Beef farming technology projects

Information on new and previous technology projects in relation to beef farming.

New technology - replacement beef heifer breeding and rearing strategies

The Beef and Sheep Technology team at CAFRE are focussed on keeping Northern Ireland’s beef and lamb producers at the cutting edge of technology. Through a “can do” approach we are striving to build sustainable production systems which are simple, able to make efficient use of inputs such as feeds, fertiliser and labour and have a strong market focus.

Dr Steven Johnston and Dr Norman Weatherup are currently progressing with a range of technology projects within two key development areas:

  • replacement beef heifer breeding and rearing strategies
  • easier-care sheep system

Replacement beef heifer breeding and rearing strategies


To develop an efficient suckler bred heifer production system which will produce calved heifers at two years of age which are capable of entering the suckler herd.

Key technologies

Selecting the sires of your future suckler herd using maternal genetic information (Estimated Breeding Values, EBVs) to promote fertility
Feeding and management protocols to obtain target weights for age
Batch mating utilising synchronization and AI to reduce labour requirements

Selecting an easy calving sire using EBVs to mate with heifers to improve animal welfare


Industry led recommendation from Northern Ireland Red Meat Industry Task Force


The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) maintains a suckler herd of 100 cows at it’s 900 hectare hill unit. Traditionally replacement heifers for this herd were sourced as beef crossbreds from the College dairy herd. The increasing prevalence of Holstein genetics within the dairy herd rendered these heifers unsuitable due to poor conformation, fertility and longevity. A decision was taken in 2003 that all of the college herds should be self-contained to eliminate any dairy influence and to give complete control of the health status and genetics of heifers entering the herd.

A three-breed rotation, utilising Shorthorn, Aberdeen Angus and Limousin genetics was adopted at the hill farm in 2004. This three way breeding system delivers the optimum amount of hybrid vigour within a closed herd.
Selecting the sires of your future suckler herd using maternal genetic information (Estimated Breeding Values, EBVs) to promote fertility.

Within each breed, sires selected are within the top 25 percent of the breed for growth, 200 day milk and eye muscle area. These criteria should ensure the heifers are genetically capable of reaching target bulling weight by 15 months of age. Furthermore, when these heifers calve down, the higher milk value ensures that they wean heavier calves. The eye muscle area EBVs ensures that the by-product male calves have superior carcases when marketed.

eeding and management protocols to obtain target weights for age.
If a single calving period is to be maintained in the suckler herd then replacement heifers must calve down for the first time at either two or three years of age. If a heifer is to calve down at two years of age then she must conceive at 15 months of age. This means that the heifer must be cycling at this stage. As conception rates are lower at the first heat, then preferably heifers should have at least one heat before the beginning of the breeding season. Therefore early maturing breeds or crossbreds are most suited to this system. These heifers require careful nutritional management, particularly during the first winter, to ensure that they reach 380 to 420 KG at bulling. Further information on weight targets is shown in Table 1. Calving heifers at two years of age allows 13 percent more cows to be maintained by the same resources, compared with three year old calving. 

Table 1. Weight for age targets for calving heifers at 2 years old at Greenmount Hill farm
  Age months ADG (kg/d) Weight (kg)
Born (May)     40
Weaned (Nov) 6 1.0 220
Turnout (Apr) 11 0.8 34
Bulling (July/August) 14-15 0.8 340
Housing (Nov) 18 0.8 500
Turnout (Apr) 23 0.3 540
Weaning (Nov) 30 0.3 600

Batch mating utilising synchronization and AI to reduce labour requirements.

The labour requirement for heat detection and individual animal handling can be a significant barrier to the use of Artificial Insemination (AI), particularly in spring calving suckler herds. The use of AI allows for the selection of bulls with specific EBVs to address a range of issues, for example, calving ease, growth rate, milk production or carcase conformation and removes the impact of sub-fertile bulls. The use of heat synchronisation and fixed-time AI technologies completely eliminates the need for heat detection at first insemination and significantly reduces the time and labour required for subsequent inseminations. CAFRE heifers have been mated at 15 months of age using this method for the last three years and only heifers that conceive to the first or second AI are retained for breeding as these animals are the most fertile and will improve herd fertility in the longer term. Typically, conception rates to these two services have averaged 65-70 percent.

