Friday, July 1, 2022

Indoor beef wintering does it stack up?

An on-farm trial in Central Otago challenging the cost effectiveness of 100% indoor beef wintering has found a more profitable “floating” option is emerging. As one of 10 Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) demonstration farms around NZ, Bevan and Tiffany McKnight are doing a handful of on-farm trials, including analysing the cost-effectiveness of wintering beef cattle indoors.

The McKnights farm Merino Ridges, a 5000ha breeding and finishing operation at Poolburn in the Ida Valley. The property ranges in altitude from 450m-1000m above sea level and has an annual rainfall of only 250mm-400mm.

It is a stone’s throw from Ophir, which boasts New Zealand’s second lowest recorded temperature. Its on-farm temperatures range from a chilly -15°C in winter to 35°C plus in summer.

About 3700ha of Merino Ridges is oversown hill country with the remaining 1300ha in the valley floor including 75ha of irrigated land.

About 900ha has been identified as suitable for lucerne and lucerne-mix pastures. Stock numbers for this winter will be 8400 ewes, 6500 mixed-sex hoggets, 110 beef cows, 150 rising one-year beef and 60 rising two-year beef.

Bevan and Tiffany have been back at the family property for three years. For the previous 11 years, the couple managed a large-scale mixed farming enterprise in Victoria, Australia. Bevan oversaw the 20-staff operation while Tiffany was responsible for the office. 

Trial details

The McKnights already employed farm consultant Peter Young and so have continued to tap into his expertise for the demo farm trials.

Bevan’s parents Fred and Trish built the 40m x 9m shed eight years ago, specifically to winter calves and protect them from the harsh Ida Valley climate. When the demo farm opportunity came along, Bevan and Tiffany decided it was time they put some figures around the shed’s cost-effectiveness.

“For us, it’s about answering the question ‘how do we winter cattle best in the Ida Valley?’,” Bevan says. “And we have an established feed pad there that we can utilise so that’s what we built the trail around.”

Scientist David Stevens was brought into the project team to ensure the trial was as accurate as possible under real-farm conditions. The trial involved the R1 calves being split into three mobs from mid June until early September.

The mobs were:

* Full-time in the shed with ad-lib balage and water;

* Full-time on a brassica crop with balage fed out three times a week and;

* Floating mob with full access to the wintering shed and to a short-rotation ryegrass crop, break fed. Water and supplements were provided ad-lib at the shed.

In addition to comparing the cost effectiveness of each approach the McKnights wanted to compare growth rates across the three scenarios.

Monitoring included temperatures inside and outside the shed and at the crop, regular weighing of animals, feed and crop testing and measuring and recording feed used.

Tiffany, who is responsible for the record keeping, says the floating mob – with free access to both the shed and ryegrass crop – learned very quickly that it was warm and dry in the shed and used it from day one.

– Supplied by B+LNZ

Temperature

Indoor

Outdoor

Wind chill

12th June

17.3

6.4

4.1

18th June

18.1

2.5

2.5

Year one results

The trial is scheduled to run for three years but year one’s data indicates the cost of full-time shed wintering is prohibitive at $3.52/kg liveweight gained. That is 72% more than the full-time crop option, which came in at $2.05/kg liveweight gained.

However, what is looking promising is the floating shed/crop option. These animals cost $2.11/kg liveweight gained and put on the most weight over the 12 weeks.

Young said standing feed contributed only about 54% of total feed requirement for the floating mob. “This was due to a small area and modest yield, so the wintering cost could potentially have been less still for the floating mob – if standing feed supply was increased and the proportion of supplements required was reduced.”

The McKnights now want to know if this floating option is going to be a profitable means of achieving good winter growth rates to meet specific production specifications.

“The crop-only mob was 14kg behind the shed/crop mob at the end of winter and that’s not much to catch up during spring,” Bevan says. “So, for this to work, it’s about capitalising on that extra weight at the point immediately after winter – during August and September – when the beef schedule is right up there.”

The floating mob was also considerably cleaner than the fully-housed calves. That meant the sawdust in the shed was much cleaner and it should therefore be necessary to replace it only every second or third year.

Growth rates

Stevens says differences in animals’ growth rates were not statistically significant, given the number of variables between mobs. “However, we did learn some valuable insights for this coming winter. Growth rates of the crop-only mob were low at 0.27kg/day during the first month of the trial and this was most probably due to the transition onto brassica – especially given that growth rates of the crop-only mob for the remainder of the trial period were slightly ahead of the fully-housed cattle and similar to the mob with access to both standing feed and the shed. This highlights the importance of transitioning stock correctly.”

He says the crops also allowed more flexibility around stock management at a farm-wide level. “The brassica crop was shared with another mob of cattle as winter progressed. This shows the utility of the crop, compared to the shed, where you can’t add anything else and it is very defined.” 

What now?

This winter will see 60 R2 beef cattle wintered using the floating shed/crop policy, with animals having access to both the shed and a rape crop. The intention is to produce cattle to slaughter weights in early spring, when prime cattle prices are at a premium.

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