Maximising weight gain from a consistent ration

In the first of a series of case studies, Joanne Pugh visits a North East farmer whose specially devised rations are key to cost control in his business.

KEEPING the suckler cow as cheaply as possible while getting plenty of weight on her offspring is the game plan for Alan Medd at West Whorley Hill, Winston, Co. Durham.

In addition to a 100-head suckler herd, he buys in around 200 black and white bulls over a 12-month period, finishing them at 13 months and 270-300kg deadweight.

Housing is tight during the winter and a lot of progeny from the suckler herd is sold as stores.

As he would prefer to finish a lot of these animals himself, Mr Medd takes pride in ensuring they are as heavy as possible before sale - bulls going to a private buyer and heifers via Barnard Castle market.

Last autumn, heifer suckled calves were sold at 11 months (500kg) having put on 1.37kg/day from birth. Bulls weighed an average 580kg having done 1.61kg/day.

Alongside this, having bought a mixer wagon two years ago, formulating specific rations has become an integral part of achieving this.

In the summer, the wagon is used every other day to provide the black and white bulls with a TMR, currently costing 94p/head/day, and suckler calves with a creep mix. The cost is based on a daily gain of 1.32kg. As an indication of efficiency, the bulls were converting at 6.8:1 at 450kg liveweight.

When suckler cows come indoors for the winter (usually from mid-October until early May) different rations are provided the spring calvers and autumn calvers.

Mr Medd said he was worried about his lack of experience feeding a TMR, when making the decision about buying a mixer wagon.

He was keen to have a contract with a nutritionist - 'the brains behind it all' - and has been working with Keenan's Seth Wareing since the day the wagon arrived on farm.

The priority has always been to make the most of the feed grown on the farm. Alongside 280 acres of grassland (used for the suckler herd, an outdoor-lambing sheep flock of 550 breeding ewes and one 40-acre cut of silage), 145 acres of cereals are grown, including 30 acres for lupicalage and five acres of fodder beat. The only bought-in feed is potale syrup.

Mr Wareing recommended this over a previously-bought dry mix of soya, rape and sugar beet.

Mr Medd said the syrup was working well - it was cheaper, had increased palatability. “The first couple of days we fed it, it did cause some excitement,” he said. “And it has increased intakes, definitely.”

Palatability is particularly important for the black and white bulls whose ration is changed three times a year to keep interest and drive intakes. This is usually a small thing such as altering the ingredients ratio.

Knowing the risk of dairy bulls putting on frame rather than weight, Mr Medd works with his vet to ensure they get the best start as calves. Building ventilation has been improved and a vaccination programme put in place to prevent pneumonia - a past problem.

Autumn-born calves from the suckler herd are sold straight off the cow at 10-11 months, while spring-born calves are weaned at eight to nine months.

Dams are mostly Limousin cross Holsteins with some Hereford crosses mixed in. Cows are served by one of two high genetic merit Charolais bulls while Hereford semen is used on heifers, which are bought in as calves rather than home-bred.

Savings have been made in keeping suckler cows throughout the winter, as their ration is based mainly on straw and silage and a consistent ration had certainly improved performance, he said.

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