Report Synopsis

Are benchmarking targets for suckler cows achievable?

Steven Sandison

Beef farmers are continually being told they need to be more efficient. Consultants, vets, breed societies, machinery dealers and feed merchants are all offering farmers information, services, gadgets, feeds, minerals and vaccines. Despite this, Quality Meat Scotland estimates that only 82% of beef cows in Scotland wean a calf each year. Meanwhile QMS and SRUC publish guidance for suckler farmers which recommends that herds should be weaning 92-94% from a 9 week breeding period. Either this target is unrealistic or the industry is underachieving.

The two main objectives of my study were to find out if the targets were achievable, and what the best suckler producers had in common. I have met over 100 farmers in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Sweden and Norway. The main part of my study was based on the farmers in the UK and Ireland. Farmers learn more from other farmers and in order for this report to be relevant to farmers in the UK it should reflect similar systems which face the same challenges whether it is weather, disease or market prices. I visited Canada to see larger systems which had to deal with extreme cold and no support payments. Norway and Sweden also had to deal with extreme cold and adhere to strict welfare rules.

I asked all the farmers the same 22 questions to find out what breeds, housing, forage type, minerals, feeding method, management and health planning they had. But, most importantly, what was the scanning, calving, weaning and replacement rate. Only 10% of the farmers I met in the UK were achieving better than the target of 92%. So the main focus of my study was to compare the top 10% with the bottom 10% of the farmers which I met, which would represent the average suckler producer in Scotland.

My findings have shown that 92% is setting the bar to High. Breed and type of cattle does matter. Continental and native breeds have different strengths and when you combine the two you can have the best of both worlds. Heifers should be calved at two years old unless it is an extensive system using slow maturing, hardy breeds which do live longer. Block calving within 9 or at the most 12 weeks is achievable with the right management and cow type. All the other management practices, services and products are important but can vary greatly between farms.

After visiting farms in different countries which are achieving 92% weaning, I am in no doubt that the industry can improve greatly on what is being achieved at the moment. Farmers have all the tools and information already to achieve this. It is time to get this message across.

Also, is it time the farmer’s family and staff knew how much potential the average suckler cow herd has? They may hold the key to support and encourage the farmer to make the changes needed to improve the life of the farmer, reduce losses and improve profitability

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