring-born animals, is a highly specialised system that needs to be fine-tuned to make the economics stack up.
Higher levels of concentrate feeding are required. With concentrates costing in the region of £240/t, animals must be performing throughout the housing period to cover finishing costs.
But under the right management, bulls are the most efficient cattle to finish. If the slaughter period is timed right, bulls can fill a short-term supply gap between the tail end of shed-finished animals and those slaughtered off grass.
Outlined are 10 steps to finishing spring-born bulls, which are commonplace on the programme farms.
1. Target finishing dates
In spring-calving herds, calves born during February, March and early April have been the most profitable animals to finish as young bulls.
These animals normally reach suitable finishing weights by May or June the following year at 14 to 15 months of age.
Late spring-born calves are less suited to finishing as bulls, as too much of the lifetime weight gain is from a concentrate diet.
Also, slaughter date is more likely to be in July, or even August, when there is a greater percentage of grass-finished cattle coming on the market.
2. Weight targets
Where bulls are destined for slaughter in May or June, bulls should weigh at least 500kg at the start of February.
Target finishing weight is around 680kg, which at a kill-out of 58% produces a carcase weight around 395kg.
Assuming bulls have an average daily gain of 1.5kg/day during the final intensive finishing period, taking a bull from 500kg to 680kg takes 120 days.
This means bulls averaging 500kg liveweight in early February will be ready for slaughter by early to mid-June.
3. High energy ration
As bulls move into the final finishing phase, getting adequate fat cover on animals will be the main priority.
Therefore, animals should be transitioned on to a high-energy ration around 13ME, with crude protein levels ideally around 13%. Higher protein levels will only encourage bulls to lay down lean muscle, rather than fat.
Choose a ration with 75% to 80% cereal content, primarily maize- and barley-based, as this will increase starch levels.
4. Building up to ad-lib levels
Bulls coming up on 12 months old are likely to be eating 5kg to 7kg/day of concentrate. So the move to ad-lib levels is not too big of a jump.
That said, animals should be moved on to ad-lib meal feeding in steps. Increase meal levels by 1kg/head every third to fourth day. Once animals are at ad-lib levels, keep troughs filled at all times.
If meal runs out and bulls are in a fasted state, build up to ad-lib levels again over the course of seven to 10 days to avoid rumen problems.
5. Using high-quality silage to cap concentrates
Feeding high-quality silage with a D-value exceeding 70% can help to limit concentrate intakes. High-quality silage has been used on the programme farms to cap concentrates between 8kg and 10kg/day during the final 100-day feeding period.
Silage should also have a dry matter above 30% to improve intakes. It must be kept fresh, so offer silage daily. Any uneaten silage can be removed and fed to stores.
When bulls move on to ad-lib meal feeding with a high cereal content, rumen fibre is crucial. Straw is an excellent source of long fibre in intensive finishing diets.
Again, fibre should be kept fresh to increase palatability and intakes. Do not feed straw that has mould.
7. Water provision
Bulls on a high-concentrate diet need a supply of fresh water at all times. Bulls can drink five to six litres of water for every 1kg of dry matter consumed.
A bull eating 10kg/day can drink close on 50l over a 24-hour period. Therefore, keep water troughs clean to encourage drinking activity.
If water intake is suppressed, concentrate intakes will be too and, ultimately, the level of liveweight gain.
8. Animal health
Make sure you are on top of animal health. Healthy bulls will be more likely to thrive. Make sure there are no underlying respiratory problems and bulls are free of lice.
9. Housing space
Housing and lying space are crucial for finishing animals to perform to potential. Bulls that are overstocked on slats will not be putting on weight.
A pen of 10 bulls gaining 1.5kg/day means there is an extra 105kg of liveweight gain every week. After six weeks, this is the equivalent of adding an extra animal to the group.
Finishing bulls will need more space, so some pens may need to be split if cattle are overstocked.
However, if reducing stocking density, never mix bulls from different pens. This only leads to fighting and animals being injured.
10. Drafting bulls
Regular weighing is recommended when finishing any type of cattle. It will give a good indication of liveweight gain and whether this is covering daily feed costs.
Animals are also less likely to exceed carcase weight limits set by processors, thereby facing a price penalty that devalues the carcase. Weighing keeps the herd owner focused on the economics of beef finishing.