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The key to getting the best returns from breeding beef cows is to make sure they complement rather than compete with other stock classes on the farm.
This is the message AgResearch Invermay scientist Jason Archer gave to about 130 people who attended the Beef and Lamb New Zealand South Canterbury Farming for Profit field day at Godley Peaks Station, Lake Tekapo, last week.
''Accountants hate cows but farmers still have them'' and for good reasons, he said.
In a gross margin analysis, the cow ''looks fairly challenged and you wonder why we bother''.
But such an analysis was simplistic and did not take into account such things as what type of feed or what contribution the cow might be making to other on-farm enterprises such as the sheep operation. It did not take into account labour requirements, or benefits to parasite control, potential value from income diversification or the sheer enjoyment of farming cattle, he said.
''Part of the role of the cow is to buffer feed and take the fat off her back at certain times.''
The cow cleaned up rough feed or used cheap feed.
The cow needed to be managed in such a way as to make sure it would make more profit from that particular feed than any other stock class. Or the cow did a job for the sheep enterprise.
''That's what makes her profitable.''
The cow ''buffered feed'' from summer to winter and year to year.
It was particularly useful in areas of ''extremes of rainfall''.
''But don't have too many cows ... and pay attention to the way you are feeding them. They are buffers ... but not miracle workers.''
Young, growing cattle should be managed differently, and in the same way as growing lambs were managed, but in a way as to not compete with other stock classes, he said.
So as not to compete with other stock, calving dates should be selected to match a surplus of feed.
Young cattle needed to grow, ''the faster the better'', because early slaughter reduced maintenance costs.
Stock numbers needed to be carefully considered - there should be enough young cattle to maximise the use of high quality feed but there still should be enough cows to use and remove low quality feed.
Thought also needed to be given to making sure cows were fed well between calving and mating, he said.
In a panel discussion, Dr Archer said selecting traits for faster growth had to be balanced with selecting for environmental suitability and fertility, but that could be managed.
However, he thought perhaps too much attention was given to the part genetics played in growth and more attention should be given to nutrition.
''Personally, I believe we can feed animals a whole lot better.''
In the quest for robust cattle which could handle fluctuation in feed, it was the role of the stud breeders to ''take a few risks''.
''It is a cost they have to cover ... we've got to be prepared to fail as well,'' Dr Archer said.
- Photo by Ruth Grundy