How a beef farmer simplified herd management using genetics

With an off-farm business and a small labor pool, raising “hands-free” cattle is a top priority for third-generation farmer Adam Quinney.

Reins Farm, near Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, covers 150 ha (370 acres) of land comprising multiple tenancies.

It is home to a flock of 100 sucklers and a flock of 120 Easycare ewes run by Mr Quinney and his wife Sarah.

See also: 9 ways a farm can improve the efficiency of its beef cows

Farm facts

Reins Farm, Sambourne, Warwickshire

  • The 150-hectare (370-acre) meadow consists of many tenancies
  • 100 seller Aberdeen Angus suckler cows, plus 120 Easycare ewes
  • Cultivation of own substitutes
  • Young bulls purchased from the same source within the last 10 years
  • Cattle aged 22-24 months, averaging 350 kg dead, processed by ABP

The aim of the business is to make herd management as simple and efficient as possible while maintaining healthy margins.

To achieve this, 10 years ago Mr Quinney introduced Aberdeen Angus genetics to the then predominantly Salers herd.

“While our sellers are very good mothers and very milky, there is nothing like adding a little hybrid vigor to your herd.

“The idea of ​​having Angus in the cows was to give them a bit more cover than the Salers had and to get them polled because it was a different job,” Mr Quinney explains.

In addition, it was hoped that the introduction of these genetics would improve mothering and calving ability to achieve the “hand-free” status he was aiming for.

Herd objectives

Since more than half of its total costs are overhead, having an animal that requires little labor or expensive management is critical to maintaining margins.

“We try to make sure there’s a good return ratio when we spend something. It’s more about growing the margin for us than the overall product of the animal.”

Mr Quinney says incorporating Angus genetics into the herd helps him achieve three main goals:

  • No help during min/decrease
  • Breeding cows that feed their young well
  • Progeny that grow and finish well on grass-based diets to reduce dependence on inputs.

Breeding strategy

Achieving these goals begins with animal husbandry. The goal of the breeding strategy is to end up with a cow that is three-quarters Salers and one-quarter Angus.

The cow is then returned to Angus as a terminal dam, with Angus genetics producing good fertility and growth.

Estimated breeding values ​​(EBV) are a key part of the selection strategy. Mr Quinney explains that the bulls are selected from a single source at 15 months of age – which has remained the only source for the past 10 years.

“With all EBVs, it’s about looking at the animal and then looking at the EBVs along with it. But first of all, we look at calving ease, productivity, animal robustness – good legs, etc. – and we also select for lifetime performance.

“The characteristics of the mother, such as good positioning of the teats, are also important. On the terminal side, this is to achieve re-calving ease and lifetime performance as well as sensible carcass size.

“We’re not looking for extreme form, just a good R4L animal.”

© MAG/Charlotte Cunningham

Fertility and calving

The benefits of genetics and attention to breeding strategy mean that the herd produces more than 100 calves for every 100 cows.

In the past five years, Mr Quinney has only had to assist with calving twice – once for a complicated twin birth and the second time for a cow with a dead calf. “If we have to calve a cow, we consider it bad luck.”

He has also made changes to calving times. Over the past 10 years, the herd has moved from traditional spring calving in February/March to calving in June and July.

“I work a lot on the farm, so I wanted the mornings to be nice so I could walk around and check on the cows and then leave the farm.

“It makes management easier and also means that when we turn the cows out in the spring, they all go out on the same day in one block.”

Nutrition and breeding

The diet is grass-based. Traditional rotational grazing is a challenge because the grassland consists of many plots of land. To prevent this, cattle are rounded up but roam the grasslands in these areas.

The ability of Angus to grow well on this grass is very beneficial as it will reduce dependence on concentrates. This protects the business from rising, volatile input costs, Mr. Quinney says.

During the summer, when cows are outside, they achieve 1 kg of live weight gain (DLWG) per day. During the winter, the cattle are kept and fed on high-quality forage, which is mainly home-grown.

It is sometimes mixed with co-crops such as brewers grain, but the ability of the genetics to work well in this feed means it achieves a DLWG of around 2kg/day during the winter months.

Red clover in silage ponds has also helped reduce reliance on fertilisers, Mr Quinny says. Alfalfa, now grown as part of crop rotations, is proving to be a more drought-tolerant species, meaning cows are more likely to graze year-round. This was proven this year when the grass died and alfalfa continued to grow despite the drought.

“However, it is not very effective [for silage], we can cut more. So although our cutting costs are higher, dry matter [DM] about 10-11 t/ha of good quality fodder is obtained.”

The result is an increase in home-grown feed and less reliance on and need for purchased feed. This means the business is less exposed to input price volatility, he adds.

Even with the best genetics, good management is key to performance, says Mr Quinney.

“There is an old saying that half of the genetics is in a bucket of feed. Genetics is a long-term gain, so management has to be right to ensure they express it.”

Don’t finish

All cattle reach 24 months. “We start killing at 21 months, most go to 22 months,” he says.

Cattle are sold to ABP at an average of 350-360kg and heifers are sold deadweight with steer carcasses of around 320kg.

If cows calve closer to March, it may be possible to move the finishing age closer to 18 months, further reducing costs and management inputs, Mr Quinney says, which is a system that works well for them at the moment.

“As we change the diet and I’m at home more now, I think that age will start to decrease. The genetics are there. But we still have a way to go.”

Data analysis

Adam Quinney says that record keeping and “number crunching” are key to ensuring genetic progress and form the basis of replacement policy.

“In fact, we want to make sure we don’t grow out of our worst cows.”

It looks at several performance metrics, including the all-important 200-day weight. However, this is not considered separately and performance within peer groups is also considered.

“We’re looking at the best of first-time calvers and the best of our cows. This is because some first-time calvers do not perform well in their first year, such as a cow in her fourth lactation.

“But they could outshine all their peers – and [they are] things you might want to keep.”

Historical performance data is also important, with an emphasis on keeping and selecting heifers from the highest quartile of consistently high-producing cows.

“The more data we have, the stronger the evidence.”

With footpaths running through around 70% of the farm, obedience is very important to Mr Quinney. “If you go into the field and he raises his head, we don’t want him.”

He adds that he has seen anecdotal evidence in his herd to show that docile cows gain better daily live weight to bolster the argument for the trait’s importance.

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