With feed costs at unprecedented levels this winter, farmers who typically finish male calves as young bulls on high-meal diets may be looking at less expensive alternatives, but the pros and cons need to be carefully considered.
Before exploring those options, it is important to understand what finishing a young bull next spring will actually cost the business.
Our calculations assume that calves are born from late February to late April, and out of continental bulls capable of delivering high levels of conformation and weight gain.
Creep feeding starts on 1 August, and up to 30 September the calves eat an average of 2kg/day. From 1 October to the end of the month, concentrate is increased to 3kg/day. Calves are weaned and housed in mid-October.
From 1 November to 31 December, concentrate is fed at 4kg/day, rising to 5kg/day during January and 6kg/day in February. From 1 March until 1 June, bulls are averaging 8kg/day of concentrate.
From start to finish over the outlined period, bulls consume 1.45t of concentrate. Assuming the ration is forward-purchased at £270/t, meal costs amount to £391/head.
Throughput the housing period, bulls have access to high-quality silage exceeding 70 D-Value.
Assuming silage intakes of 20kg/day from housing, it is a total of 4.5t/head. At £20/t, silage costs come to £90/head. One round bale of straw is also included at a cost of £25. This brings total concentrate and forage costs to £506.
A further £25/head is factored in to cover veterinary treatments such as pneumonia vaccines, lice control and fluke drenching, plus £25 is included for miscellaneous costs such as replacement tags and haulage.
Fixed costs to cover machinery, diesel, shed maintenance, etc, are taken as £1/day.
Over the 227-day period from housing on 16 October to slaughter on 1 June, this brings fixed costs, veterinary and miscellaneous expenses to £277.
Added to feed costs, it therefore takes £783/head to finish each animal over the winter.
As the example herd produces suckler-bred continental cattle, these calves could have been sold at the end of October at a market value of £875 (350kg calf at 250p/kg).
Combining this value with the finishing costs, the animal has a breakeven value of £1,658 if held and finished as a young bull by June.
Assuming an average daily liveweight gain of 1.5kg/day over the winter period, the animal weighs approximately 690kg when slaughtered.
At a kill-out of 58%, carcase weight is 400kg, giving a breakeven beef price of 414p/kg. This increases to 427p/kg when including a £50 profit margin per head.
Every £10/t increase, or decrease, in concentrate cost alters the breakeven beef price by 3p/kg. Note that the example assumes top level management throughout.
Given the associated costs there will be some farmers querying the economics of finishing bulls next spring.
However, if the system is altered, the impact should be carefully considered. For example, if you are castrating bull calves and changing to a steer system, is there enough grazing available to carry these animals for a second summer?
There will also need to be additional silage made to allow for steer finishing, which again means extra ground taken out of the grazing platform.
Perhaps most important factor is the impact on cashflow within the business. Moving from bull beef to steer finishing pushes sales back by eight to 10 months. Can your business sustain this delay in income?
Alternatively, deciding to sell the strongest calves as weanlings this autumn increases the number of animals sold in one financial year and this may have tax implications.
It will also hit cashflow in 2022 when there are fewer animals for sale.
Ultimately, winter finishing should be considered carefully every year, but sometimes, having a defined system, sticking to it, and doing it well, is the best approach.