By Dr Jimmy Hyslop, retired beef specialist, SAC Consulting

Making money from beef has always been difficult, but it is becoming increasingly so with continued decline in the fat trade. Add to that the government's objectives to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and it seems like an improbable task.

However, it is now well accepted by scientists and practical farmers alike that all those things we should do to improve efficiency and increase profitability are largely the same things we should do to reduce the GHG emissions associated with producing the food that people need and want.

GHG emissions are usually expressed on a unit of food produced basis. For beef produced, this is typically presented per kg of cold carcase weight or per liveweight kg produced.

How does efficiency apply to all the inputs, not just feed?

Feed efficiency is critically important, so a balanced ration is essential to deliver targeted daily liveweight gain. However, it is a combination of many factors. Feedstuffs containing high levels of fats or oils – eg distillers dark grains or equivalents – have been shown to reduce GHGs without minimising either efficiency or productivity if fed in the right amounts. Where the price is right then these high oil feeds can be used successfully.

Selecting for cattle that convert feed more efficiently to achieve the same level of liveweight gain is currently beyond most finishers but several initiatives such as the Stabiliser Net Feed Efficiency (NFE) project and applied EBV for NFE are now up and running.

That programme repeatedly found that the best performing third used 13% less feed to produce the same level of the overall performance compared to the lowest performing third. Feed cost savings of £23 per head over a 12-week feeding period exists between the most efficient and the least efficient third of Stabiliser cattle tested.

Through more efficient conversion of feed into growth resulted in those animals also emitting approximately 15% less methane emissions without changing the animal’s carcase output, carcase grade, on the eating quality of the beef produced, or on the scrotal circumference of the breeding bulls tested (an indicator of fertility in both bulls and breeding heifers). Furthermore, NFE is a trait that is 37% (+/- 0.11) heritable so selecting for NFE will breed future generations of cattle that are more feed efficient. It is a big area of opportunity.

It has now been well established that short duration finishing systems use the least amount of feed to produce a saleable carcase compared to longer duration finishing systems.

They also tend to be the systems with the greatest profit potential. Getting from a weaned calf to a saleable carcase in as few days as possible, with as little total feed as possible and therefore, minimal GHG emissions should satisfy all of these critical needs.

Making sure that productivity losses due to animal health problems are avoided is key to both profit and reducing GHG. Health problems within the cow herd reduce calf numbers and performance. Subsequent health problems in the calves themselves – eg respiratory disease – will further reduce output, efficiency and profit whilst increasing GHG output per unit of beef sold.

Analysing your forage to ensure productivity is not lost and extra money is not spent unnecessarily is also critical. Managing heifer replacements to calve at two rather than three years of age for the first time is similar in principle to short duration finishing systems in that it seeks to minimise the time that unproductive animals cost you money and produce GHGs in the process.

What about the inputs we call “fixed costs”?

Efficiency in fixed cost usage is critically important to both profitability and minimising GHG emissions. As far as short duration finishing systems are concerned where finishing cattle are not turned out to grass; the real benefit of utilising sheds over the summer in this way is that the extra grassland can be used to generate profit elsewhere from a wide variety of suitable and profitable enterprises.

The business as a whole can then generate additional profit from additional output with the same fixed costs – land, labour, buildings and machinery. Where this option is used to keep extra cows that rear extra calves then improved output and efficiency for the beef enterprise as a whole is what improves the long term economic sustainability of the business.

The same principle can be applied to many aspects of fixed cost usage. Keeping more cows and producing more calves does not necessarily need extra silage pits to store extra silage, for example. Firstly, total feed needs should not go up if the extra cattle are more feed efficient as discussed above due to shorter duration feeding systems.

Secondly, there are ways to maximise the feed that can be stored within your existing silage pits. Using a silage packer can increase the storage of dry matter in each m3 of silage pit by 20-30%. Many contractors now have these machines available so more feed DM can be stored in the same fixed cost space.

Alternatively, making some of your winter forage as wholecrop cereals will also ensile more DM per m3 of pit space due to the higher DM content of the wholecrop itself compared to grass silage. Thinking in these, only slightly “out of the box” ways can significantly improve output, efficiency and profitability as a whole.

What about improving output per unit of grassland?

More reseeding, better weed control and more fertiliser in the right places will improve output, efficiency and profit potential on many beef farms.

Increased profit and reduced GHG can both be achieved by seeking better efficiencies and accompanying increases in output across all beef production systems. Who knows exactly what is about to happen as we engage with the wider world post EU membership?

One thing is certain, however, we will all need to think “out of the box” if beef system profitability is to be sustained long term.