Richard Findlay is quick to point out the long list of benefits to his hill farming business, as well as to his lifestyle, since he started sending most of his herd away for half the year. The cattle go to William Wardman, who manages a large, predominantly arable farm 12 miles away.
After spending all summer at grass at Quarry Farm, Westerdale, in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, cows and calves are transported to Mr Wardman’s farm. On arrival, calves are weighed, weaned and put into groups, while cows go into a straw-bedded yard for drying off. Richard’s herd comprises mainly Salers x Limousin females, with a Charolais stock bull used for producing finishing cattle and a Limousin for replacements.
Mr Wardman is paid a weekly fee covering feed, bedding and labour at Thrushwood Farm, Yearby. Cattle remain on his holding for 26 weeks, returning to Quarry Farm for calving from mid-April onwards.
Another element of the arrangement involves Mr Findlay working for Mr Wardman on a regular basis, after his own cattle have left the farm. The steady wage makes financial planning much simpler.
The mutual agreement has changed slightly since it began in 2002. Traditionally, Mr Findlay has retained ownership of the growing cattle until slaughter, but cash flow issues after the introduction of the SFP resulted in him selling all his bulls to Mr Wardman as weaned calves.
Having spent a long time working out costings with a consultant, Mr Findlay reckons the arrangement has cut his outgoings by £2 a cow a week during the housing period. This adds up to a saving of £280 a week. The system has also provided a route to expansion and cow numbers have more than doubled. The farm carried 70 females in 2002, but there are now about 140.
But the real savings have been made on fixed costs. The fuel bill has been reduced by two-thirds, and total machinery costs are down by 80%. Contractor charges add up to just £5.15 a cow.
For Mr Findlay, the motivation to link up with another producer was mainly to offset the limitations of his farm. His land rises to 396m (1300ft) above sea level in places and includes a large area of moor stray. About 58ha (144 acres) is owned, with a further 65ha (160 acres) rented.
The combination of managing national park land and having a high rented acreage restricts his ability to put up new buildings and the farm has always struggled to achieve good growth rates, he says.
“I had been buying straw from William for many years. The fact that his grain sheds were standing empty over winter seemed like a golden opportunity. My father was getting close to retirement and I wasn’t really in a position to take on any extra stock by myself.”
With most cattle off hill land during the worst weather, maximum use can be made of the grassland. Instead of taking 40ha (100 acres) of silage and hay in two cuts, Quarry Farm now produces only 12ha (30 acres), which leaves the rest of the land in much better shape for grazing. Average calf weaning weights have improved by 20kg a head.
The livestock which remain at Quarry Farm achieve greater performance levels over winter, because Richard can devote more time to their care, as well as to farm maintenance. He usually retains the in-calf heifers and smaller bulls, which are managed alongside his Swaledale sheep and small flock of pedigree Beltex.
But it is not just the business that has benefited. He can now spend more time with his two young children, because of the regular winter working hours and fewer livestock.
The arrangement operates on a purely informal basis, relying entirely on mutual trust and respect, he says. “William was brought up around cattle and is a born stockman. He treats my animals as if they were his own and I have full confidence in his abilities.”
Despite all its advantages, the system relies heavily on a tight calving pattern. “We have set 1 November as the cut-off date for sending cattle away. At that point, each calf must have reached the highest possible weight, which means calving early in the year. It’s the only way to maximise productivity.”
He freely admits he would struggle to break even on his cattle enterprise without Mr Wardman’s co-operation. But he says the key is to make sure any agreement benefits both parties equally.
From Mr Wardman’s viewpoint, the arrangement has been a resounding success. He has 809ha (2000 acres) of his own land, as well as managing share farm and contract agreements totalling a further 1133ha (2800 acres).
Having historically grown mainly combinable crops, he is gradually expanding the beef enterprise, and his own herd has now reached about 800 head.
“My co-operation with Richard has used up spare building and labour capacity, as well as saving money by spreading the cost of machinery like the straw bedder and feeder wagon. It has also reduced my investment in purchased stock.
“Good quality farm labour is hard to find and having an experienced worker like Richard available has been a real bonus. When it comes to routine tasks, such as vaccination, we work together to treat all cattle at the same time. I am also taking advantage of his expertise by starting a programme of breeding my own cattle, instead of only buying in stores.”
The partners are adamant that income from the Single Farm Payment support must be left out of the equation when calculating the profitability of the joint enterprise.
“This has to stack up without farm support and so far it is proving worthwhile for both of us. We believe we have come up with the best way of making beef production work for our farms and we can’t understand why it has not taken off on a wider scale,” says Mr Wardman.