Beef farmers are always being told to improve levels of efficiency and they can, by making a few alterations, which in turn should boost profit margins and yield huge carbon savings in UK suckler production

According to a new report from Alltech E-CO2 and the Stabiliser Cattle Company, a combination of management and genetic changes can reduce the carbon footprint of an individual UK suckler unit by up to 40% while contributing to beef production efficiencies.

“The UK suckler industry is under immense pressure to reduce its carbon footprint while still feeding a growing population in a financially feasible way,” says Seth Wareing, business manager of Stabiliser Cattle Company.

“While the strength of the suckler industry is converting grassland unsuitable for growing crops into a high-quality protein for human consumption, there is room to do this more efficiently from both an environmental and financial standpoint.”

The report revealed that small changes such as switching to a smaller, more maternal cow breed, and an easier calving bull, producing smaller calves, ensures the cow is fit enough to rear her calf and therefore come back in heat quicker. This in turn increases the number of live calves born while also reducing barren rates.

Add to that improved nutrition to finish cattle in a faster period of time, and other management alterations such as such as leaving bulls intact for finishing, calving heifers at two and improving feed efficiency and margins and carbon savings can be hugely improved.

Dr Jimmy Hyslop, independent beef specialist said: “By finishing cattle at a younger age, you actually free up shed space which can be used to increase cow numbers. Instead of bringing in cattle for a second winter, those cattle should be finished during the summer which in turn would free up more shed space for increased cow numbers, which makes more efficient use of your fixed costs.”

However, he warned that implementing new systems can require fundamental changes to ensure things work together without having to make major investments.

“For example, if a farmer is increasing calving percentages but isn’t decreasing the duration of the finishing system, they’re suddenly adding a lot of extra pressure to shed requirements around calving for example, or forage resources that they might not have the capacity for.

“The best way to free up those resources is to decrease the duration of finishing times from weaning to slaughter – thereby making these combined changes integral to the success of the overall suckler herd management plan.”

This also needs to include what kind of knock-on effects one change in the system may have on the efficiency of another and considerations that need to be taken beforehand to mitigate any issues.

When shrinking the calving window to nine weeks, the life cycle model found carbon to actually increase by 9% due to the number of cows running a year without a calf due to the tighter bulling period. However, when improvements to fertility were made at the same time as tightening the calving block, such as improved cow body condition and bull fertility, more cows were bred in the nine-week window and carbon savings were improved by 4%.

After producers assess their system for what efficiencies can be made and how they will impact the overall system, they should then make a step by step implementation plan and see it through, says Dr Hyslop.

“In order to successfully work towards a more efficient system, it is paramount that producers fully commit to the plan. Changing course halfway through to go back to their former system can cause detrimental consequences to things like cash flow and resource availability,” he said.

“If a producer does the assessments, plans accordingly and sticks to it, they will quickly see the benefits of creating a more efficient and profitable suckler herd system.”

According to the report which was based on benchmarking 12 different suckler herd system scenarios using industry performance from AHDB’s Stocktake report, carbon savings are easily and quickly achievable by improving many things incrementally rather than one thing 100%.from alternative management changes.

Dr Stephen Ross, senior sustainability specialist for Alltech E-CO2 said offspring produced with feed efficient genetics yielded a carbon saving of 7%, which was driven by animals requiring less feed to maintain the same level of growth as animals that weren’t as feed efficient.

When genetics for improved growth reduced the finishing time for steers from 23 months to 18 months, there was a carbon saving of 10%. When those same genetics were applied to bulls, the finishing time decreased to 13 months with a carbon saving of 16%.

However, if producers want to fully optimise their systems for carbon and financial savings, they must incorporate genetic improvement with management changes at the same time as part of a combined suckler herd improvement strategy.