There is limited information on feeding and rearing beef calves, with even less on how feeding calves can impact finishing age and carcass quality. We are now beginning to see supermarket requirements for beef changing, with a greater demand for uniform cuts, and as farmers we invest so much at the finishing stage to meet these requirements.
What if we are missing a vital stage in the beef animal’s life? One where we can influence the carcass and, ultimately, our margin in the first few weeks of life? Would we choose to rear these calves in a different manner and invest more in the calf during when it has its highest feed conversion ratio?
The artificially reared beef calf is a rapidly expanding sector, in which little light has previously been shed. The traditional UK suckler herd is in decline – with numbers the lowest we have seen since the 1980s. A staggering 52% of the beef we eat now originates from the dairy herd. Whether we agree or disagree, it looks like dairy x beef is here to stay. The real question is, how do we produce a carcass that is both economically efficient and appealing to the consumer from these dairy x beef animals?
We know from previous research that feeding elevated levels of milk replacer results in a significantly heavier calf at weaning and 12 weeks. The question now posed; is this advantage eventually diluted by compensatory growth, or can this elevated milk feed affect the lifetime performance of beef animals?
A study carried out at Harper Adams University examined the effect of feeding elevated levels of milk replacer on the lifetime performance of intensively finished bulls. A total of 34 British Blue x Holstein bull calves were reared on either 750g or 900g of calf milk replacer and then fed through to slaughter on an intensive cereal beef system. The calves were fed 5L of milk per day via teat from a Wydale feeder and offered ad-lib early weaning concentrates. Milk feed rates were gradually reduced to weaning at day 42.
The real question is, how do we produce a carcass that is both economically efficient and appealing to the consumer from these dairy x beef animals?
At 12 weeks, the bulls were offered ad-lib concentrates from hoppers, with straw offered ad-lib from racks. The cattle were then selected for slaughter at a target fat class three and slaughtered at ABP, Shrewsbury.
Results were as follows:
|Slaughter wt (kg)||575||582|
|Age at slaughter (days)||417 (13.6)||401 (13.1)|
|DLWG from birth (kg)||1.27||1.33|
Table 1: Animal performance (kg)
|Carcase wt (kg)||321.1||328.8|
|Kill out (%)||55.8||56.5|
|Carcase DG from birth (kg)||0.78||0.82|
|Conformation1 (1-15)||7.2 (R-)||7.5 (R-/R=)|
|Fat class1 (1-15)||5.4 (2=/2+)||4.8 (2=)|
Table 2: Carcase characteristics
|Carcase price (£/kg)1||3.32||3.35|
|Carcase value (£)||1,068||1,101|
Table 3: Financial performance (£)
From the results, we can see that the calves fed with more milk replacer recorded significantly higher carcase daily gains and were slaughtered 16 days earlier. There was a trend for higher DLWGs from birth to slaughter, they also recorded heavier carcase weights (+7.7kg).
Based on the beef prices prevailing at the time of the study, the bulls fed 900g CMR as calves recorded an increase in carcase value worth £33 per bull. This easily recoups the increase in calf rearing costs of £13 with feeding higher levels of CMR. The earlier slaughter of these bulls would result in a reduction in feed intakes thus further increasing the margin.
Artificially rearing beef calves is an area which will need more research and investigation to fully understand how we can optimise the effect on carcass quality, however, from these initial studies the results are promising. They suggest what we have suspected for some time that, similar to the dairy industry, the first 12 weeks of a beef calf’s life has an impact on lifetime performance.
From the results, we can see that the calves fed with more milk replacer recorded significantly higher carcase DLWGs …