THE latest results from ABP’s R&D farms in Shropshire and Ireland are demonstrating the key levers in nutrition, physiology and genetics that can be applied to help reduce carbon footprint and maximising efficiencies.
The research indicates that significant environmental gains can be made through practical changes to on-farm management strategies. ABP has now made this knowledge available to the industry through its sustainable beef podcast hosted by the farmer & broadcaster Adam Henson.
In this latest episode Adam talks to Professor Chris Reynolds, from the University of Reading, an ABP research partner, and with Andrew McCleod, Farm Manager at Bromstead – the ABP demonstration farm in Shropshire.
Professor Chris Reynolds’ is working with ABP to study the reduction of emissions through effective dietary supplements such as seaweed and management strategies that farmers can use to mitigate methane emissions. Professor Reynolds believes this will be crucial in establishing a verifiable system that gives UK farmers the ability to sell carbon credits for sequestration and prove what they are doing is an effect.
“UK and Ireland is in a really good place with grassland production systems but there is more we can do and that is promising as well.”
The University is also collaborating with ZELP on the use of livestock collars to measure and reduce methane emissions at Bromstead. The halters sit over the animals’ nostrils and collect the methane which is then chemically broken down into its non-harmful components; a little like a catalytic converter on a car.
In laboratory tests at Reading University, these devices reduced cows’ methane emissions by 50 per cent.
The farm is also trialling a Green Feed chamber, which will monitor methane emissions from each cow as it eats from the bespoke feed bin.
In the area of genetics, due to the abundance of data, ABP has been concentrating on Aberdeen Angus sires but is expanding out to other breeds as more data becomes available.
Along with Reading University and a range of research partners the team is involved in identifying the easiest and largest wins. A £250 differential has been found between the best and worst sires; progeny from the worst averaged 274kg deadweight with a 48.5 per cent kill-out percentage while progeny from the best averaged 334kg with a 51 per cent kill-out percentage, making them worth £901 and £1151, respectively.
With over 20,000 calves a year going through ABP’s Blade Farming system, it has been able to evaluate the impact that different genetics have on productivity. Working with Genus it has looked at growth rates, feed conversion efficiencies, carcass values and eating quality – as well as calving ease and fertility performance in the source dairy or beef suckler cows.
The farm and other Blade rearing units have also looked at feed conversion efficiencies; over a 12-week rearing period progeny from sire 12 averaged 6.4kg of feed per kg of growth, compared to sire five at 7.37kg.
“At a value of £1.20/kg per kg liveweight that equates to a £24 variance,” explains Andrew Macleod, farm manager at Bromstead. “So you have similar feed going in but extra weight coming out.”
Bringing all of that information together has enabled the research team to identify the most efficient sires: Progeny from the top five averaged a gross margin (value minus variable costs and overheads) of £225.79 whereas offspring from the bottom five sires averaged just £81.28 a head.
When it comes to environmental impact, those efficiencies have a marked effect. At Bromstead based on a slaughter age of 20 months, offspring from the best sire averaged 7.29kg of carbon equivalent emissions per kg of meat (2,543kg/head) while those from the worst sire averaged 8.53kg. Looking at slower finishing systems, the impact is even greater; based on ABP national data all stock slaughtered at 20 months average 8.12kg of emissions, while those finished at 24 months average 9.49kg and at 30 months 12.09kg.
“The average age at slaughter in the UK is 26.5 months, so emissions average 10.76kg (3,498kg/head); that’s 47 per cent more than offspring from the best sire at Bromstead, finished at 20 months,” says Andrew. “If you roll that out across the industry that will have a huge impact.”
ABP uses the latest technology to monitor feed intakes and emissions.
“We’re here to do a commercial assessment of the options,” he says.
Bought in 2015, the 153ha farm comprises 134ha of grass and arable land, plus woodland and ponds.
Andrew Macleod takes in 120 calves, aged 16 weeks, every three months and rears them to finish at 20 months old. “Two thirds are Aberdeen Angus x Holstein and the rest are a mix of British Blue, Holstein and Wagyu crossbreds.”
The cattle are grazed over the summer and finished indoors on an ad-lib total mixed ration comprising home-grown grass silage, maize and barley with distillers’ grains and high protein nuts. They are housed in groups – calves bedded on straw and finishers on sawdust – and weighed monthly through a Temple Grandin-designed race (weekly when closer to finishing).
“We keep them on the same feed as the calf unit to start with, and then gradually move them onto the more forage-based diet,” says Mr Macleod.
“That ensures we don’t get a check in weight gain –small management tweaks make a big difference in terms of days to slaughter.”
He samples the silage three times a week, so that changes to the diet can be made accordingly for consistently high dry matter intakes.
The trial shed features a Growsafe feeder system; each feed bin is on scales and logs the electronic identification of every animal as it eats. In this way it can show when each animal eats, how long for, and how much feed it consumes.
Although the farm initially focused on finishing as early as possible to maximise efficiencies, it has now moved to a more grazing and forage-based system to better reflect other UK farms.
With a 75 per cent forage diet, it aims to finish cattle at 20 months old, with heifers at 310kg deadweight and steers at 320kg.
All beef animals that are processed at an ABP abattoir are graded using Video Imaging Analysis (VIA), the results from which are fed back to ABP’s genetics partner. This carcase weight and grading data is used to determine the relative performance of sire and breed; added to this, the farm’s research findings identify the best beef sires, the most methane-reducing sward types and the optimum slaughter age and weight.
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