Selecting an easy calving sire using EBVs to mate with heifers to improve animal welfare.

AI sires with accurate calving ease EBVs are used. This reduces intervention at calving time which reduces labour costs and improves rebreeding success of the heifers. The current AI Aberdeen Angus bull used on heifers is Edinburgh of the Moss. Data from previous calvings are shown in Table 2.

Previous experience indicated that using a bull with average calving ease rather than a top 25 percent calving ease bull cost an additional £22/head in veterinary and labour costs.

Table 2. Calving information for two and three-year-old heifers
  2 years 3 years
Animals requiring veterinary assistance at first calving (percent) 12* 0
First calf birth weight (kg) 42.1 42.1
Animals requiring veterinary assistance at second calving (percent) 0 0
Second calf birth weight (kg) 42.9 44.4
Calving interval (days) from first to second calf 363 379

*In the first year of mating the 15 month old heifers, which would subsequently calve at two years old, two bulls were used through AI. One bull had EBVs which indicated very easy calving and one bull had average values for the breed. The veterinary assistance was required to calve four progeny of the bull with average figures for calving ease. This highlights the importance of selecting bulls with easier calving traits.

The data in Table 2 demonstrates that well-managed two year old calving heifers can produce a calf at two years of age and a subsequent calf at three years of age.


Dr Norman Weatherup
Beef/Sheep Technologist, CAFRE, Greenmount Campus
22 Greenmount Road,
BT41 4PU

Telephone: 028 9442 6762
Mobile: 07909 916 438


Easier-care sheep system


To assess easier-care concepts in lamb production and build systems at farm level which maximise the efficient use of inputs and labour.

Key technologies

  • breeding more efficient sheep using modern genetic performance information and management records.
  • introgressing easier-care and wool shedding genes into the Northern Ireland flock to reduce labour and improve animal welfare.
  • managing the build-up of worms resistant to anthelmintics on Northern Ireland farms through the use of the FECPAK, faecal egg count reduction test and breeding sheep with a genetic measure of their resistant to worms.


In line with our message to industry, the flock structure at CAFRE is currently undergoing change to reflect the need for simpler more market focused production systems. College policy is to develop two self-contained mature ewe flocks at the college’s hill farm, one containing 600-800 composite ewes and the other 400 pure-breeding Blackface ewes. The homebred replacements for each flock will join their respective flock at tupping time at 18 months of age. The Blackface replacements will be grazed at the college’s lowland farms during the winter, returning to the hill in spring to manage the heather moorland. The composite ewe lambs will be grazed at the college’s lowland farms, with a proportion mated and rearing lambs before returning to the hill.

Breeding more efficient sheep using modern genetic performance information and management records.

When assessing performance, many in the industry have focused on growth and carcase traits with great success. At the college’s hill farm the traditional two heft approach to Blackface breeding was replaced with a five family breeding policy and maximum use made of homebred rams. This allowed breeding decisions to be based on Estimated Breeding Values and the Hill-2 Index. The Hill-2 Index combines information on different EBVs into a single figure, using appropriate economic weightings. High indexed Blackface rams will produce daughters which have greater maternal ability, will live longer, will produce and rear more lambs and produce heavier lamb carcase weights.

Results indicate that the average carcase weight of entire male lambs has improved by 1.4 KG from 2004 to 2007. In addition the proportion of lambs grading R2, R3 and U3 has improved markedly from 48 percent to 87 percent (see Table 1). 

