The five freedoms are equally relevant for both dairy and beef cattle

The last number of years have seen dairy farmers invest heavily in improved management and housing systems, all dedicated to better meeting the welfare and behavioural needs of their cows. 

All this commitment has been underpinned by the recognition that producers must structure their businesses in ways that meet the five freedoms relating to the care and well-being of their animals. These are freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear or distress. The paypack for farmers committed to meeting these standards in full are more contented animals who will attain optimal levels of performance. It’s a win:win scenario.

So much for the dairy sector. The question is: can we say the same about the beef industry in Northern Ireland? This was a question that came into my head a lot as I availed of the recent opportunity to visit a number of beef feed lots in Texas. 

I would be the first person to admit that there’s a lot wrong with the US beef industry. A case in point is that sector’s heavy reliance on synthetic hormonal growth promoters and infeed antibiotics. Animal traceability doesn’t count for much either. But, to their credit, our American colleagues do quite a number of things very well when it comes to beef finishing. One being their commitment to feeding accuracy and having a very strong handle on individual animals’ feed intakes, daily liveweight gains and feed conversion ratios on a real time basis. One of the strongest drivers in this regard is their policy of feeding animals twice daily. They also have people employed in their feed lots, whose sole job is to regularly inspect animals in the various pens.

Animal care and feed management are both cornerstones of beef production in this part of the world too, but is there anything we can learn from across the Atlantic? As feed is the most expensive component of the finishing process it’s imperative that each animal receives both the correct type of feed and level of feed that are proportionate with their potential to grow, to maximise the efficiency of the finishing operation as a whole.

Small steps can be taken by beef finishers to quickly improve the efficiency of their business such as ensuring that all stock have access to adequate feed space to prevent bullying. This is crucial to attaining better growth overall and more consistent growth rates within groups. Providing sufficient clean water for each animal is also vitally important so as not to limit feed consumption.   

Another management practice used on the US feed lots was the weighing of animals on both arrival and departure from the farm. If put into practice it would give farmers a greater insight into the level of performance each of their cattle is achieving. Combining this information with daily feed intakes will then allow farmers the opportunity to work out daily feed conversion ratios – the key figure for any beef finisher.  It does not take major investment to secure real and sustainable improvements in the performance of animals on the back of this information. As the saying goes you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

The members of the United Feeds’ advisory team are available to work with beef finishers to help improve performance of their stock and their businesses as a whole.