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Pervious Page  RESEARCH
Intensive Beef Production Systems

Steve Morris
Institute Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences
Massey University


The different systems of beef cattle production that exist in New Zealand can be conveniently divided into those involving beef breeding cows and those that are concerned with the growing and finishing of beef cattle. Both systems are operated on the same farm in some cases. An alternative division of the industry is into prime beef production, primarily from steers and heifers of beef breeds, and dairy beef production which involves the raising of dairy-bred bulls for the processing or manufacturing beef trade. Most beef breeding cow herds are found on hill country farms in the North Island, usually in conjunction with other livestock such as sheep and deer. The growing and finishing farms for beef production, in contrast, are mainly on lowland farms where the cattle can be finished on high quality pastures. For almost all beef cattle raised in New Zealand pasture contributes over 95% of their total diet. Forage crops other than pasture are not used widely, but supplementary feed of various types (hay, silage, concentrates, forage crops) may be used during times of feed shortage during winter or during particularly dry summers.

Breeding and finishing systems are often combined on one farm where a farmer may breed their own calves and then finish the steers for slaughter on the same farm. Most beef cattle in New Zealand are on farms where the highest proportion of income is derived from some other enterprise, usually sheep. The exception is the specialist bull beef finishing system based on dairy-bred bulls (usually straight bred Friesian). The ratio of sheep to cattle does vary within the country with Northland having predominantly cattle over sheep (60:40 on a stock unit basis) and Southland predominantly sheep over cattle (80 : 20 on a stock unit basis). Under extensive conditions we can consider cattle as complementary to sheep but when subdivision and stocking rate increases on an individual farm, it is true to say that the role of cattle changes from complementary to a competitive one.

Dairy Beef Production

The dairy herd contributes to beef production directly through the slaughter of cull cows and bobby calves and indirectly through the supply of Friesian and crossbred calves to beef farmers. The beef originating from the New Zealand dairy herd contributes 52% of total product by weight, 59% of processing grade beef and 45% of total beef income (Charteris et al 1998).

Beef production systems and beef farmers in New Zealand have historically been extremely traditional in their breeds and methods. Production was based almost entirely on the Angus and Hereford breeds, with breeding systems in the hill country and finishing on the easier country. However, the development of specialised bull beef production systems in New Zealand started in the late 1960s when high beef prices encouraged the rearing of calves from the dairy herd. Research at the Ruakura Research Centre and Massey University highlighted the potential of the Friesian and crossbreds derived from the Friesian for beef production.

There were two reasons for the system developing on the basis of entire bulls rather than castrated steers. The carcass grading system operating at the time discriminated against the Friesian steer (downgraded to manufacturing class) but not the Friesian bull (graded as bull beef). Also, farmer experience and research showed that bulls grew 10-20% faster than steers, which resulted in bulls reaching heavier slaughter weights earlier and allowed slaughter at 15 to 18 months of age, avoiding the cost of farming them through a second winter. A third reason has been the consistent premium for bull carcasses over steer or heifer carcasses paid by meat processing companies. Today this has resulted in many farmers leaving specialist beef breed males entire to capture these premiums. There is also a blurring of the terms "processed" and "prime" beef with up to 8 primal cuts being taken from bull carcasses by some processing companies.

The specialist bull beef farm appears to be in decline, mainly at the expense of the rapid expansion of dairy farming. A large proportion of Friesian bulls are now being farmed on hill country rather than in specialised bull farms, and Friesian-Hereford heifer calves are now being sourced from the dairy herd as high producing beef breeding cows, for once-bred heifer systems, and for heifer beef finishing (Morris et al 1992).


The management on sheep and beef cattle farms ranges across the spectrum from extensive, where conservative stocking rates are used and the animal body weight acts as the main buffer between pasture production and feed requirements, through to intensively managed and planned systems where the farmer makes more decisions on a day to day basis to achieve this balance. In more intensive systems management to increase animal production is focused on lambing and calving live weight targets, weaning date, flushing, and the timing of the sale of store lambs, weaners, cull ewes and cull cows and finished steers or bulls.

