Calving beef heifers at two years of age instead of three not only saves £600 per head, but also ensures increased productivity with such females producing more calves and of a heavier weight throughout their lifetime.

That was the welcoming news from Sarah Pick, a Nuffield Scholar who told delegates attending the British Cattle Breeders’ online conference, that figures from AHDB show that the average suckler producer is in the red by a staggering £135 per cow before subsidy, with many of the more productive farmers also losing money.

Miss Pick, who travelled throughout much of the world during her scholarship on breeding a more functional suckler herd, added that while calving at 24 months has been commonplace in the US, Canada and Australia, since the 1970s, only 35% of UK producers do so.

“It appears that UK farmers are more interested in terminal sires and producing finished animals that top the market, but they should be asking themselves is that animal profitable?

“Maternal traits should take priority when looking to breed suckler females as two thirds of the cost of producing a calf are attributable to the suckler cow,” she said.

Miss Pick, who is also knowledge exchange programme manager with AHDB, added that beef scientist, Professor Bart Lardner, from the University of Saskatchewan, believed maternal traits were worth five times more than those of terminal characteristics to a suckler producer.

Furthermore, having visited many productive units in the US she said, Jeremy Holtman, who had 360 composite cows, is able to calve his heifers at two years of age with 93% of the herd conceiving within 55 days, as a result of continually focussing on female characteristics.

“By striving to breed functional cows, his cows calve every 365 days unassisted, producing a live weaned calf with low maintenance costs."

In contrast, just 85% of suckler cows in the UK wean a calf every year. As a result, she urged producers to look more at maternal EBV figures when selecting a bull and outwith calving ease, to consider age at first calving, mature size, milk and scrotal size.

Instead of concentrating on breeding big, 700kg cows which cost more to keep due to increased feed costs, she added that females are more efficient at a moderate 550-600kg size.

Ensuring heifers calve at two years of age does, however, require better nutrition, with such animals having to gain 1kg per day up to weaning and then another 0.7kg per day up to breeding at 14 months.

“Heifers for breeding need to have reached 65% of their mature weight at 14 months of age. They also have reach 85% of their mature weight before calving at two so don’t be afraid of providing additional nutrition pre-calving as they have to be fit enough to calve and come back to the bull a second time.”

Supplementary feeding could also be required after calving to ensure a body condition score of three is maintained and for breeding as early as possible a second time.

She encouraged producers to cull hard, particularly on late and bad calvings, poor milk and temperament.

By selecting the oldest heifers within a group to breed from, which in turn would have been bred from the most fertile cows, she said conception rates would improve.

Add in a shorter breeding season with those that fail to hold to the bull being sold, and fertility and productivity ultimately improve.

“It is better to sell an open heifer rather than persevering trying to get her in calf.

“Calving beef heifers at two years of age should be common place in the UK if we are to reduce our costs of production which can be achieved by striving to breed a functional herd of cows that will lead to a more profitable and a sustainable beef industry,” she said.