Table 1. Average Hill-2 index for all lambs born and slaughter data for entire male lambs
  Hill-2 index Carcase weight (kg) % male lambs grading R", R3 and U3
2004 123 18.1 48
2005 148 18.7 53
2006 186 19.2 81
2007 199 19.5 87

By keeping a few simple records further strengths and weaknesses can be identified within flocks and production benefits gained. Table 2 highlights the variation that occured between the five families in the CAFRE Blackface flock in 2007. This highlights the importance of maternal traits to economic performance.

Table 2. Breeding, lambing and finishing results from five Blackface families in 2007
  % pregnancy rate Lambing % per ewe to ram Lamb mortality at birth (%) Carcase wt(kg) % R2, R3 and U3 Daily carcase gain(g/day) Value of carcase Value of male lamb sales per 100 ewes (£)
Orange 83 131 4.4 19.4 87 52.1 56.36 3106
Blue 81 123 4.4 19.4 95 52.2 57.30 3016
Green 93 159 2.2 19.6 70 53.4 56.62 3952
Yellow 82 138 3.9 19.5 88 52.4 57.16 3395
Red 75 130 5.5 19.5 95 52.9 57.53 3160
Average 83 136 4.1 19.5 87 52.6 57.22 3336

* Assuming a standard 10 percent mortality from birth to sale, 50 percent of the lambs were born male and all female lambs were retained.

The Green family has the highest pregnancy rate, produces more lambs per ewe to the ram and also delivers the heaviest carcases. However, only 70 percent of the male lambs from the Green family grade R2, R3 and U3 compared with an average of 91percent for the other families. These relatively poorer carcase classification results reduced the value of each lamb by a total of 47 pence when compared with the average value of the lambs from the other families.

However, the higher number of lambs produced resulted in an increase in income per ewe to the ram of £7.69 which is more than 16 times the effect of conformation and underlines the relative economic importance of fertility and conformation.

This project illustrates that within breed variation can be exploited through using performance records to implement culling and selection policies.
Introgressing easier-care sheep genes into the Northern Ireland flock to reduce labour and improve animal welfare.

Easier-care is the current “hot topic” in the sheep industry and is being associated with almost every breed and system. However, easier-care traits must be combined with productive traits to result in efficient and productive animals and systems. Work at CAFRE is progressing to assess easier care concepts and simultaneously build systems appropriate at farm level. Easier care measures and targets include

  • Monitoring lambing intervention. The objective is to reduce lambing intervention to less than 2 percent which will provide the industry with the confidence to lamb ewes outdoors.
  • Weaning 1KG of lamb per KG ewe liveweight while feeding the ewe less than 50 KG concentrates and without creep feeding the lamb
  • Maximising lamb production from grass/clover, which will require lambs to achieve a finished condition at 17-19 KG carcase weight

A group of local sheep breeders, managing over 2500 ewes are currently involved in assessing wool shedding sheep. These sheep do not require shearing, crutching or tail docking, because the life cycle of the wool fibre is much shorter than traditional wool producing breeds. In some cases the cycle may only last a few months with the sheep moulting or shedding their coats seasonally.

Findings suggest that depending on what breed you use to cross, it takes anywhere from one to three generations to remove wool to the point where the sheep no longer require shearing. The first generation may shed part of their fleece, but will probably still require shearing. Most of the second generation ewes will shed their wool with limited shearing required. Group members are currently assessing the impact introgressing wool shedding genes into their flocks has on shearing requirements, plus general production measures focused on fertility, lambing difficulty and lamb growth rate.

Managing the build-up of worms resistant to anthelmintics on Northern Ireland farms through the use of the FECPAK, faecal egg count reduction test and breeding sheep with a genetic measure of their resistant to worms.

A survey of 8 sheep flocks in Northern Ireland by AFBI in 2006 found that only one very extensive hill farm (CAFRE Hill Farm) had no evidence of resistance to any wormer. The remaining 7 farms showed evidence of resistance to at least one group of wormers and one farm showed evidence of resistance to all three available wormer groups. This data suggests that many farmers could be currently wasting their resources drenching lambs for worms.

