By Dr Clive Dalton
If you are going to farm cattle, you’ll have to decide what system will suit you and your farm. There are so many options it’s easy to get confused, so you’d be wise to take advice from experienced beef farmers and/or livestock agents.
Here are some basic systems for you to think about, but remember that the cattle business isn’t organised into neat numbered categories beloved by academics. You’ll find all sorts of variations with no obvious pattern, and always plenty of folk looking for a smart deal!
1. Buy 4-day-old bobby calves and grow them to 4-month-old dairy weaners around 70-80kg.
- First realise what a “bobby” calf is, as defined by the MAF code of welfare for bobby calves. The organisations that collect bobby calves view them as a quality product for export veal so they must be treated with great care.
- If the calves are Jersey or Jersey x Friesian of either sex, they will not be worth rearing. If the sire of the calf (out of a Jersey cow) is a Hereford or a large European breed bull, then the calf may be worth buying if the price is right and it is a good strong calf.
- After the dairy season has been going for about 3 weeks, dairy farmers start putting really good Holstein Friesian and Hereford x Friesian calves on the bobby truck because they have not had time to send them to the weekly “feeder” calf sales.
- Or they will allow a regular buyer in to have a pick before the calves go on the bobby truck. These can be a good buy.
- It all depends on the individual calf – if you buy so-called bobby calves, make sure they have a good solid conformation and are as big and heavy as possible. Aim for about 35kg weight at four days old which is the average weight of a Holstein Friesian these days.
- And go for bulls and then heifers last as they grow the slowest. Only good big calves will make the target weight of 70-80kg by about 12 weeks old.
- Never take tiny calves thinking they’ll make great “pets” for the kids as they are most likely premature or induced (aborted) and will be prone to health problems. Their young owners get very upset when they die or have to be euthanased.
2. Buy 4-day-old “feeder” calves to sell as 4-months old dairy weaners at 90-95kg.
- Feeder calves are generally the better end of the bobbies that farmers offer for sale either on the farm or in the saleyard. It’s much better to get them direct from the farm if you can.
- These should be big calves and achieve the 4-month target weight of 90-95kg. Buy the biggest calves you can and avoid the small ones, especially the cheap ones at the end of a sale.
- The best buys are straight Holstein-Friesians (with four white feet and white tail tip), Hereford x Friesian (black or red body colour with white head) or European breed bull x Friesian. Bull calves are first choice to be left as bulls, or you could castrate them.
- Steers grow slower than bulls but faster than heifers. Well-fed bull calves starting at 35kg will easily reach 90-100kg by 12 weeks. Make your target close to 1kg/day. You should get at least 0.75kg/day.
3. Rear dairy weaners to 4 months old, sell some, and keep some to 14-16 months old
- This is a similar system to 2 above but you only sell about half the calves at 4 months.
- Then farm the rest on to eat the grass on the farm into summer and early autumn.
- Depending on the feed you can grow in winter, you can farm them on and sell them on the “grass market” next spring when 14-16 month’s old.
- This keeps your farm stocked and if you want some cash, you can always sell some of the older cattle.
- Make sure the older cattle are gone before feed is needed by the next intake of calves.
4. Buy dairy weaner calves around 100kg, and grow them all on to sell as stores or slaughter at 12-14 months or later.
- Here instead of rearing calves you buy them as “dairy weaners” and there are always plenty available.
- They are sold at special dairy weaner sales from October to January at around 90-110kg, and you can winter and sell them 14 months later on the spring “grass” market (September to October).
- Buy them at sales with scales so you know the price/kg. If you buy privately, insist on a weight before you offer a price.
- Some growers buy 70kg weaners to get them growing on good pasture that calf rearers often don’t have. They are also cheaper/head and require less capital outlay.
- Sell the heifers for slaughter as yearlings as they’ll be first to get to a grading weight.
- Sell the heifers for mating as yearlings either as dairy or beef cows.
- Sell the bulls (if not castrated) as 12-month-old stores to bull beef farmers who will take them to heavier weights, or for slaughter.
- If the males were castrated, then sell the steers as stores to farmers who will need to take them on to 16 months old and maybe farm them a second winter (not very likely).
- At all costs avoid having to keep anything for a second winter.
- Holstein-Friesian bulls should average 1kg/day over this entire period and be around 530kg live weight at 14 months. Steers would average around 0.6kg/head/day and heifers 0.5kg/head/day. But these weight gains depend totally on feeding levels.
- Hereford x Friesians perform about the same as straight Friesians, assuming they are all healthy and well fed.
- You must get rid of all your large cattle before the next crop of dairy weaners arrive on the farm. Your income from the big cattle can finance the cost of the new ones.
