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Decision time for Dairy Beef finishers- Feed or store?

Decision time for Dairy Beef finishers- Feed or store?

The vast majority of 18-21 month old beef cattle have been housed at this stage. Alan Dillon, Teagasc Beef Specialist, answers the question on which stock to feed on to finish and which to store for a grass kill next summer/autumn. He advises weighing post housing as an obvious first step.

The vast majority of 18-21 month old beef cattle have been housed at this stage. A higher than expected level of grass growth in the autumn may have extended the grazing season for an extra few weeks but heavy rains in the western side of the country put paid to grazing for heavy cattle and suckler cows in the last 2-3 weeks.

With weanlings and lighter stock left in some cases to mop up the last few remaining paddocks, the thoughts of farmers must turn to priority stock in the yard as to plan out the feeding regime for the next 3-5 months. Most cattle finishers will aim to split their kill over a number of months of the year to spread risk in terms of beef prices and also to regulate cash flow.

The question for now is  - which stock do I start to feed on to finish and which do I store for a grass kill next summer/autumn?.

The answer depends on the type of cattle in question and the current live weight. Weighing is the obvious first step and every farmer at this stage should have access to a weighing scales.

Weighing is the obvious first step and every farmer at this stage should have access to a weighing scales.

Weigh cattle a few days post housing and assess what groups should be prioritised for feeding.

Early maturing dairy bred heifers

Early maturing dairy bred heifers (AAX and HEX) that are approaching 450-480 kg should be fed on 3-5 kg of concentrates plus quality silage for about 4-5 weeks before slaughter. Typically these type of heifers max out at 250-260 kg carcass (500-530kg Livewight) and will kill out at around 48-50% of liveweight depending on grade. Keep a close eye on fat cover on these types of heifers as they can go overfat very quickly leading to loss of breed bonuses and QA payments which will significantly reduce margin. There is little point in trying to store this type of heifer for a period before feeding in the hope of increasing carcass weight as this won’t stack up economically.

Friesian steers

Friesian steers from roughly 500kg onwards should be built up on a diet of 5-6 kg of a high energy ration plus good quality (70-75% DMD) silage for a period of 80 - 120 days until slaughter.

Assuming they will grow at a rate of 1.1 kg per day on average on this diet should translate into a carcass weight of around 320kg carcass with a mix of P+ and O- grades.

Early maturing steers

Early maturing steers housed at a similar weight may be fed a similar diet but farmers should again assess the fat score on these cattle during the feeding period as fat covers increase at a higher rate on these cattle and they may finish at a lower liveweight than a Friesian steer.  Grading should be slightly better on these early maturing cattle leading to a higher killout percentage than Friesians.

Kill out percentage would be expected at around 50-51% for Friesian steers and 50-52% for early maturing steers depending on grade.

For cattle that are housed at a lower level of liveweight, farmers need to decide on what route to take with these stock.

Lighter stores 

Steers housed at around 450kg or lighter may take around 150 days or longer to feed to a level that may have them fully finished to an acceptable weight and fat cover and may require an increased beef price to justify this level of feed.

Farmers in this scenario may need to examine the option of storing these lighter stores over the winter period on good quality high DMD silage plus minerals for the winter (achieving 0.5-0.6kg per day) and aim to turnout to grass in early spring (1-17th March) with a target of achieving high levels of liveweight gain at grass and finish off pasture with little or no meal next summer. Presuming these cattle will achieve 1.1 kg per day from Mid-March to Mid-July they should weigh in the region of 670 kg liveweight giving a 335kg carcass at what is often a higher price point in the cycle of beef prices each year. This option will depend on the farm having the capacity to grow enough grass next year to carry the stock for the extra gazing season.

Table 1. Making a decision on stock based on housing weight


Farmers need to assess what their needs are in terms of cash flow, shed space, silage availability and grass availability next year before making a decision on what route of action to take with store cattle on their farm. If none of these options suit there is always a healthy live trade available to sell stock and take pressure off the system.

All of these options require a high level of management over the winter, top quality silage and high energy ration. Beef prices haven’t risen significantly between November and March in a long number of years, so farmers need to factor this in before they begin to pump expensive feed into finishing cattle. For those with lighter stores at housing the option of finishing off grass the following summer at typically higher beef prices has been a more financially rewarding option. With a renewed focus on earlier age of slaughter under climate action plans to reduce GHG emissions this later slaughter age off grass may possibly come more into focus in the future however.

The Teagasc Beef Specialists issue an article on a topic of interest to suckler & cattle farmers every Wednesday here on Teagasc Daily