To promote the correct use of wormers, FECPAKs are now available from local Agricultural Development Centres. These kits can be used to monitor worm burdens and to help farmers decide when to drench.
In addition to monitoring worm burdens using the FECPAK, CAFRE is collaborating with AFBI to offer a test which can determine the effectiveness of a wormer. The Faecal Egg Count Reduction Test (FECRT) will provide a measure of the efficiency of the wormer used. This information is extremely valuable to producers who may be concerned that their lambs continue to demonstrate poor thrift, even after dosing. By integrating these simple technologies into a workable and practical drenching plan, farmers have the opportunity to reduce the build-up of wormer resistant worms on the land as well as saving money and time.

Contact Us

Dr Steven Johnston
Senior Beef and Sheep Technologist, CAFRE, Greenmount Campus
22 Greenmount Road,
BT41 4PU
Telephone: 028 94 426 748
Mobile: 07776152478


Dr Norman Weatherup
Beef/Sheep Technologist, CAFRE, Greenmount Campus
22 Greenmount Road,
BT41 4PU

Telephone: 028 9442 6762
Mobile: 07909 916 438

Electronic tagging of beef cattle

Project aims

  • development and adoption of a system of electronic tagging of animals combined with computerised data capture
  • objectives/targets
  • improvements in the accuracy of animal identification
  • streamlining of data handling processes
  • improvements in the ease of capturing performance data


Identification of animals on farms is a major difficulty in relation to farm recording. This reflects the need to muster animals and pass them through a handling system, where difficulties in reading ear tags occur through dirt on the tag, the animal refusing to hold its head still, the ear tag having been damaged, lost ear tags and poor insertion of the tag.

The electronic tag has a loss rate of less than one percent because it is inserted in the centre of the ear. Reading the tag is achieved electronically using a hand held device which eliminates the problems described above.
The risk of injury to personnel reading tags should be reduced.

The capture of animal performance data is much more difficult on beef farms, due to the lower frequency with which animals are handled, when compared to dairy farms. A regular supply of breeding and liveweight gain information is required to facilitate effective management of beef cattle enterprises.

Technology transferred/system being developed

  • a system of electronic tagging for use in the identification and recording of farm animals
  • a system of automatically recording beef cattle liveweights whenever the animals are being passed through a handling system

Methods used

  • electronic tagging of animals and recording of data on a hand-held computer
  • downloading of data from the hand-held computer onto a central computer network for data processing and report preparation

Potential benefits

  • labour savings and increases in accuracy in relation to the identification of animals and the recording of performance and other data.
  • reduction in the risk of injury to staff.
  • commercial uptake of electronic data capture systems linked to business systems.
  • the ease of recording information accurately into a database capable of producing simple reports pertinent to the farm business will improve decision making. This will lead to more effective management and improved competitiveness and profitability of the farm business.

For further information contact Ciaran Hamill.

Clover Systems for Beef

Project aim

Development of on-farm clover-based low input systems for beef and sheep production.


Establishment over a three year period of a number of farms with at least 50 percent of their forage area devoted to clover dominant swards, and a gross margin (based on grass/clover swards) within the top 33 percent of Northern Ireland beef/sheep farms as assessed by DANI. This will be achieved by :

  • a Saving of 50 kg fertiliser nitrogen per hectare on grass/clover areas.
  • improvements in cattle and sheep performance.


  • with the prospect of lower market prices there is a need for the development of efficient low cost feeding systems for beef cattle and sheep
  • clover-rich grass swards / low fertiliser nitrogen systems are more appropriate to extensive farming as they are capable of reducing the need for fertiliser nitrogen
  • research results have shown improved animal performance, when compared with all-grass swards / high fertiliser nitrogen systems
  • incorporating clover-rich swards into all-grass farming systems requires a gradual conversion process which can be time-consuming and problematical
  • at present very few swards in Northern Ireland are managed to encourage good levels of clover

Technology transferred/system being developed

Technical information concerning:

  • seed mixtures and reseeding techniques to establish good clover swards
  • weed control
  • winter management of swards to maintain clover
  • grazing management guidelines including prevention of bloat

Techniques for conversion from all-grass systems

Methods used

  • monitoring of physical and financial performance of clover development farms using computerised recording packages.
  • a development plan for each farm is drawn up and progress is closely monitored.

