Calf Growth Rate Targets – What They Should Be And How to Achieve Them
Achieving optimal calf growth rates is key to maximising returns for a suckler herd. Not only does this ensure a calf reaches the target carcase specification within a desirable timescale, it also means it does it with the most efficient use of rations.
But with the different rearing methods and different calves, how do you achieve and measure this to make sure you’re running the most profitable suckler herd you can? In this blog, we take a look at calf growth rate targets and what management decisions you need to take to optimise them.
Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR)
The rate at which a suckler calf gains weight is measured by the Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR). It equals the weight of feed intake by an animal divided by the weight gain of the animal. Lower values indicate a higher feed efficiency and typically these should be between 6 and 10 for beef cattle.*
An important aspect of FCR to understand, however, is that it is at its most efficient in young animals that are growing quickly, and tails off in older animals. This is because younger animals use more of the energy and protein in their ration to grow rather than to maintain their weight, and it is the reason suckler calves start out on grass when they are young and fast growing, and are finished on higher energy rations.
FCR and DLWG targets are different depending on the type of calves being raised – bulls, steers, or heifers – as well as the rearing system utilised. As a result, we could not cover every different scenario in one article. However, what follows is a general guidance plan that is designed to produce the best returns for moderately-sized, finished suckled calves from spring calving herds.
Of the three types of calves raised for meat, finishing bulls is the most time critical. This is because it is imperative they reach target market specification by 14 months of age. With steers and heifers, there is a bit more leeway.
Once a bull reaches 14 months old, FCR declines significantly and the tenderness of the meat is impacted as testosterone levels rise. Also, bulls beyond 14 months often grow too heavy for market specifications.
Bulls should be weaned around seven to eight months of age and it is not uncommon to creep feed at this point to help acclimatise them to a concentrate diet. This can also reduce finished time by two to three weeks, which can be critical in reaching that 14 month deadline.
Calves should be weighed at weaning as this enables the producer to calculate the DLWG needed to produce the target weight.
Stabiliser bulls tend to weigh around 300kg at weaning and have a target weight of 630kg at 14 months. This equates to a DLWG of around 1.8kg, the figure you should be aiming for.
Once you know this figure, the next step is to produce a balanced ration that will achieve the required weight gain in the timescale. This might include a ration based on good quality silage, rolled barley, sugar beet pulp, and distillers grains plus minerals as this would most likely achieve the FCR needed for efficient weight gain.
It is false economy in any rearing system to limit intake as this will slow growth rates and extend the period to slaughter, denting the profitability of the animal. Faster growing animals eat more each day, but have a shorter life so use less calories for maintenance and more for growth.
As the finishing period for bulls is short, regular checks must be carried out to ensure bull calves are achieving the target DLWG. They should be weighed at monthly intervals for the first three months after weaning, and then go to a minimum of fortnightly as slaughter weight approaches. If DLWG isn’t being achieved, immediate action in the form of increased rations must be taken to ensure target carcase specification is met.
Like bulls, steers should be weaned around seven to eight months of age. However, unlike bulls, they have a significantly longer finishing period, usually from 16 to 20 months.
There are two systems routinely used to finish steers – the housed system and the grazing system – and whereas they both have the same target live weight, around 650kg, the DLWG for each system is different.
In the housed system, where the aim is to reach the target carcase weight in 15 – 17 months, the calves will go through a two-stage growing programme.
In stage one – a period of around six to seven months – they should receive a ration designed to grow frame and support daily growth rates of 1.2kg, gaining 200kg – 220kg throughout the winter months.
This leads them on to stage two which starts when they are yearlings of between 500kg and 530kg. Here a finishing ration should be introduced that produces a daily growth rate of 1.5kg – 1.6kg. A good guide for such a finishing diet would be similar to that of bulls and include 30% forage with a 14% protein concentrate.
The aim under the grazing system is to finish steers in around 20 months, leading to a slightly lower DLWG. Initially, steers raised under this system should be over-wintered for six months on a ration designed to produce a 0.9kg daily weight gain with the aim of gaining 150kg. After this, they should be turned out to well-managed grassland that supports a daily weight increase of 1.2kg until they achieve finishing weight.
Steers should be weighed monthly for six or seven months and then, as with bulls, fortnightly as they approach slaughter weight to ensure they are performing as they need to.
When finishing heifers, it is advisable to check the processor’s carcase specification first, to decide exactly what they expect as this will influence how you finish your calves. But as a guide, the aim with heifers is to achieve a steady growth rate towards the target fat specification at 18 – 20 months old.
As with bulls and steers, spring-born heifers are weaned at seven to eight months old. They are then over-wintered on a ration aimed at achieving 0.7kg of daily weight gain for the following six months.
After this, they should be turned out and the majority of heifers should reach a target weight of between 520kg – 560kg on grass, albeit some supplementation in the field may be required.