The points made above highlight the fact that most beef production is in conjunction with beef breeding, sheep or deer production. In these situations consideration must always be given when evaluating a beef finishing operation to what feed other stock are making available (or missing out on) at various times of the year, and how their performance will change if the beef system is changed (intensified) and as McRae (1999) points out most analysis that are published neglect this and may be quite misleading as a result. For the purposes of this paper it is assumed that to intensify is to set up a separate area dedicated to beef production.

Intensive Beef Finishing

The objective of any beef finishing operation is to maximise the margin between buy and sell price within any one year. Thus replacement cattle are usually brought (or transferred from another unit) at the same time (or the same market) as finished cattle are sold for slaughter. This margin is largely influenced by two factors:

(1) the skill of the farmer in obtaining the best price for their slaughter cattle and then their skill in replacing these cattle at below the ruling market price, and

(2) the farmers ability to put liveweight gain on their cattle so as to reach the specified market carcass weight and quality requirements as quickly as possible. A fast turnover of cattle will also increase annual profits.

There are many different breeds, classes, ages, and condition of cattle that can be purchased for finishing. The particular market a farmer aims for will determine the type of cattle purchased. For example a farmer wishing to supply the local trade may choose early maturing cattle such as Angus heifers with typical carcass weights of 210 -220 Kg. In comparison a farm wanting to supply the North American manufacturing trade will choose Friesian bulls and finish to carcass weights of 300 Kg.

The motivation to intensify is usually to increase profit. Profit is defined as income minus costs and it is important not to forget that the costs associated with intensification do not outweigh the extra income generated. On a standalone beef unit this is relatively easy to compute compared with a mixed system where feed may be taken from other classes of stock.

Feed Conversion Efficiency

Intensive beef finishing systems should utilise cattle that are capable of efficiently converting pasture to carcass weight. Feed conversion efficiency (FCE) can be expressed as the kg feed required per kg of carcass (or liveweight) produced, but could also be expressed as the output of beef per tonne of DM (dry matter) consumed. Inherent features such as liveweight, sex, liveweight gain and breed all influence FCE.

Heavier cattle have higher maintenance requirements while slower growing animals have a higher proportion of their total feed intake contributing towards maintenance requirements, which must be satisfied before growth. In both cases FCE will not be at optimum. For this reason intensive beef production systems which start with smaller animals (a 100 kg liveweight bull calf) will have a potential advantage over those that start with a 20 month old bull (400 kg liveweight). Likewise faster growing animals of any age will generally have higher FCE because the greater the gain the greater the output over which maintenance costs can be spread. However this is complicated somewhat by two factors notably the higher the liveweight gain, the higher the proportion of fat in the gain and the fact that faster growing cattle become heavier and hence maintenance requirements increase. In other words is the effect of extra liveweight decreasing efficiency, more or less important than the effect of faster gain, improving efficiency.

Bulls have a higher maintenance requirement by about 15% higher than that of steers, which means that at maintenance or low liveweight gain (below 0.25 kg/day) the feed requirement of bulls is actually greater than that of steers of the same liveweight. For the cattle of same liveweight and feed intake bulls will gain about 10-15% extra liveweight than that expected from steers.

The above discussion on animal factors influencing FCE represent a single day in the life of an animal. To compare the feed conversion efficiency of systems of beef production, the total feed required over the entire finishing period needs to be divided by the total beef output of the system. McRae (1999) compared several systems of beef production (outlined in Table 1) and Table 2 compares the total DM consumed, beef output and FCE (computed from McRae 1999 by Nicol 1999).

Table 1. Purchase (liveweight) and sale (carcass) weight and month and sale value ($/kg carcass weight) of various beef production systems (from McRae, 1999)


18 month bulls - slaughter Buy 100 kg bulls Nov, sell Jan onwards at 270 kg carcass weight at $2.50/kg
18 month bulls - store Buy 100 kg bulls Nov, sell Jan onwards at 245 kg carcass weight at $2.45/kg
2.5 bulls (2 years) Buy 100 kg bulls Nov, kill at 2.5 years, Dec onwards at 330 kg at $2.55/kg
18 month steers Buy 280 kg weaner steer, Apr, kill Jan onwards at 280 kg at $2.40/kg
2.5 steers (2 years) Buy 200 kg weaner steer, Apr, kill at 2.5 years from Dec on at 330 kg at $2.45/kg
2.5 bulls (1 year) Buy 400 kg 18 month bulls, Apr, kill at 2.5 years, Dec onwards at 320 kg at $2.55/kg
18 month heifers Buy 300 kg 18 month heifers, Mar, sell Jan at 230 kg carcass weight at $2.40/kg

Table 2. The total DM consumed, carcass weight output and feed conversion efficiency of various beef production systems (from Nicol 1999).

