Maintaining cattle performance at grass

4 Jun 2019

By Jill Hunter, Harbro Beef & Sheep Nutritionist

As margins tighten and the pursuit of efficiency continues, producers cannot afford to become complacent when shed doors are opened and animals are turned out for the summer months.

Keeping animals indoors all year round is the easiest way to keep a handle on performance measures such as intakes, liveweight gains and costs. When inside, producers have control over all aspects of feeding and management. When feeding, the more consistent the diet, the more consistent cattle perform. Looking for ways to continue the level of consistency and efficiency at grass can prove rewarding for those who manage it well.

To do this, we first have to get away from the mind set of having a traditional ‘store’ period. If animals are provided with a maintenance only diet there are consequences on meat quality. Equally, if animals are not gaining weight, their days on farm increase, cost per kg gain goes up and their overall profitability goes down.

When selecting animals to turn out, native bred animals are well suited, along with smaller framed continentals. Ideally, cattle should be stocked in fields where grass length is around 10cm and be taken out again at 4cm. This allows grass to recover and regrow. If a good growing season allows some fields to exceed the optimum 10cm, it is advisable to cut these fields, either topping or taking as silage. The regrowth can then be grazed when ready.

Of course, cattle can be grazed on swords above 10cm, however, the more mature grass swords become, the lower their nutrient value becomes. This means the performance of the cattle would reduce. Keeping the sword between 4 and 10cm allows for a greater consistency in the diet with less variation, much like the indoor diet.

The type of grass and age must also be considered. Fresh, young grass is quicker growing and generally of higher nutritional value. Some older leys can provide sufficient nutrition if managed correctly. A proportion of clovers in the mix will provide extra protein which is essential to maintain acceptable daily liveweight gains.

Performance targets should be set for cattle which are turned out. Considering liveweight gain alone tells only half the story and by knowing intake figures, the overall efficiency can be calculated. Think about a car for example, 70mph at 50mpg would be favourable over 70mph at 20mpg. A simple performance measure at grass is how many kg liveweight the cattle have achieved per hectare grazed in the season. The target should be 1000kg liveweight on average fields, 1200kg on new leys and 700-800kg on older pasture. Using this performance measure is simple, all that is required is a turnout weight, a kill weight (or turn-in weight) and the area which has been grazed.

Supplying minerals to cattle at grass shouldn’t be forgotten and can be done easily through lick buckets or free-access minerals. Rumitech can also be included with the minerals. Rumitech is our feed additive which improves rumen function and increases efficiency, by reducing the level of microbes which produce methane and reducing the level of microbes which remove the favourable rumen bacteria. Rumitech also reduces feed intakes by 10%. This means, where intakes are reduced by 10% when Rumitech is fed, producers can carry 10% more stock on the same area of land and still expect similar performance.

Once grass quality and volume begins to reduce, feeding a buffer diet is a great option to maintain performance and keep cattle outside, if weather allows. This can be a TMR in feed trailers or a dry mix in troughs or hoppers. In any case, cattle should be built up onto an ad-lib system over a period of 10-14 days. A dry mix can be a simple combination of cereal, a protein balancer and minerals. The level of protein should be altered depending on where cattle are in their production cycle.

Tips for feeding a buffer at grass:

  • Keep feed fresh and remove any waste
  • Ensure feeders aren’t allowed to run empty
  • Use a sacrifice area to feed cattle to avoid field damage
  • Take care changing from old season grain to new.

By managing grazing and feeding a buffer diet when necessary, producers have the opportunity to keep their cattle performing in an efficient and cost effective way without keeping them indoors all year round. Utilising grass can allow additional throughput of cattle and ultimately increase the margin of the enterprise. 

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