HAVING TAKEN a hard look at decoupling, William Owen has decided that he can still make the farm”s 160 suckler cows pay.

 But maintaining profitability meant going for quality, a flexible marketing strategy and cutting input costs, said Mr Owen, at an NFU Cymru organised farm walk.

 Convinced that many other commercial beef producers will also want to improve quality, he also plans to build up their small pedigree Charolais herd to breed terminal sires for sale.

 Mr Owen, who farms with his son Gwilym at Braich-y-Saint, Criccieth, has already seen the benefits of investing in good bulls, as in 2004 he became the first rearer to take the Scottish Winter Fair supreme beef championship south of the border, in 2004. He aims to use his own experience to persuade others to invest in good bulls, too.

“We paid 6000gns for a Charolais bull two years ago and his first calves have just sold as 14-month-old stores for 660 a head, with no subsidy to be claimed. Quality has always sold, and it will become even more important when returns have to come from the market-place.”

The partners, who won the Charolais Cattle Society”s Welsh Suckler Herd of the Year award last year, plan to continue using Limousin cross sucklers, but will probably shed about 40 cows. At the same time they will build the number of registered Charolais cattle in the Deunawd herd to about 15 breeding females.

 “We think that there will be strong demand for good bulls as the beef industry settles down after decoupling. People will want to use both visual assessment and figures, or a combination of both, to find good genetics,” said Mr Owen.

With the single farm payment safely in the bank, the family will be taking a new look at the best way of farming their 202ha (500 acres) of severely disadvantaged land.

 “We do not have to play the numbers game any more. The aim is to produce fewer, but better quality cattle. Decoupling and the end of retention periods mean we can be totally flexible about marketing.”

Cow numbers could be increased or decreased without penalty. In future they had the freedom to continue selling 400 to 550kg stores or, if prospects for finished cattle looked good, take them on to slaughter.

“The SFP cannot be just put into a separate account, after all the money was an essential part of our income. The beef enterprise will have to pay in future and part of the SFP used for reinvestment.”

He hoped to see processors and retailers paying more for beef, but cost control would be vital to make production profitable. “We plan to tighten up on breeding so all cows calve outside, which cuts straw use. Calving earlier will also allows us to sell cattle before we have to carry them for a second winter,” he said.

Every effort would be made to conserve quality silage, so no concentrate was fed. Silage made last year had a D-value of 70 and a metabolisable energy of 10MJ/kg.

 Buying wheat and barley for rolling and mixing with a protein blend would cut the cost of calf creep, while maintaining a calf growth rate of 1kg a day. It was important that the good genetics passed on by top quality bulls was exploited.

The partners have also joined a herd health scheme, one of the main objectives of which is to control a calf pneumonia problem. Success will help to optimise growth rates.

 Mr Owen said winters were long on the exposed farm. Cattle were housed by late October and stayed in until at least April 20. But the aim was to use the sucklers and farm”s 900 ewes and ewe lambs to make the best use of grass.

CAP reform made change inevitable, but the unit would never be easy to farm. Selecting, preparing and showing primestock countered some of the stresses, and helped the partners produce what the market wanted.

bobdavies@agrinews.fsnet.co.uk