Raising Beef Cattle: From Cheap Stock, Feed and Land
Cattle are very inefficient meat producers. They put on weight slowly, consuming vast quantities of food in the process.
Given the opportunity, they will eat right through the farmer’s profit margin to be sold plump and glossy at a substantial loss. Farmers are therefore very cost-conscious.
The traditional beef rearing areas of the British Isles are the pastoral uplands of the north and west — regions with a cool, wet climate and poor soil unsuited to arable farming on a large scale. The pasture is often too poor to support modern high-yielding dairy cattle, but quite adequate for the less demanding beef breeds, stocked at low density on cheap land. The animals are bred to be self-reliant and hardy enough for out-wintering in a sheltered field on a simple diet of hay, silage (preserved grass) or barley straw. This saves the cost of winter housing which is almost universal today on dairy farms.
Two hundred years ago much of the beef consumed in London was derived from, and Welsh Blacks, shod for the road and driven all the way from Scotland or upland Wales to be ‘finished’ on the fattening pastures of the Vale of Aylesbury. Today these picturesque upland cattle have acquired decorative value, and they are often grazed on parkland which could support more productive, but less handsome breeds.
Upland beef 20 years ago
On the hills, calving is timed for the spring to miss the worst of the winter. The calves are reared naturally by their mothers, a system known as ‘single suckling’ (one calf per cow). This enables the cows to roam over the poor grazing, and makes the most of a milk yield which is too low to justify investment in milking equipment.
In the milder hill farming areas, this principle is employed in conjunction with cross-breeding to produce big, beefy calves with a high market value. Hybrid `cows’, chosen for their hardiness and reasonable milk output, are mated with a bull from a heavyweight lowland beef breed. The calves inherit much of the bull’s beef quality, and benefit from their mothers’ ability to turn poor pasture into milk. The system is identical to that used in the sheep industry to breed fat lamb.
Traditionally, the favoured hybridcow is the , a cross between a cow and a white Beef Shorthorn bull. The Galloway provides the hardiness, while the Beef Shorthorn, a lowland breed, improves the milk yield and growth potential. The are mated with a big bull such as a , producing well-built calves with a high growth rate and exploiting the excellent mothering abilities of the cows to the full.
In the lowland areas of better soils and kinder climate this free-range style of beef farming is not practical. The land is more profitably used for dairying or arable. Consequently lowland beef breeds have been developed to achieve very high growth rates under intensive conditions, or off grass which is inadequate or surplus to the dairy farmer’s requirements.
A typical grass breed is. Run on second-rate pasture, Herefords produce good-quality meat, and plenty of it. Hardy, independent animals, requiring little in the way of special care or feeding, they are ideally suited to ranching systems, and the breed has enjoyed great success on the grasslands of North and South America.
The black, in contrast, is a breed developed for feeding intensively on the by-products of arable farming. Before artificial fertilisers came into general use every arable farmer counted among his capital equipment a yard full of bullocks, the purpose of which was to provide manure for the crops. Lavishly fed bullocks produced the best manure and so the farmer was well-advised to choose animals which turned a proportion of hay, grain, roots and imported oilcake into high-quality beef. Breeds like the Aberdeen Angus were ideal; properly cared for they develop into solid, square-cut beasts, all muscle. Today the bullock-yard system is out of date, but the ability of these animals to gain weight quickly under such conditions is still exploited by intensive beef producers. The cattle are bought young, kept indoors and fed a high-value diet to achieve maximum growth rate and to be ‘finished’ in the shortest possible time, often at less than 12 months old.
The profitability of intensive beef relies on cheap feeds, and at times of high grain prices the system is uneconomic. Consequently many lowland beef producers prefer a semi-intensive arrangement which employs grazing, home-grown forage crops, hay and straw, but is designed nevertheless to keep the animals growing well from weaning to finishing at the age of 18 to 24 months. In this respect it differs from the traditional beef fattening system, in which animals are reared on a minimum, or ‘maintenance’ diet on the farm where they were born, and eventually sold as ‘store cattle’ for finishing on a farm with surplus grazing or preserved fodder.
The economic margins on all these lowland systems are narrow, and using expensive purebred beef breeds such as the Hereford and the Aberdeen Angus does not help. In fact, most of the beef stock in Britain today is derived from a much cheaper source: the surplus of a flourishing dairy industry.
Dairy cattle do not, in general, make good beef animals; they are normally too gaunt and bony, having been selected over the years for their ability to divert energy into milk production. To give milk at all, however, a dairy cow must have a calf every year. She may be mated to a bull of the same breed to produce replacements for the dairy herd but many farmers prefer to buy their replacements, and mate their cows with a beef-type bull to produce crossbred beef calves. These animals are fast-growing, fairly hardy, and economical to feed; they respond well to both traditional and intensive management, and their meat, although inferior to that of the purebred beef breeds, is lean, abundant, and well suited to the supermarket pre-pack trade.
Most beef enterprises today rely on these animals, and the market for purebred beef calves for fattening has contracted. The crossing system has, however, created a lucrative market for beef bulls, and bull breeding has become the main concern of many pedigree herds.
Currently the most popular crossing bull is the Limousin, imported from the upland areas of western and central France. Mated with a dairy cow such as a Friesian it sires a meaty, quick-growing calf which fattens up well off grass and cheap fodder. These beef calves are easily distinguishable from their dairy cousins, and reared accordingly. Buyers like them too; they can see at a glance what they are paying for. Female calves resulting from the match are often sold to hill farmers for use asin areas where the hardiness of the Blue-grey is inappropriate.
Aberdeen Angus bulls also colour-mark their offspring, the calves inheriting the all-black pigmentation. The Angus is often used on the smaller dairy breeds such as the Jersey, for being a relatively compact animal it sires a small calf, minimising calving problems.
The dairy farmer who breeds his own replacements for the milking herd must use a dairy bull. The cows are mostly artificially inseminated but, though less popular today, the dairyman sometimes keeps a real bull in case some of the cows do not respond to the artificial variety. This is generally a beef bull, for a crossbred calf is of more use to the farmer than a second-rate dairy calf. This is the reason why one often sees mixed batches of calves.
The problem with dairy breeding is that, inevitably, half the purebred calves will be male. If both parents are of exceptional quality, a male calf may be reared as a breeding bull, and sold for a fat sum. This, however, is unusual; most of the bull calves end up as beef, and since the beef quality of many of the specialist dairy breeds is poor, they fetch a correspondingly poor price.
The early cattle breeders, mindful of this, attempted to breed dual-purpose animals which could be fed for milk or beef production as required. The results were disappointing, and with a few exceptions most British dairymen, by the mid 20th century, were using cows selected for milk yield, and employing crossbreeding to ensure a market for their calves.
Over the last 25 years however, the black and white British Friesian, a high-yielding dairy breed, has been developed for beef. The animals are big-boned and fast-growing, and although their meat would not tempt the connoisseur, it is lean, attractive and marketable. This is a reason why the Friesian is so popular today. Its dual-purpose character may be threatened, however: a Canadian strain of the breed known as the Holstein, notable for its milk output but not its beef quality, has been widely used recently to upgrade the dairy output of Friesians, to the detriment of their beef potential. It remains to be seen how far this process may be taken, and whether the dual-purpose concept will be abandoned yet again.
One development which may forestall this is the growing interest in bull beef. Normally male calves reared for beef are castrated to make them more manageable. Such animals are known as bullocks or steers. The disadvantage is that the hormones which make a bull aggressive are also responsible for its high growth rate — faster than that of a cow or a steer.