Achieving top market specifications

Richard Dudgeon
Richard Dudgeon

Alltech technical staff write a series of advisory articles specifically for Farming Life that address many of the key technical challenges facing dairy, beef, sheep and pig producers. The aim of the project is to help improve management standards on local livestock farms.

With the winter feeding season underway, most cattle are on their final finishing diet. The majority of cattle should now be in a regular routine, which will allow them to finish fast, kill-out well and be within market specification to achieve top prices. However, I regularly hear of cases in which cattle haven’t performed as expected; they are lighter than in previous years, and in some cases, they are either too lean or too fat.

The aim on any finishing unit should be to feed cattle for the shortest period possible to meet the desired finish. As many finishers will know, it takes more than four times as much energy to put on 1 kilogram of fat than to put on 1 kilogram of lean meat. This can mean a high cost, and ideally cattle should be slaughtered as they reach a 3+ in terms of fat score. Increasing the percentage of cattle that meet market specifications on a farm is one way of achieving a greater beef price.

There can be several reasons why cattle don’t meet market specifications. However, most of them essentially come down to three key areas: animal health, management and nutrition.

Animal health

I covered animal health in a previous article. This article addressed animal health specifically during the arrival period on-farm, with tactics focusing on reducing stress on the cattle, with the aim of starting the animals on a finishing diet without any upsets. This creates the opportunity to maximise performance throughout the remainder of the finishing period.

Management

It seems to be common practice on some farms to maximise the number of animals per pen. However, in my experience, a consequence of this is that animal performance can suffer. In some cases, cattle are not only dirtier, they also spend less time lying down. Competition for feed can also become an issue and can result in cattle taking larger meals less often. This fact can, in itself, present problems with rumen function and overall feed efficiency.

The space allowance on slatted floors should be 2.5m2 for cattle weighing 400 kilograms. For each 100-kilogram increase, an additional 0.5m2 should be made available. Sheds that are stocked too tightly can put pressure on the ventilation system, which can lead to high ammonia levels. In turn, high levels of ammonia can reduce feed intakes, affecting animal performance. Providing water may seem like a given, but it’s also essential that the water is clean and that there is a consistent supply if top performance from the cattle is to be achieved. For anyone working with bulls, best practice is to house these animals separately from heifers or cows. In general, keeping to smaller group sizes and avoiding mixing groups is key here.

Nutrition

Some of the best farms have a detailed programme in place for finishing their cattle. Getting a forage analysis is often neglected, but it’s something simple and cost-effective and should always be included in your finishing programme. Every year is different for forage, and simply “doing the same as what happened last year” will not yield the best results. Working with a forage analysis and knowing the value of any other feeds on-farm will allow you to put a complete finishing programme together.

Energy is essential in finishing diets, but there are limits. If the correct management and protocols are put in place, energy can be increased, resulting in better animal performance. These management protocols include ensuring there are no sudden changes to the diet, feeding a consistent diet daily, and making sure forage is chopped to the correct length and that the animal cannot select between different ingredients in the diet. High-energy diets, balanced with the correct levels of protein and fibre for each individual finishing system, should result in cattle achieving maximum performance.

Studying the manure of the cattle can give a good indication of rumen function and, ultimately, performance. The ideal manure should have a porridge-like consistency. We can also look at the manure in more detail using manure sieves. These sieves highlight what material has been undigested by animals, so they can be a great tool in identifying where specific changes to a diet can help improve overall digestion.

A simple change such as the introduction of a specific yeast source like Yea-Sacc® can help improve overall rumen function and fibre digestion. Several independent studies have shown that cattle fed Yea-Sacc achieved a 10 percent increase in carcass weight. Other measures may include manipulating protein sources and the level of fibre in diets.

The key point in all of this is to make use of your local feed advisor or nutritionist. They should have all the tools and expertise to help you achieve maximum performance and be aware of all cattle meeting market specifications.

For further information, please contact Alltech Ireland on 1850 44 22 44 or email Ireland@alltech.com.