The Farming Press is presently filled with the doom and gloom of the poor beef trade, the depressed wheat prices and the lack of demand for British vegetables as we see Continental products flood the market with the loss of their Russian consumers. As a single farm we may struggle to change global markets alone but we can make the most of our own assets.
To do this, anything we spend on our stock must cost us less than we will gain from its use. Whether, when talking about fat stock; it be feed, bedding, worming products, vaccines or flukicides, or when talking about breeding stock, anything that may help maximise fertility. So, with a beef price ranging from 150.89 -191.17p/kg, light young bulls- heavy heifers respectively (29/4/15 Newark Mart), you need to know your average daily LWG to know how much you can afford to spend. This will depend significantly on your rearing/finishing system, so it is very much an individual farm choice.
The dry weather this winter/spring has led to a late grass crop. Animals last autumn grazed for longer thus keeping housing costs down, but in turn the warm and wet weather last autumn benefited the parasites that limit stock growth as well. However, though fluke, worms, coccidiosis and lungworm may have been rife this past year in grazed stock there is no benefit in just throwing any medication at stock without knowledge of there being an issue. As important as determining the parasite causing issues on your farm, if there be one, is determining that the medicine you use is going to be effective, as you may be throwing away money unnecessarily. This is especially true in sheep where resistance is widespread. For most parasite species faecal or blood samples help to determine whether there is active or recent infection. Testing is cheap and quick, often with results the same day, and it will allow you to target treatment. Faeces samples from a group of animals cost from £7 per group and bloods from £4 each. You could erroneously treat 100 weaned calves with Ivermectin pour-on, for worms alone, at a cost of approx £85 when, for as little as £7 a faeces sample could help determine whether there are in fact any worms fluke or fluke present. The sample results may show the treatment could have been ineffective and the money could have been better spent elsewhere. Think of the time you could have saved and the lack of stress the animals will have undergone in removing one treatment.
The one exception to the testing before treatment rule is when there is a high risk of Nematodirus battus. As temperatures have risen considerable in past weeks, sheep farmers should be on the look out for signs of infection by the parasite Nematodirus battus, which can cause a high number of mortalities and stunt the growth of many lambs. Cold weather delays hatching of eggs containing infective larvae, so a sudden change in temperature can trigger a mass hatch. If this coincides with the time when lambs are starting to take in significant amounts of grass, the result can be devastating. Signs consist of profuse diarrhoea (black-green, pale yellow then colourless and scanty), rapid dehydration and in some severe cases, death (<30%) Important risks to consider are: cold days suddenly followed by a period of warm weather, lambs grazing pasture that carried lambs last spring, lambs that are old enough to be eating significant amounts of grass (c. 6–12 weeks old), groups where there is also likely to be a challenge from coccidiosis and lambs that are under other stresses e.g. triplets, fostered, on young or older ewes. If you believe that your lambs are at risk, a white wormer drench should be sufficient to treat if there is disease, but please give your vet a ring for further advice.
Many farmers baulk at the cost of pneumonia vaccines when talking about a large group of calves to be housed but I have found not one yet that when having gone down this path turns back. Latest industry data shows that a case of pneumonia costs £243 (Colman 2014) and that doesn’t take into account the sub-clinical cases that retard growth rates in other animals affected at the same time. Were you one of those unlucky enough to suffer this spring with the changeable weather and extended housing period? You can vaccinate over 120 animals for the cost of 1 case depending upon the vaccine used. Remember the most effective vaccine to use will again be specific to the individual farm and it’s set up, so talk to your vet and get advice. However, before you spend any money on medicines I would look at the buildings and see if spending the money you spent on medication for treating (rather than preventing) pneumonia this winter would have been better spent on improving your housing. Not only will you spend less on medication but you will also get improved growth rates.
Turning to the beef sucklers cows; how do you know what fertility is like? Do you undertake pregnancy diagnosis? At a cost of £2-£3 per animal this is vital tool to ensuring you are not going into next winter with a batch of very expensive ornaments, otherwise known as barren cows, come next spring. It happens and it could happen to you. If pregnancy rates are less than 95% you are under-achieving. Could it be the bull, the management of the cows or the mineral status of the feed/grazing? Don’t wait until next year to have the problems again sort them now especially if you have to catch the animals up for another reason. All the above potential problems can be assessed cheaply and prevent the money that could be wasted by just throwing a multitude of possible solutions in the form of mineral licks, protein blocks etc. Don’t forget the bull is 50% of the herd so get him fertility tested before he goes in. The cost of bull testing is on average 50% the cost of the value of a single calf born.
Late calving beef cows are a nightmare as their calves never do as well, being smaller, and they struggle to get back in calf. So what do you do with those that are late at the end of the season? Cull prices are poor but feeding a barren animal over the winter is expensive, estimated at approx £2 per day. On some farms culling is the only way as a tight calving spring pattern is vital due to other commitments on farm. However, on other farms synchronising these late calvers may be the better way forward, creating another small tight calving group that will calve within a week later than the main herd. The costs for this are as little as £30 an animal.
Don’t accept achieving less than is maximal for you. Get advice from from your vet and ensure you are maximising the productivity of your stock.
Molly McKay BVetMed BSc (Hons) MRCVS
Norfolk Farm Vets