Earlier in September, the Irish Farmers Journal presented costings for purchasing forward stores for finishing out of the shed.
Under top class herd management, our analysis pointed to break-even costs in the region of 480p/kg, which included a modest £50/head margin.
Farmers have since asked how higher input prices will impact on the costs of finishing spring-born bulls next June. Winter finishing has always been a gamble and bull beef systems in particular pose the most risk for farmers that slaughter animals out of the shed.
Bulls are more efficient feed converters than steers and heifers. But to unlock their genetic potential, they are heavily dependent on concentrate feeding, which comes at a cost.
Concentrates are currently running anywhere from £120/t to £140/t above meal costs last autumn, bringing the economics of bull beef systems under the microscope. Processors tend to pay less for bulls compared to steers and heifers, which offsets some of the feed efficiency gains they can deliver.
Also, the closer bulls get to the 16 month age limit before slaughtering, the less scope farmers have to negotiate on price. Factory agents regularly use the age limit to their advantage.
Herd management is also important. There is no place for average or mediocre management when finishing bulls.
Cattle must be thriving to the maximum potential at all times to cover finishing costs and leave a positive margin.
Completing a simple finishing budget can establish whether there is a margin to be made from finishing young bulls next June.
Our example is based on a suckler farmer that takes home-bred spring-born bull calves through to slaughter around 15 months of age each June.
Top class management is assumed throughout all stages. Bulls have high genetic merit and consistently achieve U3 conformation.
As a starting point, the farmer needs to determine how much the calves are worth before housing for finishing.
Assuming bulls are housed and weaned by 10 October, averaging 330kg liveweight at 200 days of age, in the live trade, these animals would be conservatively worth 290p/kg or £957/head.
Calves were offered 2kg/day of ration from 1 August to 10 October to drive weight gain and prepare for weaning.
From 10 October to 1 November, meal is increased to 3kg/day then 4kg/day from 1 November to 31 December.
From 1 January to 28 February, meal is increased to 6kg/day, then capped at 8kg/day from 1 March to 1 June. In total, bulls consume 1.53t of concentrate. Taking a finishing ration costing of £380/t, meal costs come to £584/head.
The example assumes that high-quality silage (72+ D-Value) is available to bulls at all times. If daily intake averaged 20kg/head, total forage intake from 10 October to 1 June is 4.6t.
Costing silage at £26/t and one round bale of straw at £19, total feed costs come to £722/head.
Other costs to include are £25/head for pneumonia vaccines, lice control and fluke drenching, plus a £25/head miscellaneous charge for bedding in the final few weeks, replacements tags etc.
Fixed costs/head to cover machinery, diesel, shed maintenance etc are set at 50p/day, which from 10 October to 1 June comes to £117/head.
Adding the starting value of the bulls on 10 October to feed, miscellaneous and fixed costs, finishing costs come to £1,846/head.
Assuming bulls average 1.5kg of daily liveweight gain from housing to slaughter, final liveweight is 680kg.
At an average 59% kill-out, this yields a carcase weight of 401kg. This equates to a break-even cost of 460p/kg.
Adding in a very modest £50/head margin for eight months of work increases this to 473p/kg.
Changing ration price by £10/t alters break-even price by 2.5p/kg, while a 10p/kg change to the value of weanlings in October alters break-even price by 8p/kg. Based on the outlined budget, the example farmer with top-quality weanlings in October at the outlined weight may be better off selling animals live.
Early reports from weanling sales indicate top-quality animals are making upwards of 300p/kg, which would tip the balance against winter finishing for continental types with excellent conformation.
If farmers are considering finishing spring-born bulls next spring, the decision needs to be made inside the next fortnight. Outlined are 10 steps for finishing young bulls.
1Prioritise bulls for housing and weaning
Bull calves should be prioritised for housing and weaning in early October. Grass quality and milk yield in cows will be declining, curtailing calf performance unless creep feed levels are increased. By mid-autumn, young bulls will be better off in the shed to maintain weight gains.
2Target housing weight
Ideally, have a target housing weight for bulls. In the budget outlined, a housing weight of 330kg means animals have to gain around 350kg to 400kg of liveweight by next June.
Bulls with a lighter housing weight are unlikely to reach an adequate slaughter weight until July/August, which significantly increases concentrate feed costs.
Make sure bulls have plenty of lying space throughout the winter. Performance will be hindered by over-stocking in pens.
Pen bulls at housing time with the final liveweight in mind. This prevents having to regroup bulls midway through winter. Bulls do not react well when regrouped.
Take a pen of eight bulls weighing 400kg on 1 November with an average gain of 1.6kg/day. Every week, the group gains 90kg of liveweight.
After five weeks, the group gains 450kg which is the same as adding one animal to the group and as bulls get bigger, lying space is reduced.
Once housed, bulls should be treated for fluke and worms as early as possible. Ideally, use a fluke product that targets the parasite at an early immature stage. Keep on top of lice also.
Clipping the bulls along the back allows them to regulate body temperature in the shed. This reduces the risk of respiratory problems, especially in the first few weeks after housing. Clipping also helps to control lice.
Offering bulls a 15%-16% protein ration from housing until January will help animals grow frame. At this point, gradually replace with a high energy, low protein ration to encourage bulls to lay down fat cover.
High-quality silage has a role in bull beef diets and can help to cap concentrate levels towards the end of the finishing period. If silage is to be offered, it should be 70 D-Value or higher.
Weighing bulls every four to six weeks will quickly show up if there are any issues present, such as overcrowding in pens, problems linked to parasites like lice or an underlying health issue.
Bulls on a high concentrate diet have a huge requirement for fresh drinking water. As a rule of thumb, bulls drink 5-6l of water for every 1kg of concentrate fed.
Drinking troughs should be kept clean at all times. Soiled water will reduce the amount that bulls drink, which in turn reduces feed intake and liveweight gain.
Make sure troughs have enough capacity to satisfy animal demand. Bulls should not be queueing at water troughs.
Draft bulls as soon as they come fit for slaughter. If drafting in smaller batches, do not regroup the animals still on farm just to make it easier to offer feed.
Keep in contact with your processor in advance of selling.