8 March 2002

Blade system places beef at cutting edge

Blade Farming aims to revolutionise the way the

British cattle farmer thinks – a "mental makeover" for

Britains beef producers. James Garner reports

BLADE Farming hopes to put the muscle back in to British beef – and the brain.

It has taken all the best bits from cattle production around the world and come up with a franchise operation, which it hopes will improve the consistency of beef produced in the UK.

"Its a mindset change," says Blade Farming director Richard Phelps. But farmers shouldnt feel threatened, he adds.

Only those who want to join need to and it wont radically change the way they produce beef cattle, more the way they approach their business.

The reward for Blade Farmers will be an end product that produces everything that is missing from UK beef production, says Mr Phelps. He lists consistency of product, quality, efficiency, better eating quality and less waste to customers as the goals of the Blade system.

"The key driver is to get hold of British beef and make it more profitable. Nobody is going to give anything back down the chain to the supplier unless they get what they want.

"The main marketing difference between Australian beef producers and UK product is the farmers consistency."

Blade Farmings system works by offering a blueprint on how to produce beef cattle which meet processors and retailers needs. Each farmer subscribes to a fixed contract with an abattoir and a guaranteed minimum price.

However, to get a standard product and traceability through the food chain, everything, down to the last dose of Terramycin is recorded and logged on the farm computer. This is linked to a central database, which was developed by Blade Farming director David Evans and is comprehensive in detail.

The only other stipulations are that would-be members must own a decent weigh crate and have enough yard space to house 40 head of cattle together at RSPCA Freedom Food stocking density standards.

Blade farmers should also be prepared to record everything cattle eat and monitor growth by weighing them every 50 days.

Farmers who buy into the franchise will be offered a fixed minimum price for cattle that make specified abattoirs specs. This will ensure farmers produce the cattle without losing money. It will account for slaughter premium, but not subsidy, which can be claimed on any bulls produced.

Each contract is based on a 20p/kg variation for a batch of calves, says Mr Phelps. "Current contracts being offered are starting at 160p/kg, running to a ceiling market price of 180p/kg.

"In a months time the contract price could depend on all sorts of factors. If the calf price goes up, for instance, then this needs to be reflected in the base price we offer farmers.

"Payments are based on carcass grids, so if cattle hit target you get the bonuses. We will be selecting calves with potential as well, so producers will be starting from a good position.

"The next stage is to develop forward contract calf prices with dairy farmers for all of their calves." This is expected to be done through Southern Counties Fresh Foods (SCFF) best beef scheme, which was developed with Express Milk Partnership farmers last year.

Only SCFF abattoir currently has a contract with Blade Farming. Its specs are standard supermarket grade cattle with carcass weights of 260-400kg .

Blade farmers will probably produce cattle between the 260kg and 300kg mark, so they can finish cattle within 12-14 months, says Mr Phelps.

There is a ceiling on market price movements, but Mr Phelps says this is "generous" because it wants beef producers to join Blade and make money.

After two years of research and trials at two farm sites, Mr Phelps is confident any farmer who buys into a Blade franchise will be successful. "The system works."

And he is quick to stress that neither trial unit was a "pretty show farm", just a normal working cattle unit with traditional buildings.

In the longer term, the database is the key to Blade Farmings farmers improving their marketing. It will provide information on sires, diet performance, which system produces the best results, and the potential to group purchase feed and products.

Project developer Alan King says: "Ultimately, it will provide us with a fantastic benchmarking tool, so each unit can compare performance. Each farmer will not know who the other units are, but if they are not near the top, then we hope they will want to know why?"

The database will also be a useful business tool for the abattoir. In time, it will be able to check how cattle being reared under a Blade Farming franchise are doing, and when and how many are due to be sold. This is very useful marketing information, says Mr Phelps.

Other data, such as meat yield, size of cuts, fat level, taste and eating quality, will also be logged, allowing farmers and processors to work together to produce a more uniform and improved product, he adds. &#42

System impresses herd manager

Russell Grant, herd manager at one of Blade Farmings trial sites, has been impressed by the way the system has worked in practise. "The constant monitoring of feed intakes means you spot any health problems very early and the animals performed very well on the diets.

"It is a very different system than I was used to in Zimbabwe, but my initial reaction was that I liked it."

With set stocking densities, monitored feed intakes and clean water, the scheme encompasses good management, he adds.

The recording of daily intakes and reweighing of cattle was not too onerous, either. "I am not particularly computer literate, but found it quite easy once I got used to it. It only takes a few minutes each day to log the information."