A recent draft of cattle on the Thrive demo farm saw a further 10 heifers and eight bullocks slaughtered off grass. The bullocks averaged 300kg and €1,290/hd, while the heifers weighed 261kg on average at a value of €1,145/hd.

This brings the total number of cattle drafted to 72 from the batch of 141 cattle, which is just over 51% in total. At the same point last year, just 25% of cattle had been drafted for slaughter.

This shows the extent of the difference between the two years. Right across the Thrive programme, farmers are drafting stock for slaughter around one month earlier than last year.

The breakdown of the cattle drafted sees 43 (66%) heifers and 29 (39%) bullocks slaughtered to-date. Bringing forward the slaughter date has the benefit of less feed going into the system – for heifers this is a daily feed cost for grass and meal of €1.43/hd/day while for the bullocks it costs €1.75/hd/day.

Picture 2. This HE4297-sired heifer weighed 480kg, had a carcase weight of 244kg, a killout of 51%, graded O+3+ and made €1,067.

However, bringing forward the slaughter date can come at the expense of carcase weight, which can significantly reduce the sale price achieved for stock. Last year, the heifers off grass (up to the end of October) had an average carcase weight of 275kg.

So far this year, the average heifer carcase weight is 266kg, albeit with more stock still to be slaughtered off grass this year. This means we are running 9kg of carcase behind last year at this point, but this gap would be expected to close over the coming weeks.

Picture 3. This HE4297 heifer was part of the lighter group of heifers receiving no meal at grass. She weighed 461kg, had a carcase weight of 218kg, a 47.3% killout, graded O-3+ and made €890.

This 9kg of carcase reduction is cancelled out by the saving in feed costs. One month’s feed to the heifers at grass comes to €43.50/hd. The average price/kg carcase paid so far this year for the heifers is €4.32/kg. Dividing one by the other, the feed cost saving is equivalent to 10kg of carcase.

What isn’t included in this equation is the saving on labour and the benefit of the extra grass, which should mean the farm can keep this year’s calves out for longer this back end.

Another benefit which farmers are not currently being rewarded for is the environmental benefit of a younger slaughter age.

Picture 4. This HE2376-sired bullock weighed 562kg, had a carcase weight of 296kg, a killout of 52.6%, graded O=3+ and made €1,262.

According to the ICBF, every 30 days taken off the age at slaughter nationally has the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions saving as culling 100,000 cows from the national herd. How important might this argument be in years to come?

Slaughter performance

If we look at the pictures of cattle slaughtered, two would be typical of what the programme is producing from grass each year. Picture 3 is quite different.

When all the cattle were weighed at the start of August, any heifer under 470kg and bullock under 500kg did not start to get meal at grass. At that point, the heifer in Picture 3 weighed 445kg. In the following six weeks, she had an average daily gain of 0.38kg/day – by far the lowest in the batch.

We therefore had a decision to make – did it make sense to feed meal to this lowly productive animal for the next three weeks or a month when she already was significantly fleshed?

The answer we came to was no. In all likelihood, she would not have performed sufficiently enough to cover the increased feed cost and quite possibly would have been over-fat at the point of slaughter leading to a further price penalty.

She ended up with a 218kg carcase and graded O-3+. It could be argued that a few weeks of feeding may have pushed her into grading an O= and we would then have been back only 18c/kg on the grid compared to 24c/kg and would have received a 20c/kg for the ‘in-spec’ payment compared to the 12c/kg received. This would also have resulted in her qualify for the 10c/kg breed bonus.

Picture 5. This AA4089-sired bullock weighed 582kg, had a carcase weight of 313kg, a killout of 53.7%, graded O+3+ and made €1,404.

That would have resulted in a €52 increase in the carcase value without any increase in carcase weight. However, there was no guarantee that she would have gone up a grade – there were two other animals killed the same day that graded O- having been fed meal at grass since 1 August.

Margin over feed

In this case, it was a lose-lose situation. We could have fed her on for a few weeks and felt better about the carcase value on the factory docket but financially we may have been no better off.

She came onto the farm in a batch of 10 calves of which six were heifers purchased at €155/head. Two other of these heifers have been slaughtered already at carcase weights of 253kg O=4+ and 275kg O=4=, the other three remain on farm.

Picture 6. This HE4645-sired bullock weighed 572kg, had a carcase weight of 300.5kg, killout of 52.5%, graded O-3+ and made €1,240.

The heifer in question is what makes dairy-beef systems difficult. Until we can identify the genetic potential of these animals at birth they will continue to be a problem and bring down the overall profitability of these systems.