Consistent high performance the key to beef system’s success

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Length: 1298 words; 4-5 minutes

The beef production system at Northumberland’s Lilburn Estate has remained largely unchanged for 25 years, with the bull finishing unit not only producing remarkably consistent results, but doing so in a way that’s sustainable and highly profitable.

Bulls are slaughtered at just over 13 months of age after an intensive finishing period based on moist co-product feeds not cereals. After weaning at 6 months, bulls are finished in seven months and one week – an average lifetime liveweight gain (LWG) of around 1.6kg/day.

Consistent high performance

The combination of high value moist feeds and fast growth results in a highly efficient finishing period that’s producing extremely consistent results. Carcases average 365kg DCW (55% killing out percentage), and are predominantly R4s, with approximately 35% Us, depending on breed. Mortality rate is just 2%.

“We’ve tried other systems in the past, but nothing works as well as the moist feed mix…”

“We’ve tried other systems in the past, but nothing works as well as the moist feed mix we get from KW,” outlines head cattle steward Davey Heads. “In addition to the mix, the bulls have free access to water, rock salt and straw in racks, and get a vitamin and mineral premix that includes Vistacell live yeast and rumen buffer.”

Traffordgold clamp tipping image
Moist feeds like Traffordgold offer better value for money than their dry equivalents.

The moist feed mix is created during clamping, with all feeds delivered by KW at the same time. The three feeds – Traffordgold wheat-gluten moist feed, Maxibeet sugar beet feed and processed bread – are mixed on the floor in a ratio of 6:2:1 and stacked to a height of around 3m, excluding as much air as possible.

After adding a sprinkle PDV salt, the clamp is then sealed with a layer of cling film and covered with polythene sheet. The mix is ready to feed out immediately, and will keep for up to 18 months.

Rapid beef finishing

“The bull calves come into the finishing unit straight after weaning at six months old, and we split them into groups of 40–50 based on weight,” Mr Heads explains. “They’re kept in straw yards, and stay in the same groups until they go to slaughter.

Head cattle steward Davey Heads.

“The shed holds 700 cattle, and we’re currently finishing 1,240 bulls and 1,000 heifers each year. Each bull eats around 2.6t of the moist mix, which works out at an average of 12kg/hd/day, and you can see how good the ration is by the consistency of the muck and the performance we’re getting.”

In contrast to the rapid finishing for the bulls, any heifers not earmarked as replacements for the suckler herd or destined to be sold as breeding stock follow a more extensive route to slaughter. Autumn-born calves weaned in the spring go out onto good grazing, then spend a second winter on grass silage before heading to the finishing unit for 2–3 months on the same moist mix as the bulls.

Spring-born heifers are overwintered in straw yards on grass silage, with a second grazing season followed by the same 2–3 months in the finishing unit. Typically consuming around 0.8t of the moist mix, the heifers are typically finished by 19-20 months of age, producing carcases of around 310kg DCW.

Moist feed benefits

According to KW nutritionist Dr Anna Sutcliffe, moist feeds have a lot to offer when it comes to efficient beef finishing.

Lilburn young bulls image
Weaned calves in the main finishing shed.

“The main objective when finishing cattle is to combine fast muscle growth with the fat cover needed to meet carcase specification, and for minimum time and cost,” she states. 

“Ration energy density and dry matter intake (DMI) are the critical factors determining cattle energy intakes, growth and fat deposition,” states. “Balanced with the correct amount of protein, the result is faster finishing that requires less feed and produces greater margins per head.”

The Traffordgold wheat-gluten moist feed used at Lilburn Estate, for example, contains 13.4MJ ME/kg DM of energy and 20% crude protein. Like most moist co-product feeds, the energy comes from mostly from digestible fibre.

Driving feed intake

“Achieving consistently high intakes is essential for efficient finishing,” Dr Sutcliffe continues. “Moist feeds are highly palatable, cut ration dust levels and reduce ration sorting, all of which improve both the level and consistency of intake.

“The digestible fibre also reduces the incidence of acidosis and eliminates most of the typical gut problems and immune challenges associated with cereal-based diets. So you get faster, more uniform growth and finishing.”

The moist feed mix is highly palatable.

The subsequent improvement in carcase consistency increases average carcase value, whilst the more efficient nutrient utilisation generally reduces total feed costs.

“You can tell from the smooth, well-digested muck that the feed value in the ration is going into growth, not being wasted,” she adds. “Moist feeds also require no processing before being fed, and can be clamped outside to free up shed space.

