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Data Driven Decision Making for Finishing Cattle

9 November 2023
Cattle stood in a field by the sea in Tiree

Dr David Bell, SAC Beef Consultant and Analyst, explains why performance recording is so important for finishing producers, and farmer Robert Neill discusses how he uses data, provides practical tips and shares his experience with technology and activity at Upper Nisbet farm. 

Performance Recording Points

Finishers should be measuring to manage their enterprises so they can take action, identify problems and drive improvement. 

When selecting the KPI’s to focus on they must be: 

  • Relevant  
  • Measurable  
  • Practical  
  • Comparable

The finishing KPI’s below will help drive efficiency and profitability in the business whilst identifying areas for improvement and revealing the strengths of the business.  

The five important KPI’s are derived from performance records found in: 

  1.  Weight data - Daily liveweight gain (kg/day)
  2.  Health data - Morbidity rate (%) and mortality rate (%)
  3.  Farm time data - Days to slaughter and/or days on farm (days)
  4.  Age data - Age at slaughter (months/days)
  5.  Financial data - Cost of production (£)


Farmers can measure and process this data in a variety of ways and must find a system that is easy to measure for themselves. The recording system you go for will depend on your competency with technology - many choose to process the numbers on pen and paper or a simple excel document at one end of the spectrum, while others who have more stock use computer programmes linked to technology to save time.  

‘Ritchie beef monitors’ and other weigh head brands are examples that provide weights of animals that can speak to the performance recording programmes but do require a higher level of digital proficiency as well as capital cost.  

The number one piece of technology every finishing enterprise should have is digital weigh bars. Robert explained his practical experience working with beef monitors and weigh systems and that now at home he can weigh 40 cattle in 10 minutes! Highlighted below in the table are the pros and cons of different systems to performance record.  


Pen & Paper- Simple

- Cheap

- Flexible
- Time consuming

- Record storage

- Analysis - manual
Computer programs (e.g. spreadsheets)- Flexible

- Set up some simple analysis options
- Some level of computing skills required

- Manual set up (calculations)
Farm management software- Can be integrated with EID

- Calculations pre-set
- Cost

- Some level of computing skills required

beef cow banner

Upper Nisbet

Robert Neill from Upper Nisbet takes us through his farming system and explains the data he believes is important to record as a finishing enterprise. Upper Nisbet is a 636.25 hectare farm which is part of Lothian Estates in the Scottish Borders. The Neill family took over the tenancy in May 2000 and the farm has 350 Limousin cross British Friesian cows. Aberdeen Angus bulls are used to breed replacement heifers.  

The arable crops grown on the farm include winter barley which is mostly dried and kept in long term storage to be fed to the beef herd, with the remainder being sold under a seed contract.  Almost all of the winter wheat is sold as feed and the spring barley which is split between malting barley contracts and seed contracts. However, this year the maltsters rejected a large tonnage for its quality so it is only available as feed. Beans and forage crops also grown on the farm.  

All of the straw from the cereal crops is baled and retained on the farm for feeding and bedding which is then spread on the arable ground as farmyard manure to enhance the soil quality and texture. 

The beef and arable enterprises complement each other, and each provides a benefit to the other sector. The suckler herd are providing a plentiful supply of farmyard manure to improve the nutrient value of the soil and the arable crops provide not only feeding but also bedding reducing input costs. 

Management Decisions

Robert’s cattle are weighed regularly to monitor liveweight gain through a purpose-built handling system with hydraulic squeeze crush and automatic three-way shedding gates. Bulls are housed in individual pens after mating to ensure a tight calving. EBV’s are also used when selecting bulls, particularly to minimise calving difficulties and maximise growth potential. Stock are tagged electronically, enabling the farm to capture data accurately as well as making handling & weighing cattle more efficient and safer for stock and staff.  

Calves are also weighed at birth averaging 40 and 42kg on average and will be finished anything from 14-22 months. Regular cashflow is a major objective of the business following Roberts previous experience in dairy and having the regular milk check and therefore aims to sell cattle every week in the year. Cows are predominantly spring calving though some heifers calve in the autumn. They have an eight-week calving with no cows receiving concentrate at any time. Calves are all weaned at 200 days.  

  • 365kg of meat per acre (903kg of meat per hectare) on 700 acres of grass (283 ha). 
  • Cow efficiency KPI for Robert just now is 47%. 

Being Professional

Robert emphasises the importance of growth rates data showing sooner how that animal is doing before your eye sees it. Performance recording is just another step in being professional with what they do. Robert mentioned that previously butchers would not desire anything above 650kg so it was important then not to take weights heavier so careful monitoring of data was necessary for that. All the feed inputs at Upper Nisbet are priced against what you can sell a beast at the market for and rations are tailored accordingly. 

The importance of taking 10 minutes to clean a beast up is another professional step the Neill’s take to ensure their product is displayed at its best in the ring. After all, you have spent up to 22 months rearing that animal so you want its marketability to be strong.  

Robert explained that feed conversion ratio is important and that if a beast is not doing one kilo a day in growth it is sold. For example, going into his costs he stated that for 2022 it cost him £1.66 per kilo of feed to put on one kilo of live weight gain for his females.  

Top 3 KPIs for finishers: 

  1. Daily live weight gains (DLWG) Targeting 1.5-1.7kg/day. Entire bulls finishing weights were 722kg at 1.7 DLWG. Steers finishing weights were 670kg at 1.21 DLWG. Heifers finishing weights were 661 at 1.1 DLWG. 
  2. Time on farm expressed as either “Days to slaughter” or if buying in stores to finish “Days on Farm”. For intensive production target <400 days 13 months or extensive production target <600days 20 months from birth to slaughter. 
  3. Full economic cost of production per liveweight kilo of calves weaned. Target £2-2.25kg.

A key point from Robert was that “there is no point in gathering data to gather dust - whenever we record we must use it to inform and direct business decisions. 

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