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Finishing Bull Beef in 16 Months - Can it Be Done?

21 January 2014

Ensuring the very reachable target of 1.33 kg/day growth rate is managed is vital for finishing bulls young in light of recent penalties on over 16 month bulls.

This sentiment appears in an article by Dr Norman Weatherup, targeted at Northern Irish Farmers who are faced with bull beef decisions.

Dr Weatherup is a beef and red meat specialist at Northern Ireland's agricultural college, the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE).

As deductions for overage bulls begin to be implemented at abattoirs across Northern Ireland, it is time to consider the production system to ensure that bulls are finished inside the current age limit, writes Dr Weatherup.

Remember Health and Safety

Bulls can be more aggressive and boisterous than steers and care must be taken when handling them, especially after 8 months of age, advises the CAFRE expert.

Put a Health Plan in Place

Ensure cows are vaccinated against scour before calving and calves are vaccinated against pneumonia before housing. Any animal that has had a setback due to either of these diseases will be slower to finish. It is also highly recommended that farmers join the voluntary BVD eradication scheme and that any PI calves identified are slaughtered immediately.

Calculate the Required Growth Rate

If a finished carcase of 360 kg is required (the NI average carcase weight for young bulls was 329kg in 2013 although this includes dairy bred bulls) by 450 days of age (15 months) then a final of live weight of 645kg is required.

Assuming a birth weight of 45kg, the required average daily gain from birth is 1.33kg/day. This is not a very demanding target and all healthy suckler bulls should be able to meet it. Select a cow with milk A milky cow should be able to support a daily gain of 1.3-1.5kg/day in her calf. The key is to use a planned cross breeding programme and use milk EBV when selecting sires to generate replacements.

Select a Terminal Sire with High EBVs for Growth

Progeny from these bulls grow more quickly and reach market weight earlier.

Use Fat Depth EBV Carefully

Some producers have difficulties with bulls classifying fat class 1 or 2. In this case, bulls with an EBV for fatness are required. In other cases, it may be necessary to select a leaner terminal sire where bulls are regularly classifying 4 or higher.

Manage Grazing

It is important to have a grassland management programme in place to ensure cows have access to adequate supplies of fresh leafy grass to maintain milk supply to the calf. In addition, fresh leafy grass will help to maintain calf growth rates when calves commence grazing.

Where bulls are autumn born, it may be tempting for producers to graze bulls later in the season. It is vitally important that autumn-born bulls are kept in stable groups, well away from heifers or any cow that could be on heat. Bulls should be fed at grass from late July/early August and should definitely be housed no later than September. This should permit a feeding period of at least 100 days before slaughter.

Introduce Creep Feeding Early

Creep feeding performs three important functions

A. It will supplement energy intake as both milk yield and grass quality decline.

B.  It will help to break the cow-calf bond in preparation for weaning.

C. It will provide an easy transition to the post-weaning diet.

Ensure There is No Store Period 

While technically the target growth rate required of 1.33kg/d is not very demanding, there is no room for a store period in the bull’s life. If a bull spends two months on a maintenance only diet, the required daily gain increases from 1.33kg/d to 1.54kg/d (which would be challenging for many bulls). Growth rate and feed conversion ratio will deteriorate after 100 days of feeding in steers and heifers but bulls have a higher genetic potential for growth and have a lower body fat content so they will maintain growth rates over a longer period of feeding.

Use High Quality Rations

While steers and heifers can be finished using lower quantities of straight barley and store cattle may be fed maize gluten as the sole concentrate, bulls will be offered concentrates at a much higher rate. In this case, rations will require a range of energy, protein and fibre sources to avoid the risk of acidosis and to maintain a high ME concentration. 

Feed Concentrates ad lib

It is possible to finish bulls on a silage based diet BUT the silage must be of EXCELLENT quality. It is much easier to manage bulls when they are offered concentrates and straw ad lib. 

Ensure Bulls Have Access to Clean, Fresh Water 

Ideally water points should be able to be checked from outside the pen and should be inspected at least once per day. It should be noted that bulls will require more water on an ad lib concentrate diet and water points should be sufficient for the number of bulls in the pen. 

Loading and Transport

Bulls should be kept in their groups for transport and slaughter and should not be mixed at the lairage. Contact your abattoir so that they know bulls will be arriving and can make any necessary arrangements.

Further Reading

You can view comments from the Livestock and Meat Commission by clicking here.

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