Gross margin per hectare (GM/ha) averaged £1,246 (€1,432) in 2020 for the farms finishing bulls, compared with £897 (€1,031) on the farms finishing male cattle as steers.
Five farms operated bull finishing systems and, across the board, carcase weight averaged 378.4kg at 468 days old (15 months) compared with carcase weights of 353kg at 21 months on the steer finishing farms.
However, inputs are much higher with bulls. Concentrate costs were approximately £392/ha (€450) on the bull finishing farms compared with £143/ha (€165) on the steer systems.
This highlights the need for top-class management when finishing bulls. Higher feed costs require higher daily liveweight gains to cover daily inputs.
Beef price averaged £3.56/kg (€4.31/kg including VAT) for bulls in 2020, up from £3.25/kg (€3.94/kg) in 2016. Steers averaged £3.66/kg (€4.34/kg) in 2020 compared with £3.28/kg (€3.97).
Stocking rate is directly linked to GM/ha. Under good management, as stocking rate increased, so did GM/ha. Bull beef systems allowed the farmers to carry more cows on the same land base as male calves did not return to grass for a second season.
On the farms finishing bulls, stocking rate increased from 1.89 CE/ha (cow equivalents) to 2.61 CE/ha during the programme, whereas steer systems rose from 1.43 CE/ha to 1.88 CE/ha.
While bull beef systems had a higher GM/ha, bull beef finishing is not practical for every farm. For example, Fionbharr Hamill’s farm is stocked at 1.84 CE/ha, yet his farm is calving more than 100 cows this spring. Under a bull beef system, more cows would be needed to utilise grazing ground vacated by steers, stretching labour. Capital investment would also be needed for additional cattle housing.
So while bull beef systems are generally more profitable, there is a balance to be had between output, labour, land and housing.
There is little point increasing cow numbers if sufficient grass cannot be grown to support the higher stocking rates.
On the programme farms, soil fertility was addressed before reseeding older swards to increase grass growth.
While weather will dictate grass growth, over the programme the trend has been higher grass yields on silage and grazing swards.
In 2020, grass yields averaged 9.03t DM/ha, up 22% from 7.03t DM/ha in 2017, which is the first year the farmers measured grass growth.
By the end of the programme, the farms weaned 20% more calf liveweight from the same land base compared with 2017.
Actual weaning weight at 200 days old rose from 267kg to 278kg. This increase has been achieved mainly due to improvements in grassland management. The farmers have also focused on using proven maternal genetics to improve calving ease and maternal traits, but the benefits from that will only be seen in the longer term. Calf mortality has also been reduced from 4.8% to 3%.
Calving index is down from 382 to 372 days, with the calving pattern reduced to less than 12 weeks. All combined, more calves weaned at heavier weights increases farm output.
Focusing on silage quality, rather than yield, has reduced the reliance on concentrates in intensive finishing systems, especially bulls.
An example of the role that high quality silage can play in a bull beef system is evident on Declan Rafferty/Aidan Quinn’s farm. Concentrate feeding levels have been reduced by 20% over the past three years by incorporating high-quality forage in finishing diets.
Spring-born bulls are offered high-quality silage (70 to 74 D-value) from housing until slaughter. Concentrates start off at 3kg to 4kg at housing, then build up to a maximum of 8kg/day once bulls hit 500kg to 550kg liveweight. This limits total concentrates fed to a spring-born bull at 1.6t/head over its lifetime.