Producing tasty, environmentally friendly beef from surplus feed

12 Sep 2019

by Jill Hunter



This year has seen exceptional growth across the country, with silage pits and grain stores bulging with fresh crops of grass silage, wholecrop and grain. Producers may be scratching their heads wondering what to do with all the extra feed they have made. One question being asked is how much forage can be combined into cattle finishing diets and still ensure animals hit ever tightening target market specifications.

To achieve 380kg carcase, with a kill out of 53%, animals have to be 720kg live at the time of slaughter. If calves achieve a 300kg weaning weight at 200 days, there is still 420kg liveweight to gain. To meet 720kg by 18 months old, animals must gain 1.24kg liveweight/head/day after weaning.

This target is achievable with a correctly balanced diet, which can include a portion of quality forage, paired with grain. To hit a younger age range, for example young bulls between 12-16 months, the diet has to be more energy dense at a younger age and the role of forage in these diets is limited.

On most farms, forage is the most variable feed. Whether it’s bales, bagged or pitted, there will be variation between fields, field margins and grass swards. However, ruminants are designed to make the most out of forage, to utilise feed which no other species can and turn it into top quality protein.

To achieve the performance outlined above, production targets have to be set early. To realise a 300-320kg weaning weight, it is crucial calves are offered creep feed. Creep feed is sometimes viewed as a stage of the production cycle where money can be saved when purse strings are tightened, however this is false economy. 

Not only does creep feed ensure animals are on target for weight gain, it is essential to ensure the rumen is fully developed. The cereal portion of the creep produces volatile fatty acids when digested which in turn encourages growth of rumen papillae. More papillae developed results in a larger surface area to absorb nutrients later in life, whether forage or concentrate fed.

Furthermore, creep feeding allows for a smooth transition onto a growing diet after weaning, with the best transition diets incorporating calf creep as well as forage.

Growing diets ought to make the most of quality forage. Forage should be balanced with protein and energy to ensure animals grow frame without laying down excessive fat cover at this stage. A balanced diet should result in consistent frame growth which in turn will help prevent growth checks. Stunting growth by feeding maintenance only diets results in gristle throughout the meat, reducing eating quality and increasing unproductive days on farm. Neither of which are desirable for consumer or farmer.

Once animals reach 550kg, they should be transitioned onto a more energy dense ration, to stimulate the laydown of fat and ensure animals achieve desired confirmation grades. Including a portion of forage in the diet, up to 25% of the dry matter intake per day, keeps the diet palatable and encourage intakes. This works well as a mix of quality grass silage and starchy wholecrop.

In addition to diet, ensuring animals are stress free, have no growth stunts and are supplied with correctly balanced mineral supplements all aid favourable meat quality.

It has been proven that finishing animals fed a forage based diet are less efficient and produce more methane than their concentrate fed counterparts. Much like eating quality, farmers aren’t paid to reduce the level of methane cattle produce. However, there are financial benefits to producers if methane production is reduced.

Feeding Rumitech, a Harbro product which is a blend of essential oils, alters the population of rumen microbes. This modified set of microbes produces less methane and is better at digesting forage. The result is more fibre digesting bacteria in the rumen, which means more energy is released from each kilo of feed eaten. Recent results from a feed trial at JSR farms, Yorkshire, saw a 9% increase in daily liveweight gain and a 10% increase in feed conversion. Over the finishing period, this was worth an additional £23.81 per head.

Overall, finishing animals on a forage based diet may take a little longer to reach target weights and grades, however the meat produced may be more favourable to the consumer. As an industry which isn’t currently paid directly on meat eating quality, we should still be conscious that if a consumer has a bad eating experience, it’s likely to put them off for a while before they try beef again. We also have a responsibility as an industry to ensure we produce animals as efficiently as possible, take advantage of the forage digesting capacity of the rumen and utilise opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint.

Making the most of surplus forage this year might just be the key to achieving these goals.


Typical forage based finishing ration for a 600kg continental steer:



Silage, 28% DM


Grampian Beef Max Minerals, including Rumitech and Yea-Sacc


Maxammon treated oats


Maxammon treated barley






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