Potential benefits

Savings in fertiliser nitrogen usage and better animal performance are estimated to be worth on average £3,080 on each participating farm over a three year period. If 5 percent of beef and sheep farms in Northern Ireland convert to grass clover swards there could be a potential benefit in the region of £425,000 annually.

For further information contact /

Holstein Bulls

Norman Weatherup, Beef Technologist, Greenmount Campus


The end of the Calf Processing Scheme in November 1999 meant that there has been a surplus of dairy bred bull calves in Northern Ireland. However, demand for manufacturing grade beef has been increasing due to the continuance of the Over Thirty Months Scheme and a reduction in competitively priced beef coming from Intervention stores. Therefore, an opportunity exists to add value to bull calves from the dairy herd.


Approximately 60 calves are currently being reared at Greenmount Campus in partnership with a processor and a feed compounder. The following management regime is employed at the campus. Calves receive adequate colostrum as soon as possible after birth and are then fed 200g of an acidified milk replacer in two litres of water twice daily. Hay and a coarse calf mix are offered from seven days of age and calves are weaned at around eight - nine weeks of age when they are eating at least 1 kg of a 17 percent crude protein coarse feed. Care is taken to avoid mixing calves between groups or moving groups to another house within the two week period following weaning.

After weaning calves are moved to a slatted house, hay is gradually replaced with clean straw and feed is offered using a covered hopper so that fresh feed is continually available. A 17 percent crude protein Link ration is offered from around 12-14 weeks of age and continues until 20 weeks of age. The Link ration allows for a transition from coarse calf feed to a 16 percent crude protein Finisher feed but it is not considered essential in this system. The hopper system is an excellent way to mix two rations to ensure a gradual changeover without upsetting stock. A Finisher ration is offered from about 20 weeks of age. It is very important that calves are never allowed to run out of meal, straw or fresh water.

Greenmount calves will be finished intensively in slatted pens until slaughter. Autumn born calves should not be put out to grass due to behavioural problems. Dairy bull calves are typically more aggressive than beef bulls. A period at grass will extend the finishing period which can "cost" livestock units for extensification and in addition, meat plants may not be willing to accept older cattle exhibiting "bull" characteristics such as crest development.


Growth rates have been excellent to date with post weaning live weight gains in excess of 1.2 kg/day. Currently, eight month old calves are eating 6.7 kg concentrates/day and are on target to achieve 260 kg carcass weight at 12 months of age.


Bulls should be kept on their concentrate and straw ration right up to the time they are loaded for transport to the abattoir. They should be killed within one hour of arrival at the abattoir so advance notice of intended slaughter should be given. A delay before slaughtering increases stress which can lead to a reduction in meat quality.


Premium plus calves

Reducing Stress

The Premium Plus Suckled Calf Scheme is a production system designed to reduce stress in calves at weaning and sale and thereby reduce disease incidence and improve calf performance.

Stressed calves:

  • grow very slowly or may lose liveweight
  • are more prone to disease, in particular, pneumonia
  • are costly to cure
  • are not favoured by a growing number of finishers

The suckled calf is most under stress around weaning and at sale.

Premium Plus Suckled Calf Scheme

Calves sold under the Premium Plus Suckled Calf Scheme provide buyers with a guarantee that they have been managed so that stress, disease and setback is minimised at sale time.

