The BETTER Farm NI programme has consistently shown that with good management, the bull beef system is the most profitable.

In 2020, gross margin per hectare (GM/ha) averaged £1,137, compared to £518 across the four farms joining the programme in 2016. This compares with a GM/ha of £835 last year on the farms with steer systems.

On three farms, GM/ha exceeded £1,000 in 2020, as outlined in Table 1, whereas just one steer farm exceeded the target GM of £1,000/ha.

Stocking rate

Land is the limiting factor on most farms and bull beef systems allow more cows to be carried, as male calves only spend one year at grass, unlike steer and store cattle farms.

Stocking rate on the five farms averaged 2.61 CE/ha last year, up from 1.89 CE/ha in the base year of 2016.

On a per-cow basis, steer systems delivered a higher gross margin per cow at £848 compared with £738 on the bull finishing farms. However, because of higher stocking rates and the subsequent increase in output, bull systems averaged £1,246 GM/ha compared with £897 on steer farms.

Oliver McKenna, Eskra, Co Tyrone

Oliver’s GM/ha increased to £1,570 in 2020, the highest across all farms. However, this figure is partially inflated, as the farm lost rented land last year.

If forage area remained static, GM/ha would still have exceeded £1,200, or a 50% increase from 2016.

The farm had built up to 60 cows, split evenly between spring and autumn calving. This is closer to 50 cows for 2021.

Bull performance has steadily increased over the last three years.

In 2018, bulls averaged 373kg deadweight at 476 days of age (15.8 months) and a beef price of £3.44/kg.

By 2020, carcase weight averaged 386kg at 450 days, with beef price at £3.62/kg.

The herd is 100% bred to AI and heifers surplus to breeding requirement are now sold as suckler replacements.

This has also added significant value to sales over beef finishing.

Declan Rafferty and Aidan Quinn, Pomeroy, Co Tyrone

Declan and Aidan have built the herd to 80 spring-calving and 20 autumn-calving cows.

GM/ha has increased from £648 to £1,220, with steady progress year on year.

Carcase weight averaged 347kg at 444 days in 2018, with a beef price of £3.55/kg.

By 2020, carcase weight averaged 340kg at 458 days and a beef price of £3.61/kg.

Carcase weight is down, as the herd has moved to using maternal genetics. But carcase weight is not an indicator of profit.

Maternal breeding has seen calf performance rising from 1.1kg/day to 1.37kg/day from cows on a grass-only diet.

Weaning weight is now 60kg heavier at 318kg. This means a shorter finishing period once bulls are housed.

Total concentrate use fell from 119t in 2017 to 95t in 2020, despite similar numbers finished.

Heifers are now sold as suckler replacements, again adding value.

Paul Jamison, Dromore, Co Down

Paul farms on a part-time basis with his father Thomas.

GM/ha has almost doubled from £478 in 2016 to £959 last year.

This will increase further as the herd settles around 75 spring-calving cows, up from 56 in 2016.

Cow type is changing from a pure Limousin animal to crossbred cows with better maternal traits to drive weaning weight. This will shorten the time from weaning until finishing.

Bull calves averaged 260kg when weaned in 2020 and, with more maternally bred cows in the herd, this should quickly increase.

Lighter weaning weights mean Paul has required higher use of concentrate. Last year, the farm used 103t.

However, this will be lower in 2021, as the calving period is now down to 12 weeks from over 20 weeks three years ago.

Carcase weight averaged 377kg in 2020 at 488 days, with an average beef price of £3.56/kg.

Abbey Farm, CAFRE

The suckler herd at Abbey Farm has increased GM/ha by £209 to £1,239 in 2020, with stocking rate rising from 2.18 to 2.5 CE/ha.

Carcase weight averaged 382kg at 445 days, with beef price averaging £3.50/kg.

Carcase weight was 389kg in 2018, but bulls were on farm for an extra 21 days on average.

Bulls were finished on 1.62t/head last year, with high-quality silage (74+ D-value) limiting capping concentrates at a maximum 8kg/day during the final intensive feeding period.

The herd only uses proven Stabiliser genetics through AI and stock bulls. All sires selected have high EBVs to drive calf performance and improve maternal traits in breeding females.

This is reflected in the 2020 bull calves averaging a 200-day weaning weight of 331kg, or a gain of 1.45kg/day on the cow.

Jonathan Blair, Ballykelly, Co Derry

GM/ha hit £698/ha in 2020 and while this was down by £51 on 2019, it is a huge improvement from 2016. Back then, the farm was understocked at just 0.88 CE/ha.

Stocking rate is now 1.96CE/ha, with cow numbers rising to more than 97 animals scanned in-calf last autumn.

The herd has been expanding since 2016, so GM is likely to rise further as cattle sales stabilise with steady breeding numbers.

Carcase weight last year averaged 407kg at 464 days, with an average beef price of £3.53/kg. In 2018, bulls averaged 371kg at 472 days.

The heaviest weaned calves are finished as bulls, with the lighter calves finished as steers. Last year, steers averaged 376kg at 701 days.

The farm has scope to run more cattle as steers, but housing is a limiting factor.

Steers would have to be slaughtered off grass at the end of the second year.

Read more

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BETTER farm NI: £233/ha gross margin increase for steer systems