Success – its in the details
What does it take to be judged Beef Farmer of the Year? Rebecca Austin finds out from this years champion
WINNING the Meat and Livestock Commissions "Beef Farmer of the Year" title would not have been possible without herd manager Kevin Blurtons help, says Peter Gray, farms manager at Wootton Farms, the farming company of J C Bamford Excavators.
Between them they manage 260 Friesian x Aberdeen-Angus sucklers at Farley, near Stoke-on-Trent, Staffs. The success of the beef enterprise – which can be measured financially from the table – lies in attention to detail.
"We run a very tight regime," explains Mr Gray. "All cows, including heifers, calve within 12 weeks. Calves are an even bunch at weaning. There are no tail-enders, which would normally bring down the average weaning weight."
A policy of "strategic feeding" increases the gross margin. "Weaning calves when their mothers are still in decent condition means money is not wasted putting cows back into condition for the following calving," says Mr Gray. "If you try to put on condition six weeks before they calve, all you do is feed the calf, leaving yourself open to calving problems."
All cows are being offered straw this winter. To this is added 3kg to 4kg of maize gluten, adjusted to achieve condition score 2.5 to 3 at calving. Some of the fitter cows are outwintered to the end of January, mainly on straw. Heifers are put to the bull three weeks before the main herd so as to calve in mid-March. "This way they have more time to recover before going to the bull again," explains Mr Blurton. "Some down-calved heifers need an extra cycle before they conceive, because they are still growing."
Blonde dAquitaine bulls are used on the heifers and young cows for ease of calving. Charolais bulls, working an average 35 cows each, are used across the rest.
Mr Gray and Mr Blurton buy bulls in the spring, at Perth and Carlisle, which have above average breed beef values. And they pay good money – £2500 to £5000.
"Calf weight gains show positive beef values improve margins," says Mr Gray. "Better bulls cost more but they sire 30 to 35 calves a year with faster growth and better conformation than the average."
Bull calves are finished when about 12 months old. They are sold deadweight from April to July. Buyer is Bradshaw Bros abattoir, near Walsall, which paid an average 230p/kg this year. Mr Gray prefers to sell deadweight because this lets him follow each bulls performance through to slaughter. This year bulls graded U3 and 4 with a few Rs. Average weight is between 480kg and 530kg dw, producing a 60% killing out. They are finished on ad lib silage plus 2.5-3kg a day of a £126/t barley/soya home-mix.
Although Mr Blurton aims for 1.5kg a day of growth, at some stages these bulls achieve up to 2kg of daily liveweight gain.
Heifers are usually finished after a summer at grass. This policy maximises some rough grazing which is not accessible to lactating cows. It allows them to grow to heavier carcass weights without laying down fat.
At weaning and housing heifers are fed the same diet as bulls until they have settled. After a month they move on to a ration of straw and a cattle blend to grow at 0.75kg a day. They then go back to grass at the end of April and come in again in early September. All are finished by their second Christmas, weighing between 450kg and 520kg and grading R3 and 4, with some Os. Killing out at 58% has returned between 230p/kg and 233p/kg dw this year.
Wootton Farms already qualifies for FABBL quality assurance, so Mr Blurton is keen to concentrate on cow quality now. Buying in 30 to 40 replacements a year allows him to cull more rigorously and select cows which "have some shape about them and are going to last". He insists they must be feminine but still look like beef cows. Milking ability is measured through 200-day weaning weights. *
JCB Wootton Farms performance
£ a cow
Cow subsidy & LFA111.24
Less herd replacement costs-34.25
Cow concentrates: 0.1t @ £186.0211.59
Calf concentrates: 0.1t @ £143.007.91
Straw: 1.1t @ £30.0031.72
Grass and forage42.55
Vet and med5.76
Total variable costs114.85
Gross margin a cow262.20
Gross margin a grass hectare (£)491.20