DM consumed kg/animal
Carcass weight gain (kg)
Feed efficiency (kg DM/kg beef)
Carcass weight /Tonne DM consumed
$/kg liveweight in for same margin
18 month bulls - slaughter 3700 220 16.8 59 2.60
18 month bulls - store 3550 195 18.2 55 2.20
2.5 bulls (2 years) 5375 280 19.2 52 2.55
18 month steers 2875 140 20.5 49 1.12
2.5 steers (2 years) 4810 230 20.9 48 1.41
2.5 bulls (1 year) 2705 120 22.5 44 1.27
18 month heifers 1950 80 24.4 41 1.08

Note: Carcass weight bought -in taken as 50% liveweight

Of the systems compared, 18 month bulls have the best FCE with only 16.8 kg DM required per kg carcass gain. At the other end of the scale, finishing 18 month heifers have the least efficient feed conversion, requiring 45% more DM/kg carcass weight gain. Each system has its own reasons for a different FCE. For example, the 18 month bulls benefit from starting with a small animal and only one winter (less days of maintenance). The 2.5 bulls (1 year), although only including one winter, start off with heavier animals. The disadvantage of poorer FCE can, of course, be offset by a lower purchase price for animals in these systems. In other words the lower FCE of 18 month heifers will be compensated if the purchase price is $1.08/kg liveweight compared to $2.60/kg liveweight for 100 kg bull calves.

Although FCE is an important component of intensive beef production, the seasonal pattern of the feed demand is also of significance. The lower the winter feed demand and the higher the spring demand, the lower the need for expensive pasture conservation as silage or hay or for winter feed crops. The three bull systems that buy bull calves in November have the advantage of doubling the number of stock over the late spring-early summer period and this gives a spring demand greater than twice that of winter.

Table 3. The percentage of feed requirements in the different seasons of various beef production systems (adapted from McRae 1999)

18 month bulls - slaughter
18 month bulls - store
2.5 years bulls - 2 years
2.5 year bulls - 1 year
18 month - steers
2.5 year - steers
18 month - heifers

System which buy in the autumn (ie systems 4 - 7 in table 3) show less variation between spring and winter feed requirement and strategies other than moving feed demand from winter to spring have to be used to minimise the requirements for supplementary feed. These include: early sale of finished cattle to build pre-winter pasture cover, later purchase of cattle, lower winter stocking rate on permanent pasture, incorporating an area of winter greenfeed or crop. In areas with summer dry, then systems that destock (sale of finished bulls) over the summer such as the 18 month heifer, 2.5 year bull - 1 year and 2.5 year steer systems are the best fit to pasture supply. The point here is that it is not sufficient to calculate feed demand on an annual basis but seasonal patterns need to be carefully evaluated.

Sward characteristics (conditions) and animal performance

Pasture conditions need to be kept in optimum condition to promote grass growth. Recent studies suggest maximum net pasture production in spring/summer takes place between 2000 and 3000 kg DM/ha herbage mass. Increasing herbage mass over the range 1000 to 2000 kg DM/ha increased net pasture production by 2.0 kg DM/ha/day for each 100 kg DM/ha increase in herbage mass (Matthew et al. 1995). Coutinhou et al. (1998) measured increases as high as 4.5 kg DM/ha/day for the Tuapaka bull beef farm. Lifting average farm pasture cover from 1000 kg DM/ha to 1500 kg DM/ha over the winter months increased net pasture production by some 30% (Coutinhou et al. 1998).

There is an apparent conflict between high production per animal and high production per hectare. The key to solving this dilemma is pasture quality. The higher the pasture quality the higher the intake per head at a given residual dry matter or conversely similar intakes can be achieved at lower residual grazing levels. It is certain that in future farmers in New Zealand must place more emphasis on sward conditions that achieve high pasture quality and not simply focus on herbage mass or height targets.

