Northumbrian beef and sheep producer Jonathan Watson has been breeding and selling pedigree stock for more than 20 years. He says whatever the genetics or performance, stock must look right on the day of sale to achieve the best prices.
When almost every male produced from your suckler herd is sold for breeding, the success of each one of them depends on a combination of genetics, performance, health and how the animal looks on the day of sale.
High on this list is the animal’s presentation, which leading bull producer Jonathan Watson says trumps everything else when the bull makes his appearance in the ring.
Farming 223 hectares (550 acres) at Bowsden Moor Farm, near Berwick-up-on-Tweed, about 60 of the bulls born in his 150-head suckler herd are destined for breeding.
Regularly featuring in the headlines from sales at Stirling and Carlisle, 15- to 20-month-old bulls bearing his Tweeddale pre-fix frequently attain top prices.
He says: “The genetics, health and performance will attract interest in your stock, but even when all of that is right, if they have not been fed correctly and don’t look right on the day, they will not find a buyer.”
Achieving this appearance does not come without effort, which Mr Watson has given in abundance during more than 20 years in the business.
Formerly a breeder of British Blues, with which he garnered championships from the Royal Highland to the Royal Welsh and many shows in between, he moved his focus to the easier calving Charolais and Limousins about five years ago, and has continued with his success.
Rearing the stock is tailored to the farm all the way through the process, starting with a bespoke Bowsden Moor blend, formulated by ForFarmers and fed as creep to calves from four months of age.
He says: “In a commercial situation, you would start feeding creep earlier, but for us, it is important to identify which are the milkiest females to breed from.”
These cows will not only be mothers of the bulls whose genetics will influence many other herds, but most of their heifer calves will also be retained or sold for breeding.
This means keeping calves off creep until the all-important 100-day weights have been recorded, despite the growth rates which could be made through its earlier introduction. He says: “I know introducing creep earlier would help with their growth when feed conversion efficiency is at its best, but this would not enable us to identify which were our milkiest females.
“I want to know the calves’ growth to this point is down to the cow, although as soon as I introduce the creep, they will really double up on their performance.”
The creep itself is a coarse mix and ingredients include sugar beet pulp, dark grains, maize, peas, beans, minerals and molasses, with the addition of the rumen specific live yeast Levucell SC Titan.
Mr Watson says: “Levucell SC is a really important ingredient at this stage as it helps with rumen development and will set the calf up well for good performance later.”
Yvonne Shaw, who covers the area for ForFarmers, says: “Focusing on rumen health by using Levucell SC at a young age not only promotes the formation of rumen papillae, but also helps the young animal maximise its potential to use feed efficiently. With a well-developed, healthy rumen, these feed efficiencies, which are never better than in the calf, can continue to persist throughout the animal’s life.”
Heifer and bull calves are treated as one group until weaning at five to six months, at which point they are split into two groups. At around the same time, the ForFarmers blend is mixed with treated home-grown barley, in a two-thirds/one-third ratio, and offered in different quantities to each group.
Mr Watson says: “Bulls stay on this mix on an ad-lib basis, which is top dressed twice-a-day on about 2-3kg/head/day of grass silage." For heifers, it is the reverse, with a limit of 4kg/day of the barley/blend mix, and silage offered ad-lib.
Targets for liveweights are broadly set at:
He says: “The stock hit these targets as a group average, and at 300 and 400 days they are often well ahead. The hardest to hit is the 100-day weight without any creep, especially with calves born at about 40kg.”
The mix is changed to 50:50 for the bulls’ final weeks on-farm. Energy is increased through the additional barley and protein is edged downwards, giving an overall protein in the concentrate of about 14.5 per cent.
Mr Watson says: “The ForFarmers blend itself is 18% protein and we have been using it for long enough to be confident the Levucell SC itcontains improves gut health and helps us get the most from the ration.
“You can see it in the dung, which is much better textured and you can see it in the stock, which are extremely settled and when they’re not eating are happily lying and cudding.”
Growth rates bear out his confidence, with 2kg daily liveweight gains readily achieved through the rearing period in his bulls, and periods of 100 days when the best animals will hit 3kg/day.
Mr Watson says: “We have now been on the ForFarmers Bowsen Moor blend for 8 or 9 years and I do not think we’ll be changing again.
“We have an annual visit from a ForFarmers nutritionist and review what we do, but only really tweak the formulation to better meet our needs and as the price of raw materials changes to keep the overall cost down.”
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