Premium Plus Suckled Calves must be:

  • fed meal four - six weeks before sale
  • vaccinated against RSV pneumonia starting four - six weeks before sale
  • pre-booked seven - ten days in advance of the sale
  • sold in matched pairs or batches where possible
  • certified by the producer, supported by receipt for vaccine

Weanling producers joining the Scheme are encouraged to:

  • dehorn, and if not leaving entire, castrate calves at least six weeks before sale
  • join the Northern Ireland Farm Quality Assurance Scheme

Creep Feeding

Benefits of creep feeding:

  • improved calf performance pre-weaning - for every 4kg of meal eaten, a calf can gain an extra 1kg liveweight when grass is scarce
  • financial benefit - if meal is costed at £150 per tonne, an outlay of 60p will buy 4kg of meal, producing an extra 1kg of calf liveweight for sale
  • lower dependence on milk - the calf becomes semi-weaned
  • weakening the bond between cow and calf
  • improved performance post-weaning

Introducing creep feeding:

  • select two adjacent fields or fence off part of a field with electric fencing
  • install creep gate or prop open a field gate using round posts spaced 0.48cm (19 inches) apart with a cross member 0.91cm (3 feet) from the ground
  • place trough in field with best grass
  • feed cows (hay) near the creep gate
  • move the calves along with a couple of older/thinner cows into the creep area
  • provide plenty of trough space

Vaccination before weaning/sale

Weaning just before sale, combined with a long period at the mart or in transport, severely stresses calves. This makes them more susceptible to disease, in particular, pneumonia.

Pneumonia accounts for over 30 percent of deaths in calves and is the most important cause of death in Northern Ireland.

Calves surviving a severe pneumonia attack can often be left with residual lung damage which causes them to grow more slowly than healthy calves.
An important form of pneumonia in recently weaned and newly housed single suckled calves is acute Pasteurella pneumonia ('transit fever' or 'shipping fever'). This is usually seen in the first few weeks after housing and is caused by the bacterial agent Pasteurella haemolytica. Outbreaks of pneumonia in young cattle can also be caused by viruses such as RSV. Reducing stress in the animals, as described, will help reduce the incidence and severity of Pasteurella pneumonia.

Note: The RSV vaccine needs to be given in two doses, three weeks apart, with the second injection at least one week before sale.

Contact your veterinary surgeon for advice on control of respiratory disease.

Weaning Suckled Calves

Although weaning is not a requirement of the Premium Plus Suckled Calf Scheme, it is preferable to wean calves at grass to minimise stress and the risk of pneumonia.

Weaning at grass:

  • feed meal four - six weeks in advance of weaning
  • aim to have calves eating 1.5kg of meal at weaning
  • select two adjacent fields

dry ground
sheltered field
separated by sound hedge and fence

  • select two - three dry windy days
  • wean calves in two halves ensuring calves suckling thin cows or heifers are weaned first
  • put weaned calves on best grass with unweaned calves and mothers

After weaning:

  • aim to get calves eating 2kg of a 16 percent crude protein meal as soon as possible - purchased rations or straights (70 percent orange citrus: 30 percent soya 50+ minerals and vitamins)
  • provide the best grass to weaned calves
  • leave weaned calves out for as long as possible
  • if grass is scarce supplement with silage or hay

Weaning indoors

It is not always possible to obtain the right conditions for weaning outdoors. As described, calves should be creep fed meals before weaning.

  • select two - three dry windy days
  • use a well ventilated house with creeps
  • clip a 15-20cm wide strip along the back of each calf
  • provide a straw bedded creep on slats if necessary
  • feed cows and calves high dry matter silage or hay
  • wean calves abruptly after two - three days

After weaning:

  • offer dry roughage ad lib to calves along with 2kg of a 16 percent crude protein meal
  • if the weather fairs and grass is plentiful it is probably best to turn the cows out to graze. This will be less stressful than turning out calves settled on winter rations

Selling Weanlings

Many auction marts in Northern Ireland are running sales for Premium Plus Suckled Calves.

Participating auctioneers are prepared to:

  • contact weanling producers and encourage them to join the scheme
  • organise and advertise Premium Plus sales
  • provide special pens and labels for Premium Plus calves
  • assist with the matching of calves before sale
  • administer seller declarations and sponsored prizes
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