21 December 2001

Hopes pinned on beef switch

Whats the best enterprise for

a unit after milking dairy cows

stops? Jeremy Hunt finds out

about one Cumbrian units

switch to beef production

THE past three years has seen three main enterprises at Page Bank Farm, Rampside, Barrow-in Furness.

Jim Webster initially switched from milk production to multi-suckling beef calves, but he now believes his future lies in selling store cattle.

"A one-man operation like this on 150 acres has to be prepared to adapt to survive," he says.

While he doubts this size of farm will be viable for future generations, he is determined to find the best alternative income to milk production. He gave up milking in 1999.

"Milking 60 cows and getting 15p/litre just wasnt profitable, but it has not been easy to find an alternative enterprise either," says Mr Webster, who farms with his wife, Brenda. The couple employ no additional labour.

"We had our last milk cheque in October 1999. Half the land is on short-term lets and to remain viable we needed to increase cow numbers leading to new buildings, a parlour and more quota.

"We were facing a £250,000 investment and at 15p/litre – and that is where the price might get back to – it just wasnt feasible."

The all grass unit is almost at sea-level and is surrounded by sea on three sides. Soil types are variable, ranging from almost blowing sand to peat over boulder-clay. On the free-draining land, and because of the mild climate, stock can be grazed into early December. This is now being exploited in the new store cattle venture.

But rearing stores certainly was not the automatic option after deciding to quit dairying. The Websters had run a small pedigree Simmental herd and had even milked some Simmental cows through the parlour. With this foundation of beef cows, it was decided to switch milking cows into a multi-suckling beef herd.

The herd was mainly spring and autumn calving, which fitted well with the availability of additional calves from local dairy farms, bought privately or through the nearby auction mart at Ulverston.

About 130 calves a year were needed to supplement the homebred calf crop and produce an annual throughput of 200 stores. The calves, predominantly Limousin crosses, were left with cows. Each cow rearing an average of 2.5 calves.

"In theory, it was a sound proposition based on a good local supply of beef cross calves from dairy herds and well established demand for strong store cattle from specialist large scale beef finishers in the area. We had cows and saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between the two."

While the Websters acknowledge that ex-dairy cows were doing a good job rearing calves, it soon became obvious the system was depriving the farm of potential income from extensification payments.

"We reckoned we were losing about £2000 a year by not capitalising on extensification payments. But to establish a 100-cow suckler herd would have involved high capital outlay and additional labour. The situation demanded another business rethink," says Mr Webster, chairman of the Cumbrian Country Landowners Association branch.

Cows were proving to be a drag on income earned from store cattle sales, because they did not qualify for suckler cow premium.

"We decided cows had to go. The income from extensification payments earned from running stores would easily pay for milk powder to rear calves.

"We are now concentrating on buying in part-reared calves and selling them as top quality store cattle at 12-15 months old.

"The system does not demand additional labour and by operating as specialist store producers with cattle to sell all-year-round we hope it will replace the milk cheque," says Mr Webster.

Jim Webster has switched from suckled calf to store production to allow extensification claims worth £2000 a year.