Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Bull beef prices have taken a hit but in-spec animals still offer profit potential


Gerry Giggins

The start of a new year signals the midway point in the winter feeding season and affords us an opportunity to reflect on how things are progressing. The drop in beef price as the autumn progressed unfortunately impacted on a lot of the animals that were slaughtered for the Christmas market.

The 'Christmas market' traditionally was a time when livestock numbers were scarcer, demand was higher and the specialist finishers could command a few cents extra per kilo to justify housing the animals early to have them available at this stage. In 2013, this price increase didn't come about for a number of reasons:

1.A greater number of animals available for slaughter which allowed meat processors to meet their requirements without paying higher prices;

2.In spite of stronger beef prices in Britain, 50pc of our exports are still going to Continental Europe which operates at a reference price that is lower than current Irish prices;

3.A lot of specialist finishers have adapted their production systems to finishing continental cross bulls. This is the area that has met least demand on the market and has contributed to the overall suppression of beef prices.

In writing my preview of the winter feeding season I signalled the increasing resistance towards any bull beef that does not meet current market specification.

Bulls over 16 months of age and exceeding 420kg carcass weight are much more difficult to market and are immediately discounted on price.

One positive over the past few months is that prices for in-spec continental bulls (under 16 months, carcass weight 380kg-430kg and fat score 3) have held firm and with the QPS being available there has been quite good returns on these animals.

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On farms that I have visited over the past number of weeks I have advised that any suckler bred bulls born in late 2012 and early 2013 should now be on their finishing diet.

Older bulls, if not already in their finishing stage, should be moved on to the final stages of finish.

The perception that continental bred bulls cannot be finished profitably under 16 months of age continues to be prevalent among many beef finishers. Excellent exponents of this type of production system are Mark and Andy Boylan in Donaghmoyne, Co Monaghan.

For the past number of years the Boylans have been supplying ABP Clones with bulls exceeding 400kg carcass weight, at under 16 months of age. These animals are paid on the grid which enhances their value.

All bulls are produced from their own suckler herd. Cows are calved in February-March, with weaning taking place in October-November when bulls are 360kg-370kg.

While housed, the bulls are fed a growing ration based on high quality grass silage, small quantities of grain, protein, straw, minerals and vitamins. The target is to have the bulls growing in excess of 1kg per day during this housing period.

Over the past number of years, bulls and heifers have been grazed for a second period for approximately 6-7 weeks from early February. Excellent gains have been achieved during this period prior to re-housing. The bulls exceed 500kg live weight when they are re-housed for their finishing stage.

This year the bulls' first grazing period didn't end until late November so it will not be necessary to graze them in spring. During the finishing period maize silage is used along with high levels of cereals, molasses, straw, minerals and vitamins.

A minimum of 120 days on this ration is required to ensure animals gain to their potential, achieve the correct carcass conformation and have sufficient fat cover. Based on current feed prices the level of maize grain in the finishing diet will increase to approximately 40pc.

The Boylans also plan to feed rolled oats as a digestible fibre source, which will also help to ensure that a proper fat cover is achieved. Fat cover is one of the main challenges to be met when producing animals at this young age.

This can be achieved once the correct feeding programme is carried out throughout both the growing and finishing stages. The Boylans are not an exception to this model of bull beef production. Some of the key points to emphasise from this model are:

1.Limited early spring grazing is possible;

2.120 days of intensive feeding is necessary;

3.Exceeding 400kg carcass weight is achievable on both purchased weanlings and home-bred bulls;

4.There is clearly less demand for older bulls so for those wishing to remain in bull beef production a review of the system is now necessary;

5.Correct specification bulls will not only receive a higher price but will be subject to greater demand and competition.

Gerry Giggins is an independent animal nutritionist. Email:

Irish Independent