5. Buy store cattle in autumn and sell the following spring
- Rather than buy dairy weaners in November/January on a “grass” market, delay and buy bigger calves in autumn (around May).
- This is the time most people are getting rid of stock before winter as they don’t have enough feed.
- Plan to have enough feed to winter stock, then they can be a good investment.
- Sell them again on the following year’s spring “grass market” when people are looking for stock.
6. Buy single-suckled beef weaners around 200kg and sell them as stores, or grow them on to forward stores or for slaughter.
- These are usually beautiful well-fleshed calves as they have single-suckled their mothers for six months. Their ancestry is usually of beef breed origin.
- Their good start in life should allow them to average near 1kg/head/day until you quit them a year later as 16-18 month cattle to make room and free up capital for the next lot coming in.
- They could be straight off the hills and consequently a bit wild, not having seen many humans or small paddocks. You will need good facilities to handle them.
- Make sure if you buy them you know their background. If an agent buys them for you, give him/her strict instructions about your needs.
- They will normally quieten them down when fed hay and by not stressing them when moving them quietly between paddocks for a while. Just open the gate and go back later after they have gone through until they get used to you being around.
- Some cattle may never settle so be prepared to get rid of them and your stock agent. Wild cattle are an accident waiting to happen.
7. Buy and sell forward store cattle or send them for slaughter.
- “Forward stores” are cattle that are nearly ready for slaughter. They just need a bit of “topping off”. You can add more weight and sell them again as forward stores, or send them for slaughter.
- If you like to see good cattle in your front paddock, then this is an option, especially if you can source a nice line of traditional breed (Angus or Hereford) big steers.
- Initially these cattle require a lot of capital to buy, but they’ll not be on the farm for long so your money will keep working and you’ll have no problem selling top stock.
8. Keep breeding cows to rear their own calves to weaning at 6 months of age (called beef weaners or single-suckled calves).
- If you keep breeding cows, you’ll have to deal with the challenges of calving, and then 6-8 weeks after that you’ll have to organise mating to keep calving on a strict annual basis.
- This will mean having a bull or organising an Artificial Insemination (AI) programme.
- Generally this system gives few problems as each cow only has to rear her own calf.
- But it is not very productive in terms of feed conversion into beef as you keep the cow (and its capital investment) for 12 months to produce only one 6-month-old calf.
- Average performance is 80% calves weaned/cow mated, and 90% cows pregnant with 90% calf survival to weaning. Expect 1-2% cow losses each year.
9. Keep cull dairy cows and foster extra calves on them.
- This is a system to make the cow (and your capital) work harder.
- You buy extra calves and foster them on the cow singly or in groups.
- But it certainly involves a lot of extra work and the risk of buying in disease.
- It's too hard to try and foster extra calves on to beef cows - so dairy cows are best, and they have more milk so can rear more calves.
10. Farm once-bred heifers
- Here you keep heifers and get a calf out of them before sending them for slaughter.
- The calf does not suck the heifer and she is slaughtered very soon after calving.
- To still qualify as heifer beef, she must have no more than six permanent teeth.
- The heifer will normally be 30-36 months of age at slaughter.
- This is more a finishing system than a breeding system with the calf as a bonus.
- It came in as a great idea to increase beef production efficiency, but is not a very common practice.
11. Buy dairy weaner bull calves at 4 months old around 90-110 kg and keep them to slaughter at 12-14 months.
- Generally this is not for small farms with young families running around.
- You need good fences and good stock skills, and with these it can be a very simple system.
- Bulls grow fast and produce very lean beef and you are paid simply on weight as there is no grading as with steers and heifers.
- Bulls can be run under intensive systems but they are better run as a more extensive operation where animals are left undisturbed as much as possible.
12. Buy and sell cattle of any age.
- If you love saleyards and the thrill of buying and selling, then this system is for you.
- You’ll have to always stay till the very end of the sale, and certainly always attend sales on cold wet days when most sensible folk stay at home. Here you pick up the stock that nobody else wants.
- You’ll risk making some bad buys but you’ll also get some bargains. You’re really a “cattle dealer” and without some Irish genes in your pedigree it could be a risky business.
- The skill is to buy more bargains than disasters and not to have to spend money on keeping your purchases alive. You must quit them before they start to cost YOU money.
- If you don’t fancy the buying and selling part, then you can work through stock agents with a loose arrangement that your agent knows you are always in for a bargain or good deal that the agent will find for you, and for him/her! Be prepared to win some and lose some.
- You will of course have to pay commission for this service whether you end up in profit or debt and transport costs.
- Your property may start to look like a menagerie with stock of all sizes, colours and ages if the view from your lounge window or the comments from your neighbours are important to you.
Disclaimer This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.