SILAGE TRIAL: Simon Marsh, who led the trial into the benefits of replacing cereals with a high quality maize silage
SILAGE TRIAL: Simon Marsh, who led the trial into the benefits of replacing cereals with a high quality maize silage

MAIZE silage has the potential to improve the economic performance of a beef unit which finishes steers from the suckler herd, according to the results of recent trial.

The study looked at the partial replacement of cereals with a high quality maize silage for suckler-bred beef bulls.

A total of more than 30 South Devon steers were used in the trial, which was led by Simon Marsh, from Harper Adams University, in Shropshire.

One group of cattle was fed a diet with a high inclusion of cereals, while the other was offered a total mixed ration based on 50 per cent high quality maize silage.

Both groups performed well, but the steers on the maize diet showed significantly higher daily liveweight gains, compared to the cereal-fed group.

Meanwhile, the days-to-finishing figures indicated that the cereal-fed cattle were ready for market an average eight days earlier than the cattle on the maize diet, although the latter ration was cheaper by more than £40 per head for the period.

The carcase value of the maize group was higher and the cattle attracted a premium of just over £70 per head, compared to the cereal group.

Meanwhile, the maize-fed cattle returned a margin over feed figure of more than £1,000 per head, compared to just over £900 per head for the cereal group.

The average feed cost per kilogramme of liveweight gain was £1.01 (maize) and £1.33 (cereals).

Mr Marsh commented that farms which traditionally fed cereals but had the facilities to switch their suckler-bred steers to a maize-based diet might consider a change in feeding policy – as long as the farm was in a position to make high quality maize silage.

“In some parts of the country, farmers have been experiencing problems with the marketing of suckler-bred beef cattle and penalties have been incurred for carcases at weights of above 380kgs,” said Mr Marsh.

“This issue was behind the idea for the trial, which was designed to evaluate and compare intensive finishing systems for late-maturing, spring-born steers.

“The other driver was the volatility in the price of cereals in the marketplace in recent years.”

The target for intensively-finished sucker-bred steers was to achieve a carcase weight of 335kgs at 13-14 months old, he added. For bulls, the performance target would be a 380kgs carcase at 14 months.

“Some producers may consider these targets relatively low,” he said.

“However I would comment that at Harper Adams in 2003 we intensively-finished some three-quarter-bred Limousin cattle in a cereals/ wholecrop trial and recorded carcase weights of 275-285kgs.

“Since that date, there has been a marked improvement in the genetic merit of the national herd and the Limousins in that study were bred by bulls with average beef values.”

The South Devon cattle used in the maize/cereals trial were bred by sires which fell into the top ten per cent of the index for quality beef cattle. They entered the study period at eight months old, having been weaned three weeks prior to arrival and offered creep feed.

During the trial, the cattle were group-housed in straw-bedded yards.

“The earlier days-to-slaughter figure for the cereal-fed cattle would give the producer a small saving on variable and fixed costs,” Mr Marsh pointed out.

“However, the fixed costs for a system based on forage may be significantly higher on some farms, due to the requirement for silage clamps and ration-handling equipment.

“Some markets are penalising heavy weight carcases with intensively-finished suckled bulls, so finishing steers intensively as an alternative may offer the potential for respectable margins and the chance to market carcases which meet the required specifications.

“In addition, the handling of bulls has recognised management challenges and their replacement with steers can be a favourable option, in some cases.”

Cattle Diets

Cereals – The ad-lib, cereal-based diet contained rolled barley, sugar beet pulp, soyabean meal, distillers’ dark grains and molasses, as well as minerals, to make up a 15 per cent crude protein ration. Straw was also offered on an ad-lib basis.

Maize silage-based total mixed ration – This was also a 15 per cent protein ration and comprised 50 per cent good quality maize silage, with the concentrate element containing rolled barley, soya bean meal, distillers’ dark grains and minerals.