Weighing cattle throughout the year has been a fundamental practice over the duration of the programme. Regular weighing tracks cattle performance and when gains are below target, adjustments can be made to diets, health practices and breeding. Building data over a number of years shows if these changes are working.
Across the nine programme farms, total calf liveweight weaned from the same land area has increased by 25,193kg, or 20%, from 2017 to 2020.
This has been achieved by increasing stocking rates and growing more grass from improved soil health and targeted fertiliser plans. Paddock grazing has also increased grass utilisation.
Calf performance during 2020 saw daily liveweight gain (DLWG) from birth to 200 days old reach its highest level, as the changes in herd genetics start to bear fruit. Across all farms, calves averaged 278kg at 200 days old, with a DLWG averaging 1.19/kg day. Calf weight is up from an average of 267kg in 2017.
While at first glance the 11kg differential appears small, across the average herd size of approximately 80 cows on the programme farms, the extra weight weaned is worth £1,800 to £1,900 in additional herd output.
However, this differential will most likely increase further as the move to using more maternally bred cows takes effect. Changing cow type is a longer-term process, rather than just the three years that the programme was run over.
Mature cow size always generates debate. During the programme, medium-sized cows around 650kg liveweight were the most productive and efficient animals in terms of output per kilogram of cow liveweight. Across the farms, cows averaged 643kg liveweight during 2020, giving a weaning percentage for the group of 43%.
On individual farms, there will always be cows that are exceptions to the rule.
But, over the lifetime of the programme, the lesson learned has been that regular weighing and comparing weaning percentage trends every year identifies the cows that are not performing consistently.
Throughout the three phases of the programme, it has been demonstrated that the cows with the lowest weaning percentage are producing the calves with the lowest DLWG.
Ryan McDowell is one of two farmers who actually weaned less weight in 2020 compared to 2017, down from 18,077kg to 14,887kg as outlined in Table 1.
However, this is easily accounted for by a reduction in herd size after the loss of rented land, with a similar situation resulting in less weight weaned on Oliver McKenna’s farm.
Breeding cows have a high percentage of dairy breeding, which has consistently delivered a weaning percentage over 50% of cow weight annually.
Cow size has steadily increased as the herd matures and more beef-bred replacements have been bred from dairy-cross foundation stock.
Weaning percentage has fallen from 59.08% in 2017 to 51% in 2020, as cow weight increased from 485kg to 605kg.
In 2019, Ryan identified a number of cows that he did not want to breed replacements from and crossed them to Charolais sires through AI.
The subsequent Charolais calves born in 2020 averaged more than 1.4kg/day up to 200 days of age. Across all breeds, heifers averaged 1.24kg/day and 1.37kg/day for males, with weaning weight averaging 302kg.
Jonathan Blair has made tremendous progress over the course of the programme. A dedicated rotational grazing system has allowed the farm to carry more stock on the same land base.
During 2020, the total liveweight weaned on-farm was 98% higher than 2017 levels from the same land base.
Back then, the herd consisted of around 40 cows weaning 10,534kg, compared to over 90 cows in 2020 weaning 20,807kg.
While there will be additional associated input costs to factor in, the added herd output is worth an extra £22,600 at a conservative 220p/kg.
Weaning percentage jumped by close to 7%, from 37% in 2017 to over 44% in 2020.
An underlying animal health problem was identified in 2018, and since this was rectified, calf performance has increased.
Cow type has moved towards a Stabiliser and Angus foundation, which is then crossed to a mixture of top sires via AI and stock bulls.
The Abbey Farm has also seen a large increase in total weight weaned, increasing by 37%, from 20,346kg in 2018 to 27,788kg in 2020.
Calf performance was excellent, with males and females achieving DLWG of 1.22kg/day and 1.45kg/day respectively.
Male calves were offered concentrate from late August onwards, which was the case on all of the programme farms – for example, Ryan McDowell’s calves did not receive concentrate until after housing.
AI is used on the majority of the cows at the Abbey Farm, with the focus on maternal traits such birth weight, milk and mature cow size.
Mature cow weight has increased on-farm from 671kg to 759kg, although there is no allowance for body condition score inflating liveweight at weaning.
It is worth noting that all weights quoted in Table 1 are actual weights at the time of weaning. Also, weights for Barry Carty have been omitted due to the weighbridge not working when weaning.