“As for all finishing, a good supply of clean fresh water is essential, plus access to straw to stimulate proper rumen function. But get it right, and the results will outperform nearly all traditional cereal-based rations.”

”…the cattle fed the barley-based ration took six weeks longer to finish.”

In 2018, the beef unit ran a trial comparing 100 bulls on the current moist mix-based system with the same number on an alternative ration utilising home-grown barley plus a high-protein supplement. All cattle had the same access to water, straw, rock salt and the vitamin and mineral premix (including live yeast and buffer), yet the cattle fed the barley-based ration took six weeks longer to finish.

The mortality rate also rose to 9%, whilst remaining at the unit’s usual 2% for the cattle  being fed the moist mix. The cost of the additional mortality was estimated at around £1,000/head, with the primary cause of the losses being Clostridia infection, likely triggered by the high-cereal diet causing ulceration. 

Stabiliser sucker herd

Lilburn spring sucklers image
Spring-calving purebred Stabiliser sucklers.

All calves reared in the unit are a mix of Angus crosses and purebred Stabilisers, and come from the Estate’s autumn- and spring-calving herds of purebred Stabilisers, totalling 2.500 head.

Both make use of the Estate’s extensive arable stubble acreage, and it highlights just how well the various enterprises are integrated. The autumn-calvers move onto bare arable stubbles in September, supplemented with straw or grass silage depending on condition, and remain there until housed in late November.

“For the spring-calvers, we sow a cover crop of forage rye and oil radish into stubbles that will eventually be drilled with spring barley,” explains estate manager Dominic Naylor. “They also get straw or grass silage if they need it, moving onto the stubbles to calve in March.”

Immediately after calving, the cows and calves are moved out onto good quality grazing, where they stay until the calves are weaned at six months. The bulls enter the intensive finishing system, whilst the more extensively-reared heifers are housed on grass silage for the winter.

Arable stubble use

“The spring calving herd overwinters on the arable stubbles, supplemented with silage and straw, whilst the autumn calving herd is housed in straw yards and fed good quality grass silage,” Mr Naylor continues. “The autumn-born calves are given creep feed during the winter if they need it, and are also weaned at six months.

Estate manager Dominic Naylor.

“Just like for those weaned in the autumn, the bulls go straight into the finishing system, but the heifers go out onto good grazing for the summer. And the autumn-calving cows are turned onto grass and heather hill pastures under stewardship stocking density rules.”

Both herds are held to a strict two-month block calving, with cows (including maiden heifers) given just two cycles to get in calf. And despite failure to get in calf being one of the primary reasons for culling, the overall replacement rate is just 8% and the herd average is ten lactations!

Lilburn Estate facts & figures:

Estate details

Land area:
  • 10,876ha (26,875 acres) total

  • 5,712ha (14,144 acres) grass and heather hill pasture

  • 2,073 ha (5,074 acres) of lowland grass

  • 1,279ha (3,160 acres) arable

  • 2,500 Stabiliser sucklers finishing 1,800 cattle/annum

  • 60 stock bulls (60:40 split between Angus and Stabiliser)

  • 5,300 lowland ewes (Grey face-Suffolk cross or Suffolk-cross Texel)

  • 4,400 hill ewes (Swaledale and Scottish Blackface)

  • Winter crops: wheat, barley, oilseed rape, oats

  • Spring crops: barley, peas, beans

  • 24 full-time staff

Beef finishing details

Moist feed mix:
  • Traffordgold wheat-gluten moist feed: 6 parts

  • Maxibeet sugar beet feed: 2 parts

  • Processed bread: 1 part

Nutritional specification on a DM basis:
  • Dry matter (DM): 60%

  • Energy: 13.0MJ ME/kg DM

  • Crude protein:16%

  • Fibre: 27% NDF

  • Starch + sugars: 25%

Suckler herd details

Autumn herd:
  • Block calving: September–October on arable stubbles

  • Overwintering: in straw yards with calves

  • Service: once housed, limited to 2 cycles

  • Weaning: at six months, bulls into finishing system, heifers onto good grazing

  • Summer: cows onto grass and heather hill pasture

Spring herd:
  • Block calving: March–April on oversown arable stubbles

  • Summer: onto good grazing immediately post-calving

  • Service: at grass, limited to 2 cycles

  • Weaning: at six months, bulls into finishing system, heifers onto good grazing

  • Overwintering: straw yards

  • Grazing: mix of improved pastures and hill grazing on grass and heather

  • Silage: 20,000t grass silage (71D, 11MJ ME/kg DM, 16% CP)

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