For New Zealand pastures it is suggested that the optimum range for net herbage production will be between 1200 - 1400 kg DM/ha and 2500 - 3000 kg DM/ha. To achieve high animal intake levels while at the same time maintaining efficient per hectare production it is necessary to focus on pre-grazing and post-grazing levels that maintain both pasture quality and high intakes at reduced herbage allowances. This has resulted in increased emphasis on pre and post-grazing herbage mass targets by New Zealand farmers (Matthews 1997). High pre-grazing mass levels will see changes within the sward (increased older leaf, dead herbage, pseudostem, and often reduced clover content) that result in a decreased leaf/stem and green/dead ratios. These will reduce pasture quality (MJME/kg DM). Observation suggests that to maintain the required high pasture quality pre-grazing herbage mass must be lower than 3000 kg DM/ha.

Table 4. Target Sward Conditions for the Tuapaka Bull Beef Farm (from Coutinhou et al 1998)

Pre-grazing Herbage Mass
(kg DM/ha)
Post-grazing Herbage Mass
(kg DM/ha)
Autumn 2500 - 2700 1500 - 1600
Winter 2800 - 3000 1100 - 1200
Early Spring 2700 - 2800 1500 - 1600

If pre-grazing mass is reduced and of high quality it is possible on one hand to obtain higher intakes at reduced grazing residuals and on the other be able to maintain sward quality at higher grazing residuals. Coutinhou et al (1998) suggested pre-grazing targets of 2500 - 2800 for bull beef production and grazing residuals of 1500 to 1600 kg DM/ha (Table 4). During periods of lower performance in the winter months target post-grazing residuals will decline in order to restrict intakes and will be associated with longer grazing rotations that result in increased pre-grazing levels to enable the transfer of feed into periods with higher animal performance potential.

In practice pre-grazing levels have, in general, been lowered and post-grazing residuals increased to increase animal intake and performance. Pre-grazing levels control pasture quality and post-grazing residuals intake levels. The use of more clearly defined pre-grazing and post-grazing targets does however put constraints on average pasture cover targets. To meet the key pre and post-grazing targets average cover will be similar for most of the year and only vary over perhaps a range of 100 to 200 kg DM/ha. Coutinhou et al. (1998) set target pasture cover at 1800 to 2000 kg DM/ha at the start of winter (1 June) and a minimum value of 1700 to 1800 kg DM/ha at the end of the winter (1 September). The net effect is to limit the ability to buffer differences in pasture growth and animal demand through building up and running down cover. This means that average pasture cover can not act as a large feed reserve in the grazing system. To do this would then force pre-grazing levels outside the desirable range as average cover increased and also post-grazing residuals outside this desirable range as pasture cover was decreased.

Stocking rate

Like other livestock systems the key to success is the use of an appropriate stocking rate. In the earliest bull systems stocking rates of between 3.5 and 4.0 bulls per hectare were used. At this stocking rate, carcass weight targets were not achieved and bulls were either sold store or at carcass weights of between 180 and 220 kg per head. Despite lower net meat production per hectare and a lower rate of annual herbage utilisation, higher economic returns are obtained at reduced stocking rates of between 2.5 to 2.8 bulls per hectare (McRae and Morris, 1982, McRae 1988, Cassells and Mathews,1988) . The seasonal match of feed demand and pasture growth rate is achieved by increase in stock numbers in November when weaner bulls are purchased, sale of older bulls through the summer and autumn, and by adjusting the rate of live weight gain achieved per bull per day according to the seasonal patterns of pasture production. There will always be a trade-off between output per animal and output per ha and the objective is clearly to find the combination which gives the greatest $ returns/ha.

Appropriate seasonal live weight and live weight gain targets for a Friesian bull system are shown in Table 5. To reach target weights it is important to ensure that sward conditions and grazing management allow high weight gains to be achieved in the spring. Over short periods weight gains of up to 2.0 kg live weight per head per day are possible, particularly if there is some compensatory growth taking place after restricted growth over the winter. Over a four-month period (September to December) one-year bulls should gain a total of 190 kg live weight at an average gain of 1.50 kg per head per day.

