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Under 16 month bulls - a profitable system that suits Future Beef farmer Wesley Browne

Under 16 month bulls - a profitable system that suits Future Beef farmer Wesley Browne

Wesley Browne farms full time in Leagh, Dunraymond, three miles outside Monaghan town. Farming 58ha of grassland, which is fragmented into three main grazing blocks, the soil type can be described as heavy drumlin, which is typical of the area.

Over the years, Wesley has adopted a straightforward system that best suits his farm. 90 suckler cows calve compactly from February to the end of April. All male progeny are slaughtered at under 16 months. Replacements are bred from within the herd and any surplus four and five-star females are sold to repeat customers for breeding. All other heifers are slaughtered at 23-24 months.

Wesley has been operating a bull system for the last 12 years, starting with finishing bulls at 24 months of age to now having an average slaughter age of 15 months. The system has delivered on profit. In 2022, the gross margin of the farm was €1,399/ha - the highest among the Future Beef group. This figure is largely driven by a high output figure of €2,736/ha for the farm. This output figure is directly influenced by a number of key factors, such as excellent lifetime animal performance and an efficient suckler herd, coupled with a high stocking rate of 2.1LU/ha.

Wesley’s farm is fragmented and heavy in nature. Finishing males as under 16 month old bulls suits the farm. Once the calf is reared by its mother, it will be housed in October and then finished out of the slatted shed the following May or June.

However, finishing male calves as bulls is not for everyone. Feeding high amounts of meal, the overall management of the bulls and meeting the processor‘s specifications requires a lot of expertise and cash flow. It has taken the 12 years and a lot of hard work by Wesley to build a suckler herd that is fit for purpose to meet the requirements of a successful bull beef enterprise.

In the video below, Wesley gives an overview of the bull production system on his farm:

Stage one: The bull system

Like any profitable suckler beef production system, the first step is to ‘build the herd’. Over the last number of years, Wesley has focussed on building a herd of functional cows that will tick the following boxes with good management:

  • Consistently produce a top-quality calf every 365 days;
  • A high fertile cow that will go back in calf;
  • Plenty of milk to rear a bull to 300kg or a heifer to 250kg at 200 days of age;
  • A cow with good docility.

As a result, Wesley has a herd of mixed breeds - mainly Saler x Limousin and Limousin x Simmental - with a mature weight of 650kg. These are a functional, R-grade cow, that are not too heavy and that will rear a good calf.

Figure 1: Average beef Euro-Star values for cows on Wesley's farm

Average beef Euro-Star values for cows on Wesley's farm

The cows are five star on the Replacement Index (€114). It is important to note they are five star for carcass weight (+20kg) also, which is a very important in a finishing system. In addition to this, they are also five star for milk. For breeding, the cows are divided in groups of 30 and three bulls – a Simmental, Saler and Limousin – are used.

A Saler cross cow on Wesley Browne's farm

Stage two: Calf to housing – target 350kg

The cows start calving in mid-February and it will finish by the end of April. Calving compactly is essential in a bull system, as all the calves can be managed as one group. There will be approximately 40-45 male calves with an age gap of just 6-8 weeks from youngest to oldest. They can all be treated as one e.g. at dosing/weaning and in particular, when it comes to feeding in the finishing period the following year.

In the first summer, Wesley is totally focussed on keeping high-quality, leafy grass in front of the cows. The farm has excellent infrastructure and is divided into 2 to 3 day paddocks - either with permanent fencing or by using pigtails and reels.

Calves on Wesley Browne's farm

The target is to keep pre-grazing yields at 1,500kg DM/ha for the first summer. He walks the farm on a weekly basis, measures the grass and uses PastureBase Ireland to support decision making around controlling grass.

Faecal samples are taken in July/August and if there is a burden of lungworm, the calves will be treated accordingly.

Stage three: 350kg to 500kg

Due to the farm’s location in Co. Monaghan, stock are generally housed for the winter in mid-October. All calves are vaccinated with Bovipast and for IBR. At housing, they are given a dose for lungworms also. The calves will then be weaned and fed high- quality silage (78%DMD) silage with 2kg/head/day of meal until December. Wesley uses a tub diet feeder to mix the ration and it also saves a lot of time. Wesley used straw as a fibre source in the past and struggled to get sufficient fat cover on the bulls. In the past two years, he has introduced silage and this has improved the fat cover significantly.

The housing conditions on the farm are excellent. The bulls have plenty of space. They all have access to the feed barrier and stand on slats while feeding. They are also given a lie-back area, which is bedded. As bulls spend a lot of time lying down, a comfortable environment is key to driving daily liveweight gains. Access to plenty of fresh water is also an important factor. Faecal samples are taken again in December and a fluke treatment is untaken if necessary.

Final stage: 500kg to 680kg

In December, the meal is increased gradually to 6kg/head/day and this is mixed with high-quality silage. In the first week of February, the meal is increased further to 8kg/head/day, which is the start of the 100-day finishing period.

The bulls are weighed regularly to monitor performance. Wesley aims to have the bulls weighing 500kg at 12 months of age. At the start of the final finishing period, the bulls are penned according to weight. There will be no mixing of groups or introduction of new stock into the shed in order to keep the bulls calm.

On the 29th of April, the average bull weight was 556kg. They gained 1.98kg/day since the weighing on the 30th of March. 13 bulls were weighed on May 15th and had an average weight of 637kg, which is a daily gain of 1.36kg since birth. In total, a bull will consume 1300kg of meal in its lifetime.

The target weight for Wesley is 680-700kg at a fat class of at least 2+. Drafting for slaughter started in May. He will run the bulls through the crush prior to slaughter to check for weight and fat cover. On the day of slaughter, Wesley will load the bulls at 7am and transport them directly to ABP in Clones.

This article first appeared in the June Future Beef Programme newsletter. For further information on Wesley’s farm, click here. To find out more about the Future Beef Programme and to sign up for future newsletters, click here.