Scottish beef producers have a clear focus on trying to reduce costs of production by paying more attention to the females in the equation and selecting bulls to fit their target markets.

Add in the use of EBVs and myostatins as a tool when selecting sires, coupled with improved grassland management and regular silage analysis, most are doing their best to improve margins, Gavin Hill, SRUC beef consultant, told The Scottish Farmer.

“We are seeing more and more beef farmers looking towards the maternal breeds such as the Salers, Beef Shorthorn, and Luing etc for their ease of calving, milkiness, fat cover and ability to suit the environment,” he said.

“Other producers use more maternal type bulls to produce females while their males are finished on a grass-based system.”

Often systems that seem to keep costs down are those where they can put these breeds out on upland, hill areas where there is scale and scope to graze them for longer periods and often out winter so reducing housing costs. However, not everyone can do this, he said.

Many of these types of cows can also be easily mated to continental-type bulls and therefore, still produce a high value calf for the market place.

“These continental-type bulls on maternal breeds can and will help get cattle destined for slaughter to the desired finish and weight with the fat cover needed. What we need to look at now, is how we can get many of the store cattle correctly finished with good cover below 400kg deadweight as demanded by the processors.

“Other producers can also use the native, maternal breeds bulls on those cow types when the focus is more on finishing on a forage and grass basis or when breeding females.”

Mr Hill stressed it is not necessarily about changing bull breeds to get the finish required. It’s about changing management systems such as where continental type cattle are not kept on extended store periods but housed sooner and finished quicker.

In summary, he said it is looking at the type of cow that suits individual farms and perhaps changing herd management for an easier maintained female breed and then crossing them to their usual continental sires.

Not all producers should look to calve their heifers at two years of age either he said, as depending on the system employed, breed type and the ground farmed, it can be better for heifers to calve down at three-years-old.

“To calve at two you need to have the ground to be able to grow heifers big enough to have the frame and weight to bull at 14 months of age. Ideally you should be able to keep first calved heifers separate from the main herd to grow them on more, if you want to get them back in calve for the following year, so it’s not for everyone,” he said.

What has been apparent is that the push to select easy calving bulls has for many resulted in some cases that the females bred from these bulls are not ideally suited in terms of size and weight going to the bull to calf at two years. Care has to be taken when selecting a bull with the intention to breed replacements.

Mr Hill also encouraged producers to also look at birthweights, the calving ease of the daughters and gestation length when selecting potential stock bulls for future females.

He also urged producers to pay more attention to the age and weight they sell their calves at, to ensure the best margins are obtained by them and the finisher when the slaughterhouses have reduced their carcase weights.

“There are two ideal ages for selling store cattle now – either as suckled calves straight off their mother or at 12-14months of age between 400-440kg live. There is no point in keeping store cattle any longer if the finishers are not prepared to pay for store cattle heavier than 440-450kg,” he said.

Backing up these statements, he said the store cattle weighing often in excess of 450kg plus were not making any more than some of the younger calves sold last year, because many of the finishers know they’ll struggle to the required finish on them without going over weight. The finisher also knows how much he can pay for them to try and make a margin on them.

Cheaper forages this year, have also helped producers, but with the quality of many well up on the year due to the phenomenal grass-growing conditions of 2019, he warned farmers, store cattle could have gained more weight than expected and maybe should be sold earlier than normal.

It’s a similar situation in the breeding herd too with some cows and in-calf heifers having gained more weight than expected on better quality forages, thereby resulting in the potential for calving difficulties in the coming months.

“Increasing numbers of farmers are analysing their forages because it does make a difference and especially this year. You can really reduce your costs of production when so many better quality forages were made last year, by feeding less of it and bulking it out with straw which is a lot cheaper. Just watch you don’t over finish cattle this year because they are gaining more weight than you think on these feeds,” he said.

Meanwhile, although prime cattle values remain somewhat lower in comparison to where they were this time last year, store cattle prices in Scotland have risen 10p per kg over the past week according to those in the know.

So, either the processors have had a change of heart and are about to look more favourably on hard-pressed beef producers, or, such has been the loss of the national suckler herd due to continued dire trade, that the store cattle supplies are also being hit hard.