Organic principles, including homeopathic remedies, and careful breeding have helped produce a successful Devon suckler herd at the Fishleigh Etstate.
Careful environmental management is not only benefiting the wildlife at Devon’s Fishleigh Estate, it is the cornerstone of the suckler cow enterprise as well.
With organic principles and selective breeding, owners Ian and Sharon Sargent and manager Peter Walters have built up an organic Devon suckler herd to be proud of.
The trio decided to enter organic conversion on the 163ha (402-acre) estate at Hatherleigh in 2001 after their livestock were culled during foot-and-mouth. They restocked with pedigree Devons and with the use of good bloodlines have built the herd up to 50 pedigree suckler cows plus followers and stores, about 150 head in total.
“I have gone for a bit of Salers in the breeding line for a bigger carcass and we now have a Bollowal bull to improve the back end,” says Mr Walters. “We’ve got some cracking calves this year.” Those that aren’t suited to carrying on the breeding line are sold as stores, finished for the farm shop or put to a Limousin bull to produce more stores.
Mr Walters keeps cattle in three groups – heifers, cows and stores – split into separate units according to whether they are winter or summer calving.
With the exception of the Limousin crosses, which get some cake, they are fed a complete grass and grass silage diet from calving to finishing, making it a low input system.
But the wet grassland means cows spend up to six months indoors, eating one bale of silage between 20 cows every day.
Although grass yields did fall after entering organic conversion, they have since recovered to the same as, if not better than, those achieved when the estate was spending £7000-£15,000 a year on fertiliser, says Mr Walters.
Careful use of manure means the permanent pasture is now rich in clover, vetches and herbs, providing more than enough goodness to keep cows in top-notch condition year round.
“They have a nice easy life we wean calves at 9-10 months old, so cows have a two- to three-month break before calving again.” Bulls are allowed to run with cows as soon as they have calved and Mr Walters expects most to calve every year for at least 10 years.
The pasture is rotated annually to break up potential worm cycles, following a year of sheep grazing with silage and then cattle. “We have never wormed any cattle. I do a faecal egg count every six months and have never found a problem. I try to avoid chemicals as much as possible and use a lot of homeopathy instead.”
Homeopathic remedies used on the farm include hepar sulphuris, an antibiotic equivalent, and silicea, used to remove scar tissue produced by navel-ill. Mr Walters also uses a New Forest eye nosode to clear up eye infections and aconite to calm cows before TB testing.
They are all administered in either pill form or in the water source, making treatment far less stressful on the cows and the herdsman, he claims. “It’s a lot easier than having to put them through the crush or behind a gate to jab them. I do find the animals a lot quieter.” But the vet is also on hand to help out when the cows need something a little stronger.
Mr Walters is aiming to sell at least half of the cattle as breeding stock, finishing most of the rest at about 24 months and 270-280kg for the farm shop. But two years ago, finding the marketing of organic stores difficult, he persuaded Hatherleigh market to hold two sales a year, where he now sells about 30 stores to aid cash flow.
“Store prices down here are ridiculous. In March six-month-old calves were making £300 and 23-month-old steers £800. If we can keep the organic market going I think we can make more money out of stores than finishing, it could be a way to go in the future.”