Black and whites prove a challenge

THE finishing of male black and white cattle has always posed a challenge to producers but one expert believes rearing steers turned out to grass over the summer can be a profitable option.

Dr Ruth Lawson, ruminant nutritionist with North Yorkshire-based W.E. Jameson, says high cereal prices have driven many farmers to look for an alternative to bull beef production.

Castrating black and white bull calves and using a relatively low-input management system can produce good results, but it will require a very different approach, she warns.

“The correct feeding of black and white steers is highly specialised, largely because, like dairy cows, they have a tendency to use food to make protein and grow in stature, rather than laying down fat,” says Dr Lawson.

“They are easy to manage at grass, but not so easy to finish, compared with other cattle.”

She says research from the USA has shown black and white steers will eat 7-20 per cent more food than standard beef breeds, so anyone experimenting with the enterprise for the first time will need to bear this in mind.


Steer beef animals taken to an average 24 months will consume around a tonne of cereals, of which 75 per cent should be utilised at the finishing stage, she says.

A system involving a compensatory growth period is essential to keep costs down, adds Dr Lawson. She recommends a winter diet for weanlings which comprises good quality silage and around 0.5-1kg per day of a concentrate feed, including vitamins and minerals.

“The aim should be for a growth rate of 0.5-0.6kgs during the housing period, when costs are at their highest,” she explains. “This slow weight gain will be compensated for, without any negative effects, after turnout. In fact, trials have shown steers fed on a restrictive basis have a reduced maintenance requirement.”

Despite potential advantages of feeding a limited quantity of cereals to growing cattle, Dr Lawson says care must be taken to avoid acidosis, which can result in death in extreme cases and will seriously affect weight gain, even at low levels.

As rumen pH falls, it encourages the growth of lactic acid bacteria, which will compound the problem.

She says signs of the disease include loose, grey and foamy faeces, with cattle looking weak. If one animal is showing obvious signs of being unwell, up to 50 per cent of the rest of the cattle may be affected.


She adds many animals will recover if action is taken, but their ability to absorb nutrients will be seriously impaired on a permanent basis.

“Acidosis is triggered by low rumen pH, which typically remains at 6-7 in a healthy animal on a forage-based diet, but can drop to as low as 5-6 when high quantities of cereal are offered,” says Dr Lawson.

“One of the most common causes is a sudden change of diet, so it is advisable to allow a three week adjustment period for the introduction of any new component in the ration.

“Growing cattle should always have fresh food in front of them, so the ration they are consuming in the morning is the same quality as the feed they consume later on in the day.

“Producers on a TMR system should make sure they blend the ingredients well to prevent the animals from picking out the choicest elements and leaving the rest.

“In some cases, a supplement, such as yeast, can also be useful as it will remove some of the excess acid in the rumen.”

Feeding tips

Feeding black and white steers – tips and targets from Dr Lawson.

  • Ideally, the cattle will come out of their first winter weighing around 300kg at turnout, with a target of 490kg at second housing
  • This should result in a finished liveweight of 600-620kgs, with overall weight gain averaging 0.8kgs/day
  • Grades of 80 per cent O and 20 per cent P are achievable under this regime

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