Profiting through grass – low-value calves achieving high returns

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Last week, AHDB, the British Grassland Society and LIC ran a joint event hosted by Graham and Pam Clarke. Katie Evans reports on what their farm is doing to profit through grass.

Sourcing calves

Graham manages a dairy-beef system, from rearing calves to selling finished cattle at 24–32 months of age. Calves are purchased privately from two spring-block calving dairy herds with excellent colostrum management. They’re purchased at 7–14 days old, kept in groups of 40 and vaccinated 24 hours after arrival.

Calves are fed twice daily on a milk replacer and calf starter pellets for the first four weeks. Then, before weaning, they’re fed once a day. Two weeks after weaning, calves are turned out on grass with 1 kg of creep feed

How to transition calves to grass

Calves are turned out purely on age and not size. They will continue to have access to the same feed ration they received while housed.

Straw is also offered in the ring feeders to give them some extra fibre and help prevent digestive upset. After turning out, they will start to increase the proportion of grass they intake. The calves are turned out on grass covers that have ideally gone past their best.

In the past, Graham found that when grazing covers less than 2,500 kg DM/ha, it is a bit too good for them.

Once there are 150–180 calves in a mob, grass growth has increased, and the older mob is on a 23-day rotation, he will start grazing the calves in front of the older groups in a leader-follower system until August or September.

This ensures the calves are offered the best and have access to high-quality swards. The older cows come in to clean out the paddocks and hit the target residue of 1,500 kg DM/ha. Throughout the summer, both calf groups will receive half a kg of concentrates until October.

Second grazing season – spring grazing management

In spring, all cattle are on a rotational grazing system with daily moves. Graham always has three fences on the go, a front fence, a back fence and one ahead of them for the next day’s move.

During the wet periods, he had them on 12-hour breaks. For the rest of the summer, they go on 1–3 days breaks.

Graham finds the variety of breeds in the herd lends itself favourably towards this grazing system.

They are bred from grazing cows, so he finds it is already in their blood. All the breeds are treated the same until the finishing stage, as some cattle will need some extra concentrates to get them into spec.

To ensure they are growing each day, they are always offered top-quality grass, entering the field at the target pre-grazing cover and leaving once the target residue is reached. This will help ensure high-quality (12 Metabolizable Energy (ME)) grass is on offer during the next rotation.

Finishing cattle

The finishing bullocks are outwintered on bales and deferred grass and moved every second day. The heifers are wintered on a slatted unit shed with clamp silage. Once conditions are favourable, they are turned out onto spring grass.

Graham starts selling in August, but over the last five years, he has managed to finish a month sooner and with bigger stock.

Come June, he will run them through the crush once a month and draw them out monthly. He supplied Dunbia once a month with Angus, Herefords, and commercials, and they are all sorted on conformation.

This year he sent the first 12 heifers at 285 kg DW to Honest Burgers as they want beef from the grass-fed dairy herd. His average age at slaughter is 27 months, but it is based on good conformation and finish; he does not find weight an issue.

Graham treats all the figures on a mob basis. They are bought as a mob, so he sells them as a mob. Daily weight gain from buying the calf until finished is about 0.6 kg.

Grazing management

Magic Day for the farm is typically around 1 April. This is when the grass supply is greater than the stock requirement.

So, Graham aims to have his first grazing round complete before Magic Day. The aim is always to have 100% of the stock out by 7 March.

Rotational grazing is his weed management tool. Graham finds grazing to 1,500 kg DM/ha with the cattle will graze the weeds out. After years of working on dairy farms, he has a well-trained eye for monitoring the four grazing groups and staying on top of his grass growth wedges.

Contractors are brought in four times a year to apply liquid NPK and sulphur fertiliser. They apply 60 kg N/ha during March, May, and June and then 50 kg N/ha in August. This provides the right amount of grass growth to maintain the stocking rate on the farm.

Peak grass growth demand of 55–60 kg DM/ha/day comes around June when all the calves are out and the maximum number of finishing stock is on the farm.

Then as he moves through July, August, and September, the demand slowly drops 40–45 kg DM/ha/day because he is selling cattle quicker. When grass growth is going well, it can peak around 100 kg DM/ha/day.

How does silage fit into the system?

Everything gets grazed at least twice before he starts dropping fields out due to excess grass. This allows him to drop fields out and graze when needed.

All the silage will be completed by 20 August. After that date, he will focus on building covers to extend the rotation so he can keep livestock out until November.

Risk management is always on his mind, so he carries 500–600 extra bales in case he needs them.

Cost of production

For Graham, it is approximately £100/head for feed inputs from arrival. His key to cost-effectiveness is down to the quality of calves he sources and having good colostrum support from the beginning.

For yearling cattle, when they are on bales, it costs about £600/day. Once he starts grazing, he saves around £400/day, so getting them out a month early saves him about £12,000. To do that and get the growth rates he needs, he invests in reseeding when fields need it.

Low-value calves making high returns – is that the case?

Year on year, it is increasing – on a per ha basis, profit is about £508/ha. This includes CSS (Countryside Stewardship Scheme (ERDP scheme)) but not BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) payments.

Graham’s take-home messages and advice

Simplicity! Keep it simple and work with good contractors.

For those thinking of starting up rotational grazing – invest in back fences, good electric fences, water troughs and soil testing – do not overlook lime!

Further information

Dairy beef production systems

How to manage dairy beef production

Forage for Knowledge (interactive grass growth dashboard)

AHDB Grass

Image of staff member Katie Evans

Katie Evans

Senior Knowledge Exchange Manager - National Specialist (Grass Forage & Soil)

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