Improving returns from NZ beef have seen PhD student and lecturer Rebecca Hickson travel the length of Massey University's 474ha Tuapaka farm more times than she cares to recall reports the Rural News. From daytime visits to observe the cows in the paddock atop the Tararua Range, to eight-hour shifts providing a 24-hour monitoring and assessment of each of the cows as they laboured, her job was to identify the most effective calvers. Intensively monitoring the Angus herd was a labour of love, Hickson says. "˜We watched every one give birth,' she says. "˜Recordings included how long it took, time at each stage, birth time and weight. We watched 65 give birth the first year and 80 the following.' The measure of efficiency used the weight of the calf at weaning divided by the liveweight of the cow. The Massey team, funded by MWNZ and led by Professor Steve Morris, also questioned when heifers were best calved."˜It was more profitable to calve heifers at two instead of three years of age,' Hickson says. "˜Rate of assistance at calving increased with birthweight of the calf and decreasing liveweight of heifers but wasn't affected by body dimensions.'Industry surveys revealed a difficult birth was implicated in half of the calf deaths between birth and marking, so Hickson's research can be used to minimise those losses by selecting cow and sire size to contribute to ease of calving. Some progeny will be used for another beef cattle experiment now under way, as Massey assists MWNZ to find the most efficient beef cow.Though farm numbers nationally are stable at around 25,000, beef cattle numbers are dropping to currently about 4.5 million beef cattle and 1.1m breeding cows."˜Farmers are increasingly looking to beef breed cross dairy heifers as replacements for breeding cows,' Morris says. "˜So this experiment compares cows of different types to find the most efficient. Dairy and dairy cross-breed are expected to have increased milk yield and therefore wean heavier cows than the base Angus breed.'