For the benefit of calf producers, here follows a description of factors that calf-buyers (predominantly, but not exclusively, feeders) consider when purchasing calves. Calves that do not meet these criteria are by no means unmarketable, but the below aspects should be taken into account when considering what the market is prepared to pay for your calves. The principle buyers for weaner calves in South Africa are feeders, who finish calves in feedlots, and restockers or backgrounders, who run calves on veld or pasture to grow them out (either buying in light weaners to add weight onto and then sell on to feeders, or to finish off as veld-raised beef). Some feedlots manage their own backgrounding operations.
Recognised beef breed calves are desired by both feeders and backgrounders. Quality cross-bred beef calves are particularly sought-after due to the improved rate of growth that they offer as a result of heterosis (basterkrag). Most feedlots do not buy pure Nguni or Afrikaner calves due to their early-maturing type. Some feedlots will buy quality crossbred calves from Nguni or Afrikander cows put to beef breed bulls (e.g. Angus, Brangus, Charolais, Limousin etc.). A limited number of feedlots offer a market for pure Nguni calves, at a discounted price. Some buyers may discriminate against pure Indicus breed (Brahman) calves, as their large thoracic hump may negatively affect the hide value. Dairy and dairy-cross breed calves are avoided by almost all feedlots. Generally-speaking, the specific beef breed is not as important as the uniformity, frame type, depth of muscling and conformation that the parcel of calves presents. Remember that the variance within a breed is greater than the variance between the mean of breeds. All told, calves with a medium to large frame type, and displaying good muscling are desirable for beef production.
Male calves are proven to grow better than heifers. Heifers are usually earlier-maturing and may begin depositing fat before reaching optimum slaughter weight. A maximum 60/40 male/female ratio is thus desired. Parcels containing a higher proportion (> 40%) of female calves will almost always receive a discounted offer. It has been suggested that intact bull calves grow better in feedlots, but as they mature, their bullish behaviour (fighting, riding etc.) increases the risk of injury, bruising and hide damage, as well as damage to feedlot facilities. For this reason feedlots will usually prefer to buy castrated tollies rather than intact bull calves, though young intact males are not discriminated against. Backgrounders who buy in light weaners to grow out on veld or pasture will almost always prefer to buy castrated male animals, as it may take longer for these animals to finish for slaughter. A bullock calf has very little increase in testosterone production (compared to a castrated tollie) up until weaning (at about seven months of age), so the perceived “testosterone advantage” is minimal up to that point. The stress-effects of post-weaning castration would negate any possible advantage that could be gained. Bull calves should ideally be castrated before 3 months of age (or earlier, if possible).
Calves aged 7 – 10 months are preferred by feeders. Backgrounders who buy calves to run on pasture or veld prefer lighter (and often younger) calves. It is thus advisable to sell your calves no later than 10 -12 months in age (calculated from the middle of your calving season).
Feedlots rely on an efficient feed conversion ratio (FCR) from calves, in order to remain profitable. In other words, the calf that produces the most daily gain in mass for the least amount of feed intake, is the most profitable. Obviously, not all calves are equal in this respect, but most feeders will aim to grow 100 – 150 kg of mass onto a calf over 90 – 120 days, resulting in a live slaughter-ready calf of 380 – 400 kg delivering a carcass of 220 – 240 kg (60% dressing). In order to achieve this, an average daily gain (ADG) of 1.5 – 1.8 kg per day is required. As a calf’s body weight increases its’ conversion ratio decreases, and the ADG tapers off towards the end of the feeding process. The last kilograms gained before attaining slaughter weight are thus the most expensive, and for this reason it is less profitable to buy in and feed calves heavier than 280 kg. Calves weighing 180 – 280 kg are desirable for purchase by feedlots, with 220 – 240 kg being ideal. Light weaner calves weighing from 140 – 180 kg are sought after by backgrounders who run these on pasture or veld until they reach a mass desired by the feedlots, or grow out to slaughter weight.
Weaning “onto the truck” (in other words loading away un-weaned calves directly from their mothers) makes life much easier for producers, as they do not have to separate cows from calves and deal with the complication of cows and calves breaking through fences to get to each other. However, calf buyers would prefer to buy calves that are at least three weeks weaned and have thus recovered from their weaning shock.
Calves are preferred to come off extensive veld conditions, as those that have run under intensive conditions may carry a high parasite load. Most feedlots would rather not buy calves out of other feedlots due to this posing a higher biosecurity risk. Whilst it is expensive to do so, producers could consider providing a creep feed for calves. Creep-feeding of calves is not common practice is South Africa, but can improve re-conception in cows (due to a reduced burden in terms of producing milk for calves), and produce a heavier calf. Calves that are trained to feed from bunkers or troughs may adapt easier in a feedlot environment and could attract a premium from feedlot buyers. Suckling calves should not be given any creep feed before 50 days of age (ideally not before 90 days). Because a young calf’s rumen is not yet developed enough to digest large quantities of grains and roughage, a creep feed formulated with high levels of natural protein with a small grain and roughage component should be given.
Horns on calves can cause injury and bruising to other calves, and may make handling difficult. Polled or dehorned calves are thus preferred. Calves with horns longer than 10 cm (roughly the width of a man’s clenched fist) are undesirable. Calves should be de-horned before the age of 3 months (or earlier, if possible).
Incorrect branding of calves will damage the hide and reduce its value. Brands should be placed in such a way as to cause the least amount of damage to the hide (e.g. low on the rear leg, on or below the bottom or belly line). South African law requires that all calves older than 1 month of age must be marked, but it is only compulsory that cattle at 2-tooth or older age must be branded. Calves should thus be tattooed in the ear. Tattooing is the suggested method of marking weaner calves destined to be sold on to backgrounders or feedlots.
Calves should be immunised at 6 months of age against the following diseases: Anthrax Botulism Blackleg No buyer will accept a sickly, injured or deformed calf, or one that has had its growth stunted due to malnutrition. At the time of sale, calves should be healthy and in good condition, with a body condition score (BCS) of A1 or A2. Calves that are overfat (BCS A4/5/6) are also undesirable to buyers.
Have weaner calves to sell?
StockFair markets calves to most feedlots throughout South Africa Please contact one of the StockFair Livestock marketers to arrange a viewing and quotation.