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Meeting Livestock Spec Vital in Post-Brexit Era

Producing cattle and sheep which meet market specifications will be more important than ever in the post-Brexit era, farmers heard at the recent North Ayrshire Monitor Farm meeting.

This was the message from speakers at the meeting held at Girtridge Farm, near Dundonald, which was attended by over 80 livestock farmers.

The focus of the event was a live assessment of cattle and sheep on the host farm run by John Howie in partnership with his mother Margaret and his sister Mary. As well as the 200 bought-in cattle that they finish, the Howies run their own small suckler herd and 140 breeding ewes.

Cattle at a range of weights, stages of maturity and conformation were discussed and key points highlighted by Jim Gibb of processors AK Stoddart, who urged farmers to understand their chosen market and what that customer is looking for.

“Around 85% of beef is sold through supermarkets so if they are the target market then it is important to meet the spec they require,” said Mr Gibb.

While he observed that farmers are paid for animal weight, he said it was important to resist the temptation to keep cattle too long resulting in animals putting on fat to increase weight. He emphasised that “fat costs feed” to put on the carcase and the result will almost invariably be less profit.

“One example of this would be a Aberdeen Angus cross heifer grading at O+4L which could realise £1,058 if sold now. If kept for two months longer to reach a heavier weight it might grade at O+4H, meaning it had fallen out of the spec required by the abattoir. As a result, this heavier, older animal would return just £1,050 and have used an additional two months feeding – meaning a much tighter margin,” said Mr Gibb. 

Using the Howies’ cattle in the pens he highlighted how important it is to weigh and assess condition when selecting for slaughter, especially with smaller animals like heifers which will reach finished condition at lighter weights.

One investment which the Girtridge business has made recently is the purchase of a set of weigh cells for their cattle handling crate. “This was a cheap and cheerful and means I can monitor weights and target feed and sales better,” said host farmer John Howie, who is also planning to develop an improved cattle handling system as part of the monitor farm experience.

Mr Gibb also outlined other steps farmers can make to potentially maximise sale price including ensuring carcases are not damaged by bruising (on farm or during transport). He also reminded farmers of the need to correctly choose injection sites, emphasising that the rump is one of the highest value cuts on the carcase which can be easily damaged by injections.

Colin Mair of co-operative Farmstock Scotland highlighted the importance of a steady flow of communication between processors and farmers and emphasised that farmers need to supply the correct type of finished lamb to the correct outlet in terms of carcase weight range and finish to maximise returns.

“The grading information which abattoirs provide to farmers offers huge potential in terms of its value as feedback on lamb performance,” said Mr Mair.

He also urged producers to consider the importance of ensuring animals are clean when they are presented for slaughter.

“Keeping lambs off feed, but with water, for 12 hours prior to travelling them will in no way affect their slaughter weights but will deliver the dual benefits of cleaner animals coming off the trailer at the abattoir and sheep travelling better,” he said.

At this time of year, lambs’ bellies should be clipped before slaughter and cattle should also be clipped if necessary. 

Mr Mair also flagged the need for farmers to be aware that the killing out percentage of sheep can vary considerably, from 42% – 50%, depending on many factors including age, time of year and the condition of sheep.

During a wider update at the meeting, Mr Howie gave an update on the paddock grazing system he established earlier this year. He also informed the group that he had recently bought 75 Aberfield gimmers from Lothians Monitor farmer Peter Eccles to increase their ewe flock size. Mr Howie had also bought 83 Scotch Mule/Texel gimmers, as he aimed to increase the farm’s flock size to 250 ewes.

The day after the farm meeting, over twenty members of the community group visited the AK Stoddarts’ abattoir in Ayr to see the range of beef carcases from Girtridge and to compare their actual weight and EUROP grades with their estimates on the farm the day before. 

The North Ayrshire Monitor Farm is one of nine monitor farms that have been established around Scotland in a joint initiative by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds. The aim of the programme, which is funded by Scottish Government, is to help improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of Scottish farm businesses.

The next North of Ayrshire monitor farm meeting will be held on Friday 1 December. For more information about the next meeting and the monitor farm programme visit www.monitorfarms.co.uk