BEEF FINISHER Doug Stephen is among the hundreds of suppliers to one of Scotland's major processors who are reaping the benefits of finishing Charolais cross cattle within the specification and to target weight faster than any other Continental cross cattle.

"Both our Charolais cross bulls and heifers are finishing on average three weeks earlier than our other continental crosses, which brings obvious savings to the feed and straw bill of over £73 per head together with fixed costs including labour which is a scarce resource. Furthermore, 92% of the Charolais cross bulls are meeting the processor's specification compared with 70% of the others."

Doug manages Crichie Farms, at Stuartfield, Mintlaw, single-handed and the 1000-acre mixed unit owned by Geordie Burnett Stuart, carries a 150-cow spring calving suckler herd on 300 LFA acres, while 450 acres of lowland is in cropping and the remainder woodland.

"We attempt to maximise the number of kilos produced per acre from home grown resources, and we aim to be efficient as possible which means the fewer days the cattle are on the farm the better."

Apart from heifers retained for replacement purposes, the entire crop of calves are taken through to finishing and sold to McIntosh Donald, which offers support with its Qboxanalysis. This monitoring programme provides producers with comparative information on the on-farm performance of their own animals against the rest of the company's kill, and ultimately enables them to make better on-farm management decisions.

Crichie's Charolais cross bulls are currently finishing at an average 380kg at 14 months, 21 days earlier than the unit's other Continental crosses, while same age Charolais cross heifers fed an identical intensive diet are reaching 300kg target weight. This reflects similar levels achieved by over 58,000 head of bulls incorporated in to the Qboxanalysis.

The Crichie cattle contribute to the Charolais crosses which make up almost 25% of McIntosh Donald's total kill. They finished at an average 352kg within 682 days, 22 days earlier and 14kg heavier than the remainder – a mix of Continental cross and native breeds.

Those performance benefits delivered by the Charolais crosses are estimated to leave an additional income of more than £125 a head over the remainder, when taking in the current 365p/kg average market price (R4L) and 350p/day costs (See table 1).

McIntosh Donald's Murray Gibb adds: "The Qboxanalysis system is providing our suppliers with a quick, easy to access and highly accurate analysis of each animal's classification for benchmarking purposes, both within their herd and as a performance guide against others.

"The feedback also enables them to make more informed decision on their beef enterprise's management practices. Farmers are encouraged to weigh their animals at a younger age, and thereafter more frequently, batch them according to weights rather than age and select more carefully those ready for slaughter.

"Suckler producers may need to select more carefully their terminal sires while finishers need to review their feeding diets to achieve better weight gain and earlier finishing," he argues.

At Crichie Farms, the Qboxanalysis data is examined after each kill. "We look forward to seeing how the first pick of bulls of the season has performed and if the changes we've made during the cycle have impacted on their performance," says Doug.

"For example, we've selected naturally-grown Charolais bulls on conformation for over 25 years. However, more recently, we've started to use Breedplan data as an extra tool taking in EBVs for calving ease and growth rate. The latest bull we purchased is consistently delivering easily calved calves with faster growth rates and fewer days to finish, whilst 75% of his bulls and one third of the heifers are grading within the U specification."

Nutrition has also come under the microscope. "While we were relatively satisfied with performance, after looking at the Qboxanalysis, we believed our cattle had the potential to be taken to the next level, so our Harbro nutritionist, David Mackenzie, formulated a series of higher energy rations based on homegrown barley."

Creep offered from mid-August comprises 8.71%DM, 12.9MJ/kg ME and 18.5% crude protein. Calves are weaned in late October at an average 300kg, housed and introduced to a grower diet with a similar dry matter and energy specification, CP is reduced to 16.6% and added to barley straw, wheat dark grains and minerals. The same diet is tweaked and CP reduced further to 14.7% for the final 90 days of finishing.

"The change in diet spec' has resulted in a massive improvement in performance; for example the bulls average DLG has improved by 10% to 1.52kg, consequently days to finishing has been reduced by 5%," he says adding: "At the end of the day, we're paid on weight and it has to be produced efficiently. Our enterprise is delivering with a powerful combination of Charolais genetics and a mainly home-grown diet, and our processor's monitoring programme is helping us to keep on track."