24 August 2001

Flexibility and cost cuts way to finishers success

Cost control and the flexibility

to change are enabling one

Cornwall beef producer to

face the future with optimism.

John Burns reports

CLOSE attention to feed and straw costs and maximising subsidy payment claims lie behind one successful Cornwall beef enterprise.

Ian Scott has streamlined his farming system at Trecorner Farm, near Launceston, Cornwall, so he can focus most of his attention on finishing beef cattle. This year he hopes to sell 500 finished cattle from 270ha (108 acres) of registered forage area and 80ha (32 acres) of undersown linseed.

He takes the view that as long as support payments are available, it is important to claim the maximum amount possible as well as adopting a business-like approach to buying, feeding and selling cattle.

When the 90-head limit on BSP was removed, he sold his established flock of 600 breeding ewes to reduce labour requirement and enable him to concentrate on finishing cattle.

Earlier, he had concluded that land eligible for arable area payments was too close to Bodmin moor to grow cereals well, so he switched to linseed undersown with ryegrass, enabling him to claim linseed area payments. The linseed/ryegrass mixture is cut and clamped to make high quality silage of 17-18% crude protein. But the switch away from cereals means he must buy in straw and feed grain.

The rising price of straw has led him to feed young bulls outdoors this summer. "We have used a few small fields, well fenced and I have shut my eyes to the mess they have made around ad-lib feeders.

"At current prices, straw costs 30-35p a head a day including labour to put it out in a yard. Feed costs more than 50p a head a day, so with cattle making 70-80p/kg you do not need to be a rocket scientist to see there is no margin, even when calves and yards are free."

During spring and summer grazing, cattle are fed no concentrates, but effort is made to ensure grass is plentiful and of good quality. After each grazing, fields are topped.

"With so many different ages, breeds and qualities of cattle, I must accept I will not achieve record-breaking liveweight gains. Feeding ad-lib concentrates to steers would improve liveweight gains and killing out percentages, but my gut feeling is that at current prices it is not sensible to do so until mid-August."

When feeding begins, 2.5-4.5kg a head a day of a barley, citrus pulp, soya, molasses and vitamin mix is offered. He feels a realistic target for liveweight gains across the age range from 15 to 30 months is 1kg a day.

On the relative cost of different feeds, Mr Scott accepts that grazed grass is cheapest, but says that at £60/t barley was cheaper than his linseed/grass silage, ignoring AAP. "I would never go all-out grazed grass or all-out concentrate feeding. I like a foot in each camp to give flexibility."

Straights and locally grown cereals are bought in and mixed on-farm in a diet feeder. All winter rations are fed as a complete diet, formulated with the help of a nutritionist who visits before housing and at intervals during winter.

"We study feed analysis and costs, working out rations which give the required weight gains at cheapest cost/kg gain. That is not necessarily achieved from the fastest possible growth," he adds.

Cattle are weighed at housing, twice more before Christmas and twice after. "We weigh to give me peace of mind. But if you do your homework right and start with the correct rations, you are never far adrift. We may have to fine-tune the ration at times, for instance when dung consistency is wrong, or to stop cattle becoming too fat too soon. Almost always, reducing soya in the ration will do the trick."

Mr Scott sells to Cornwall-based St Merryn Meat because it has outlets for a range of carcass sizes – 270-390kg – and accepts grades O- and upwards. "We have been supplying St Merryn for the past 15 years and havent had any disasters yet. I would sooner aim for a reasonable margin on a high turnover doing something I understand, than invest in niche markets and direct selling."