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Data Driven Decision Making for Suckler Herds

24 October 2023

Performance recording for data driven decisions can sometimes seem daunting - where and how do you start? 

Firstly, the individual herd aim should be identified. Thinking about what you are specifically trying to achieve (e.g. tighter calving, better weaning weight) will help to guide the data collection/usage required. Overall, performance recording can aid with maximising profitability, understanding environmental impact, and allow broad health improvements across the herd.

Here we draw on expertise from SAC Consultant Jack Munro, and Charley and Andrea Walker of Barnside farm. They summarise key records which are beneficial to performance recording in suckler herds, allowing for benchmarking using key performance indicators (KPIs).  

Cattle Lying in Field

Age of First Calving

Calculation: Total age of all first time calvers divided by total number of first time calvers.  

KPI (high performing herds): 23- 24.5 months.

Identifying and then working to reduce calving age is an effective way to lower the cost of production and increase cow performance (longevity). This can also help to reduce enteric fermentation emissions values (appearing on farm carbon audits).

Barnside aims to have heifers calving at 24 months and runs heifers in the main herd prior, this allows them to integrate and ‘learn’ the system as the farm utilises outwintering and outdoor calving methods.

Cow Calving Period

Calculation: Number of cows/heifers calved in first 6 weeks divided by total cows/heifers put to the bull, multiplied by 100 (=%). 

KPI (high performing herds): 85-70%

Achieving a tight calving block indicates good fertility, allows for even growing calves and can ensure more calved cows are turned out on grass at the start of the grazing season (spring calving herds). Identifying outliers of the calving period can help to inform culling decisions to promote fertility and reduce barren numbers.

It should be highlighted that in order to have a tight calving period, it is essential to also have a strict bulling period. Barnside farm use a strict 7-week bulling period, although this can sometimes result in additional barren cattle, it provides great benefit to tightening up the calving period and promoting fertility overall in the herd.

At calving time, a group chat strictly for notifying calf births can be useful, especially when working in a team. It makes it easy to quickly record ear tag, calf sex, birth date/time and any issues or calving difficulties.

Barnside also utilise this form of recording to note down temperament of the mother when inspecting calves, which can be valuable for genetic selection of good temperament as cows flagged here can be culled out/replacements not retained etc.

Herd Efficiency Percentage (Calf weight per unit of cow weight)

Calculation: 200-day (adjusted) calf daily liveweight gain divided by average weight of all cows/heifers put to the bull, multiplied by 100 (=%). 

KPI (high performing herds): 45-60% 

Data collection required: Number of calves weaned, average calf weight at weaning, number of cows mated, average cow weight at mating.

This KPI accounts for the number and weight of all females bred and their relationship with the overall number and weight of calves weaned. Maximising this percentage by monitoring condition, and managing calving/weaning dates, can subsequently maximise profitability. 

Accurate weights are essential for accurate calculation of this KPI. Barnside utilises 4 annual weighing of calves in conjunction with other husbandry required. Aim to weigh breeding females too - starting with a representative sample is better than no weighing of females at all! This helps with understanding of overall female size and can allow for adjustment to be made to have correctly sized cows for the system (Barnside’s ideal is a 650kg cow). 

To conclude, don’t be afraid to try some performance recording, start by focussing on a few KPIs specific to your system and don’t try to tackle everything at once.

Remember to keep your end goal in mind, this will allow you to stay focussed on exactly why you are collecting data and that the data is getting directly used for the benefit for your suckler herd performance. 

Data Driven Decision Making - Suckler Herds

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