By David Mackenzie, Harbro beef and sheep director

Subsidy change, environmental pressure and changing consumer demands means that the UK beef industry needs a clear strategy for the future.

Like every business, the need to improve output and efficiency by looking at the unit of fixed cost is the key area we have to focus on. This can only be achieved if you establish (and benchmark) where your current output is, set a target to aim at and look at the barriers against achieving this.

In an attempt to futureproof the beef industry and prepare for this period of uncertainty, one key strategy is to separate the nutritional advice for both male and female cattle.


When looking at increasing output per cow, the quickest win is lifting the weight of heifers and underperforming males at slaughter, without laying down excessive fat cover.

While the larger framed females are generally being kept for replacements, heifers aimed at the food chain, should be where we focus to improve.

Most herds breeding their own replacements are already looking to get their heifers off to the best possible start in life. These animals are the future of the herd and attention to detail early on can make a huge difference to lifetime performance.

Alongside nutrition, genetics and management also dictate your future outputs. One of the key periods for nutrition is in the first 12 months of age when the balance of quality protein and dietary starch can make a huge difference to the development of frame size, so a planned nutrition programme is an important consideration.

This will ensure your females are suitable for bulling at a younger age, or if destined for slaughter, have a frame ready to utilise starch and achieve the best carcass weight output.

Abattoir data taken over the past few years from one of the UK’s largest processors of Aberdeen-Angus cattle highlighted a trend towards higher carcase weights.

Significantly, this has been achieved without any detrimental impact on fatness, with the percentage of cattle in the 3-4L classes actually increasing slightly.

The impact of weight was significant:

Males averaged 335 kg in 2006 up to 352kg in 2017 at 729 days.

Heifers averaged 286 kg in 2006 up to 313kg in 2017 at 726 days.

The nett increase in output between 2006 and 2018 is around 25kg, an increase in output of almost £100 per head. This sort of increase is essential to the survival of many suckler herds.


Not ignoring the retailer pressure on the upper weight of carcases, the clear message for males is to aim to have the heavier end killed at a younger age, thus reducing the store growing period.

With the best genetics available today, there is a need to match correct nutrition at an early stage to maximise their full potential for the producer, processors and retailer. Harbro has recently run a number of on-farm intensive trials where we are repeatedly seeing the top Angus males achieving 2kg per day of liveweight gain on new nutrition systems.

Collectively, the bottom third of all cattle are where we put our particular focus on, and clearly where the biggest improvement in output gain will come from.

Slow growth is less nutrient efficient, so weight for age is the best measure to focus on. This doesn’t necessarily mean pushing growth at any cost as every farm should look to maximise performance whilst operating the system most suited to their geography and farm facilities.

In many cases, looking at the bottom third gives the best opportunity to identify immediate focus areas in any business.

The future:

We will need to challenge our systems to improve efficiency.

Whilst we need to continue the focus on the key fundamentals, we need also to challenge new areas of science which could bring significant benefits.

One of the most interesting areas is the developing science of epigenetics. Studies in both humans and animals have demonstrated the ability to switch on (or off) key genes through specific nutritional interventions. This ‘nutritional programming’ has potential to not only impact the animal itself, but has been shown to influence gene expression through future generations.

Areas such as epigenetics show us that a scientific approach, coupled with data at each stage of production, can help us make improvements essential to safeguard farms and the market for the future.

With a changing industry, we must get a handle on our current output and set a target of what can be achieved. It is imperative that the genetic decisions being made take into account the needs of the market in the future to ensure we have a sustainable supply chain.