ABOLISHING HEADAGE subsidies means finishers can start producing prime cattle more efficiently without having finishing periods dictated by the subsidy claim, says Appleby-based Peter Dent.

Mr Dent finishes about 120 head of store cattle a year at Elm House, Bolton, with his father Dennis and brother John. The family is renowned for the quality of its primestock, but they all agree the Beef Special Premium has forced them to keep cattle too long.

“We”ve had to keep them until they are 22-23 months old,” says Peter Dent. “Prior to BSP we were selling cattle we knew were carrying the right amount of weight for their age at 19-20 months. The subsidy has forced us to keep cattle an extra three months and all we”ve been doing is putting extra weight on cattle that didn”t need it.

“But the subsidy payment meant you couldn”t afford not to. Most of our cattle are bought after the first claim has been taken, so you have to keep them until the second claim to have a chance of making a margin.

SELL WHEN WE WANT

“But now we”ll be back to a system that isn”t distorted by the subsidy claims and we can start selling cattle when we want to rather than when we have to.”

Putting on extra weight to earn the subsidy meant many cattle were carrying up to 50kg more than they needed to. “It was costing us money to put on extra weight and yet other cattle in the market could be 50kg lighter and still make more money,” says Mr Dent.

As well as making it easier to market cattle more efficiently, he hopes the loss of subsidy will mean more transparency in store cattle prices.

“A beast can come through the ring and have three different values. It could have had no subsidy claim, one subsidy claim, or both. Store cattle should return to having a value based on their quality.”

The family”s reputation as beef finishers was confirmed again at Carlisle”s Christmas primestock show last November, when they won the championship for the sixth time. This year”s winner – a three-quarter Belgian Blue heifer weighing 515kg – made a market record price of 5.40/kg to earn 2781.

However, the Dents” system has zero tolerance when it comes to Holstein breeding. “The nearer our cattle are to being bred from pure beef breeds the better, but it”s harder to find them.”

Demanding high standards means paying a premium price for stores, but Dennis Dent reckons it is money well spent. “The extra 50 you might have to pay for a beast could make the finished animal worth an extra 100 when you do your job right,” he says. “It costs a lot less to put feed into a good skin than a bad one.

“We don”t always get it right, but the time difference between those finishing first and those finishing last makes you realise how much more the later-finishing cattle are costing, and it all erodes the margin.”

Typically, this autumn”s bought-in stores – mainly Belgian Blue and Limousin crosses – have been 16 to 17-month-old cattle weighing about 530kg with one subsidy still to claim using the two-month extension. They have been costing about 640 a head.

The Dents” target finishing weight for steers is 640-680kg, with cattle sold liveweight from August to December. Excluding the Carlisle winner, this season”s prices hit a best of 1.36/kg for a 620kg steer.

“Our best steers under 680kg have made up to 1.30/kg, but we were averaging just under 1.20/kg in late autumn,” says Peter Dent, whose best cattle will gain 250kg while on the farm. Cattle are finished out of straw yards and fed 1.3-1.8kg a day of a 16% barley-based mix given in two feeds. Yarded cattle are also offered hay.

CLOSE CHECK

“We”re not big ad-lib fans,” he adds. “Cattle get the chance to feed and clear up and it makes sure we keep a close check on them.” Late April sees all cattle turned out. Forward stores for selling in August continue to be fed twice a day, but the Dents expect the grass to pile on the weight.

“We can put 10kg a week on some 400kg steers in the first six weeks after turnout,” says Mr Dent. “We manage grass so some fields are kept clean for cattle in spring and we work our reseeding into a rotation with 12.5ha of barley.”