Optimism may be a key ingredient for beef producers looking ahead to a bright future, but they also need to be realists.
One of the most recent changes affecting the industry is a further tightening of weight limits for cattle sold deadweight. Adapting is not about changing your breed, but it does means looking hard at management systems.
The beef industry is more a cruise liner than speedboat when it comes to altering course, but the earlier the warning of future changes, the earlier producers can respond and adapt. Remember, it wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark!
Putting cattle away at 400-420kg deadweight will drive more efficiency, but it has not been easy to adjust overnight, although many beef farmers are now fully aware of it and are adapting accordingly.
The most significant change will see many larger, continental type cattle not having extended store periods. Previously, many would be put to spring or summer grass where they would grow on further and then be housed at relatively heavy weights before intensive feeding.
Now, this is no longer required. They will be intensively fed, giving high growth rates earlier which, in turn, will lead them to finish within the desired weights and at a relatively young age.
This system is not for all breeds and many will still suit the grass systems. However, monitoring those at grass is essential as while the first few summer months on most farms will give good growth rates from mid-summer till autumn growth can be noticeably reduced.
There must be thought about when they should be housed or given supplementary feeding while grazing. Store producers are also becoming more aware that they should be looking at selling stores at the optimum time (which for many will be earlier) for finishers to finish at the right stage.
The majority of finishers want cattle that are approximately 12 to 14 months at 400 kg plus. This policy is certainly true with Continental types, but many of the maternal type cattle will continue to be kept longer to maximise weight and return to the producer. Weaned cattle trades at seven to nine months remain an option for many.
Remember, there has been rapid progress in genetics in recent years, especially those affecting mature weight and live weight gain. It has produced cattle from Continental breeds that can be taken to heavy weights without laying down too much fat.
Recorded pedigree bulls were previously rewarded for lean-ness (less fat cover). When these bull types were then crossed to Continental type cows, they produced cattle with little if any fat cover. This resulted in finishing cattle being taken to heavy weights and being fully paid for all weight.
However, other types, mainly from maternal/traditional breeds, are still producing carcases (mainly heifers) with too much cover. On many farms, the best heifers are kept for breeding, so those destined for finishing will be smaller types.
Many finishers want to put more weight on to heifers when more often they are not putting on weight in the final stages, but fat. This is expensive, as laying down a kg of fat takes four times as much energy as laying down lean tissue.
Heifers need to have their own diet and stretched on more, so that they keep starch down until later in finishing.
With our beef cruise liner we need to know on what any future prime cattle income will be based. VIA (video image analysis) is slowly replacing visual grading, but will that continue?
Will any future payment system move away from grading to a detailed payment based on what yield that carcase can produce? This means maximising yield from the top cuts which means more loin – and that’s about length and not back-end.
My point is that adaptation is not about complete change, it is often just about just seeing what small part can be taken on. No one can go back and have a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.
We must not just look at how individual livestock units operate but take a whole farm approach where other ventures could potentially help the whole business increase profitability.
Remember, beef produced in Scotland has a strong reputation and is reared in areas where little if any other activity could be adopted and which turns poor vegetation into protein that can be fed to the population.
‘Events’ can make the future unpredictable and so Brexit will be important, but so is constant unrest throughout the world. Amidst so much uncertainty, we should remember that if we want fed, then there is no place like home to produce it.