Those that don’t make target carcase specification on grass will require a short finishing period on a high energy diet similar to that for steers.
Finishing Stabiliser Calves
Because achieving optimal growth rates for calves is so important to achieving a profitable return on a suckler herd, Stabilisers have been selectively bred to have high growth rates. This brings other advantages too, particularly low birth weights which means few interventions during calving time, more fertile cows, less visits from the vets and more sleep for farmers.
This all adds up to the Stabiliser being the UK’s most efficient and profitable suckler cow producing precisely what the market wants for the least possible input, and the advice and guidance in this article will lead to the production of first class Stabiliser calves that generate high returns for farmers regardless of the finishing system they use.
To find out more about Stabilisers and what makes them the UK’s most profitable suckler cow, get in touch on (01377) 227790 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are trying to produce beef that meets market specification and make the most profit possible. Using Stabilisers we are achieving our objectives, we have a low cost, low labour cow and good quality finishing cattle that meet the needs of the market.- Mel and Pete Momber, Hampshire
I’m excited by the prospects the Stabiliser can deliver for us. The proof was there based on scientific research, backed up by a large gene pool and precise management systems. It seemed the perfect breed for our farming system.- Will Evans, Machynlleth
On weaning in May at 10 mths old the Stabiliser calves were on par with the Blue and Angus calves. These were turned out to grass until early September then housed. This is when I was surprised by the differences between the breeds, the Angus averaged 480kg, the Blues 490kg but the Stabilisers were 530kg.- Robin Talbot, Laois – Ireland
In 2011 we bought 46 Stabiliser heifers plus 3 bulls and sold our 3 Belgium Blue bulls. The results were clear to see, by the time we pregnancy tested our 100 cows later that year. We went from historically having 15% barren cows to only 3% barren in a 9 week mating period.- Jeremy Iles, Gloucester
I have found Stabiliser cows to be very forage efficient. Their ability to put weight on in the summer months means I can save on winter feed costs. This has allowed me to keep more cows on the same resources.- Jono Cole, Cornwall
We have an easy-care system that is as profitable as any other beef enterprise. We benchmark our herd against the AHDB industry figure and we sit comfortably ahead of the top third performers. I believe we are now producing a carcass with the conformation and eating quality consistency that the market wants.- Dan Burling, Cambridgeshire
Docility, feed efficiency tested, easy calving, hybrid vigour, fertility, growth AND carcass traits from highly maternal cattle, what’s not like?- Robin Norrie, Fife
We aim to get most out of grass as possible. The hardy nature of the cattle seems to suit this system very well. Hardly any assistance is required during calving, combined with the excellent calf vigour produce healthy and strong calves which further reduces labour costs.- Llion and Sian Jones, Conwy
We’re over 10 years into our Stabiliser journey, we’re reaping the rewards. Moving to the Stabiliser has been a game changer for efficiency and job satisfaction, allowing us to increase cow numbers on the same area and finishing bulls averaging over 380kgs at 13 months. Our only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner!- Peter and Jackie Storrow, Pembrokeshire
Stabiliser cattle are a specialised suckler beef breed with the added bonus of hybrid vigour. The cattle are multi-trait performance recorded to produce EBV’s, this has a huge positive economical effect on our business. All of this is crucial for us to have a financially improving suckler herd on the farm.- Harri Parri, Llyn Peninsula
We chose the Stabiliser breed for their docility and easy calving traits, but with the added benefit of turning grass into meat. We soon saw all of these traits were true. Our first home bred steers were finished off grass at an average age of 19 months.- Dyfed Roberts, Anglesey
Despite our rainfall, we outwinter our cows on kale, the stabiliser cow will lay down excess fat, and successfully rear her calf. During the winter considerable cost savings are made. By changing to Stabiliser cattle I keep approximately 50% more cows as they only weigh 650Kgs, which meant more beef being produced.- Matthew Cooke, North Devon
We started using Stabiliser bulls 20 years ago. The fertility of the breed has enabled us to calve our own heifers at 24 months and reduce our calving period to nine weeks. This together with their good temperament has encouraged us to increase cow numbers. Consequently, the farm is now producing a lot more kilos of beef.- Edward and Ellis Griffith, Pwllheli
Minimal labour is required at calving time, with easy calving cows and calves up and suckling in no time at all. This gave us the ability to increase our cow numbers with no extra labour. The growth rate of Stabiliser cattle is exceptional, producing high weaning weights whilst converting feed efficiently.- John and Ianto Pari, Gwynedd
We started using stabiliser genetics in 2016, we have not looked back since, they exceeded all our expectations. Changing to stabilisers has enabled us to calve heifers at 2years old with no problems, cows wean a higher percentage of their body weight, we have increased cow numbers without any need for extra labour.- Carys Jones, Camarthenshire