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How will calving heifers at two years benefits you both economically and environmentally?

The landscape of beef farming is changing rapidly. Moving from talking solely about increasing output from a profitability point of view to also discussing how we can produce beef more sustainably. Beef Specialist Martina Harrington gives advice on producing beef sustainably & profiles Ger McSweeney

The key point to make here is that sustainability includes economic sustainability, environmental sustainability but also social sustainability and everything in between.

We all, as farmers have a responsibility. We need to educate ourselves as to what technologies can make us more sustainable and have they a cost. For luck, many of the existing technologies will actually save us money.

The easy ones are the protected urea and low emission slurry spreading.

  1. Changing from CAN to protected urea. Per unit of nitrogen, if a tonne of CANbody costs €750; a unit of N costs €1.39. If a tonne of protected urea (46%) cost €1000, a unit costs €1.08 – so protected urea is 22% cheaper per unit of nitrogen than CAN. Add to this, that research in Johnstown castle has shown over a 7 year project that protected urea will also grow 12% more grass.
    The win from an environmental point of view is that it results in 71% less nitrous oxide emissions than CAN. The only change is the size and colour of the grain of fertiliser.
    The win from a social point of view is, you will cover more ground with a tonne of urea that you will CAN, saving you time.
  2. Using a trailing shoe instead of a splash plate. Put in simple terms, switching from spreading slurry with a splash plate in the summer to a trailing shoe in the spring will give you 6 extra units of Nitrogen per 1000 gallons, from point one, at say even €1 per unit that’s an extra €6 per 1000 gallons, or €18 per 3000 gallon tanker.
    The environmental plus is that it reduces ammonia emission by 30% and reduces the requirement for chemical nitrogen;thus reducing nitrous oxide emissions. You are also able to wait for more suitable ground conditions to apply slurry as you can apply it to heavier covers.
    The social plus, is that you have more flexibility to apply slurry using a trailing shoe.

Calve heifers at two years of age

Read what Future Beef farmer Ger McSweeney is doing

A more difficult sell is to calve your heifers at two year of age. From ICBF figures we can see only 23% of heifers are calved between 22 – 26 months of age, a very low figure. The majority are calving > 30 months. This is despite the advantages of:

  1. Economics: The most profitable age to calve heifers is 24 months. Research at Teagasc Grange shows that for a 50-cow herd with a 20% replacement rate, each additional month that calving is delayed costs €490 or €50/heifer per month.
  2. Environmental: the reduction in carbon footprint is 0.14 kg CO2e/kg beef carcass for each month reduction. This equates to a 1.6% reduction per month, so reducing from 30 months to 24 will be almost 10% reduction per kg beef.
  3. Longevity Heifers that calved for the first time at 23 to 26 months had greater survivability in herds with almost 40% reaching fifth parity, compared with only 4% of those that calved for the first time at 31 – 35 months - Figure 1. most farmers would be of the opposite belief
  4. You will have less groups of stock on the farm, so labour will be reduced
  5. You can increase the rate of genetic gain within the herd

Figure 1: Comparison of national statistics on the performance of 131,077 beef heifers calved for the first time, between 23 and 40 months of age (supplied by ICBF). 

Age at 1st calving - monthsAverage subsequent calving interval - days% Calving for a second time

Average calving difficulty of bulls used

Heifer calving unassisted

Mortality at first calving 

Heifers reaching 5th Parity
23-26 383 82 4.7% 50% 3.2% 39%
27-30 394 82 5.1% 53% 2.8% 20%
31-35 392 87 5.2% 58% 2.6% 4%
36-40 386 86 5.2% 57% 2.0% 0%

From talking to many discussion groups, the main reasons given are that – the heifer is not heavy enough, she will be stunted, she won’t go back in calf etc.  Yet we know many farmers are calving heifers successfully at two years of age, so how do they achieve this?

Let’s look at Ger McSweeney’s herd– Future Beef Farmer in Cork

Ger calves all his homebred heifers at two years of age and his key tips are:

Your heifers have to be well grown.
The target is to have heifers at 60% of their mature body weight at bulling. This means that from birth to weaning they have to have an average daily gain above a kg per day. Ger is in the BEEP scheme and weighed his heifers last year. As you can see in Figure 2, the heifers were gaining 1.18kg/hd/day.

Calf Performance - All calves

Figure 2: ICBF weaning performance report – Ger McSweeney

 Born in PeriodNo. weighedADG - kgAverage 200 day Weight - kg
Column 6
    Ger's HerdTarget
All 28 27 1.27 298 N/A
Males 13 13 1.36 318 300
Females 15 14 1.18 279 250

Ger says this is because he has high maternal cows with lots of milk. When picking replacement bulls he will not go below +4kg of milk in his bull and he only breeds replacements from his milkiest cows.

Feed well over the first winter.
The heifer has to be meeting the 0.6kg weight gain per head per day, so Ger feeds his best silage ad lib (70+DMD) and 2kg of meal. If the silage were not as good, he would up the meal fed.

DMDPoor - 62%Average - 68%High - 72%
Meal required to achieve 0.6kg/hd/day 2.5 2.0 1.0

Turn out to grass first.
Ger's heifers get priority and are turned out to grass first, then they have every chance to gain weight and are on a settled diet and on a rising plain of nutrition.

Breed heifers in the first half of the breeding season.
This will ensure you have they have more time to return cycling before the next breeding season, they can be moved to almost empty pens, the disease pressure is less and they can get to grass early.

Sire choice.
Only easy calving sires with less than 4% heifer calving difficulty and with very high reliability are used on the heifers. Ger takes no chances. If a heifer has a hard calving, she is much less likely to go back in calf in time to have a 365-day calving interval and runs the risk of being culled. Research has shown farmers are using bulls that are too hard calving for heifers.

Key weight targets

Mature Cow WeightWeaning WeightBulling WeightCalving Weight
Target % mature weight   60% 80%
600 260-280 360 480
650 280-300 390 520
700 300-320 420 560

Pre calving care
Once scanned in calf the heifer is priority stock. She needs to grow well to achieve 80% of her mature body weight at calving. When housed all the replacement heifers are penned together so that they are not bullied. If there is not enough space, they are penned with second calvers or more timid cows.
Health is key, all heifers are dosed to ensure there is not any parasitic burden, so fluke and worms are controlled.

Heifers are vaccinated against leptospirosis before breeding. As calves they are given a clostridial vaccine at turnout and get a vaccination to prevent respiratory disease before the stress periods of weaning and housing
They are fed good quality silage and their body condition score is checked. Ger wants them fit but not fat. A good pre calving mineral is introduced 6- 8 weeks pre calving.
Their calving dates are recorded and when the date approaches, they are watched carefully. Research tells us that 50 -60% of maiden heifers need assistance.

Post Calving
Heifers are moved to a post calving pen where they can receive a much higher quality silage. If they cannot be turned out to grass with 2-3 weeks, they get 1kg of meal. Again they are priority for getting out to grass first. A huge effort has to be made to ensure heifers are not bullied and can eat to appetite, if not they will not go back in calf.

So, it really is just making the heifer a priority at all stages and you will increase your profit, reduce your carbon footprint per kg of beef and reduce labour, if you do it right

Read more about the Future Beef Programme here