On hill country, bulls will normally be farmed on a two-year system to be sold at 28 to 30 months of age at carcass weights of up to 300 kg. Bulls may be purchased as weaners at four months or as older store bulls. They are sold at an older age due to the lower live weight gains achieved as a result of the shorter pasture growing season and the requirement to apply increased grazing pressure when using the bulls to maintain pasture quality for other stock classes. In summer dry regions such as Hawkes Bay, the purchase of Rising 2 year bulls in autumn for sale prior to Christmas is a popular system. It achieves destocking through the summer dry period and buying decision can be delayed to allow pasture cover to build up prior to winter.


All successful beef finishing system have one thing in common, namely profitability is determined mainly by the amount and quality of feed eaten. Returns of 8 - 12 cents kg DM eaten are the norm in high performing beef systems. If farm running costs are in the region of 5c/kg DM this leaves a margin of 3 - 7c/kg/DM. If the cost to intensify the operation exceeds 9 cents/kg DM then the likely profitability may not outway the costs. There are many opportunities to intensify but there is also some risk (Ogle and Tither 1999). Any system of intensification (eg increased subdivision, technosystem) needs to be carefully evaluated for each individual farm before adoption.

Table 5. Seasonal management targets for one year bull beef production system (adapted from Cassells and Matthews, 1988 and Coutinhou et al 1998)

Potential Weight gain(kg/head/day) Weaner bulls - 1.25R 2yr bulls - 1.50 R 1yr bulls - 1.00 R 2yr bulls - 2.00 Weaner bulls - 0.75R 2yr bulls - 1.5
Target Weight gainKg/head/day) Weaner bulls > 1.00R 2yr bulls - 1.00 R 1yr bulls - 0.50 As high as possible1.50 - 2.00 Weaner bulls - 0.75R 2yr bulls - 1.0
Priority Stock Weaner calves All restricted to intake And LWG targets All have a high priority Weaner calves
Pre-grazing herbage mass (kg DM/ha) 2500 - 2700 2800 - 3000 2700 - 2800 2500 - 3000
Post-grazing herbage mass kg DM/ha 1600 - 1600 1100 - 1200 1500 - 1600 1500 - 1600


Cassells J.B. and Matthews P.N.P. (1988). Bull beef production. Proceedings of the New Zealand Grassland Association 49 : 47 - 51.

Charteris P.L., Garrick D.J. and Morris S.T. (1998). New Zealand beef industry structure and opportunities to improve income. Proceedings of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production 58: 228 - 230.

Coutinhou H.B., Matthews P.N.P. and Morris S.T. (1998). The effect of grazing management on pasture and animal production inb late autumn to early spring period in a one year bull beef grazing system. Proceeding of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production 58 : 236-238.

Matthew C, Hodgson J, Matthews P. and Bluett S. (1995). Growth of pastures - Principles and their application. Dairyfarming Annual 47 : 76 - 82.

Matthews P.N.P. (1997). Feeding practices on commercial farms: Recent changes in attitude, their reasons and effects. Dairyfarming Annual 49: 67 - 71.

Matthews P.N.P. (1999). Sward conditions and pasture targets for improved animal production from pastures principles and practices. Beef Intensification. East Coast Beef Council, Meat NZ, Wellington.

McRae A.F. (1988). Bull beef production. The Tuapaka experience. Proceedings of the Grassland Association 49 : 41 - 45.

McRae A.F. (1999). Beef finishing - some profitability issues. Intensive Beef - Extensive Dollars, Central Districts/Wairarapa Beef Council, Meat NZ, Wellington, pp 43 - 48.

McRae A.F. and Morris S.T. (1984). Profitable bull beef systems. Tuapaka Farm Publication No. 1. Massey University.

Morris S.T., Parker W.J., Purchase R.W. and McCutcheon S.N. (1992). Dairy crossbreeding alternatives to improve New Zealand beef production. Proceedings of the New Zealand Grassland Association 54: 19 - 22.

Nicol A. (1999). Principles of intensive beef finishing. Intensive Beef Production, Northern South Island Beef Council, Meat NZ, Wellington pp 6 - 16.

Ogle G. and Tither P. (1999). An analysis of the risks and benefits of beef intensification. Intensive Beef and Extensive Dollars, Central districts/Wairarapa Beef council, Meat NZ, Wellington, pp 39 - 42.

Sheath G.W. and McCall D.G. (1994). Finishing system for Beef Cattle. Proceedings of the Sheep and Beef Cattle Society 24 : 119 - 131.

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