Beef finishing herds
Herds for beef finishing (getting cattle in prime condition for slaughter) are mostly found on the lowlands and downlands. Usually finishing farms buy in calves from hard-hill, high-country and dairy farms. Profits depend on the difference between the cost of buying calves and the return from selling prime cattle, less production costs. Farmers must maintain a high weight-gain rate for the animals, and meet strict quality targets.
Some beef finishers buy young cattle privately. Many buy newly weaned steer calves at the autumn calf sales. Buyers try to purchase even lines of calves with good weights. The aim is to fatten all the steers and sell them before their second winter.
On getting the calves home from the sale, they are treated for internal and external parasites, given a numbered eartag, weighed, and then put onto high-quality grass-and-legume pasture. Farmers weigh their cattle regularly to assess their growth rates. Poorly performing animals are separated out and given more and better feed so they will grow faster. As the cattle reach the desired weight, they are sent to the freezing works for slaughter.
Without beef animals coming from the dairy industry New Zealand’s beef production could not be maintained at present levels. New Zealand’s beef breeding herd of 1.3 million cows does not produce enough replacement animals to maintain the national herd of 4.5 million and the 2.2 million adult cattle that are slaughtered each year. Indeed, cattle bred in the dairy industry contribute around 50% of New Zealand’s beef production, including Friesian bulls, dairy-cross beef cattle, and surplus dairy cows.
Annually, around 1 million bobby calves from the dairy industry are hand-reared and slaughtered for veal. The dairy industry is also a source of calves for the beef finishing industry. These are usually not castrated, but are finished as bull beef.
Beef farmers also mate some dairy cows to beef-breed bulls – often Herefords. The first-cross heifers are run on easier breeding country and mated to a terminal sire (a sire breeding animals for meat), such as a Charolais. This three-way cross imparts hybrid vigour to the progeny, improving their growth rates.
There are two main end uses for New Zealand beef: ‘prime beef’ or table beef, produced from steers, heifers and bulls; and ‘processing’ beef (used in hamburgers) from older bulls, cows, and the forequarters of steers and heifers.
Bulls grow 10–20% faster than steers and heifers and are more flexible in terms of sale time if pastures deteriorate in a dry season. Most bulls come from the dairy industry. They are purchased as 10–12-week-old weaners and farmed for 14 to 18 months. The target carcass weight for a 16-month-old bull is about 250 kilograms, which requires a daily weight gain of over 1 kilogram. Some farmers slaughter heavy bulls as 2½-year-olds, at 350 kilograms and heavier. However, mature bulls can be difficult to handle.
Cattle can live for a long time and grow to enormous size. Station manager Peter Newton recalled a bullock that had gone bush on Mt White Station, in Canterbury. One year they managed to get it into the station yards with a mob of other cattle. He estimated that it stood at about 17 hands – the size of a big horse – and calves could easily walk under its belly. In 1954 it was found dead near the bush where it had lived. The bullock had been fire-branded, a practice discontinued before 1924 – so it was at least 30 years old.
Steer and heifer beef production
Steers are usually purchased as weaners at about six to eight months of age. Ideally they are slaughtered at 20 months, weighing about 300 kilograms, to avoid the cost of a second winter. Those that go through another winter are slaughtered at 400 kilograms and 30 months.
Heifers are mostly finished for the local trade (their meat does not meet the criteria of the export trade), with a target weight around 235 kilograms at 18 months of age. Steer and heifer carcasses are subject to a more complex grading system than bulls, so for good returns, they must be at their best at the time of slaughter.
Cows are not slaughtered at a particular target weight.