Getting the most out of low-cost systems

Five years ago Andrew Allan and his wife Emma were heavily involved with processing their own milk from 400 cows with up to 7000 doorstep deliveries.

Now, marketing is still a vital tool to the success of their business, but it takes on a whole new form, that of managing 200 head of beef cattle on the Portman Burtley Estate in Beaconsfield.

On taking over management of the 810ha (2000-acre) estate, Mr Allen’s sole objective was to establish a commercially viable native-breed herd, producing the finest quality beef from the farm’s natural resources at a limited cost of production.

“Historically, the estate has been poorly managed with little or no investment in buildings, machinery, livestock and infrastructure since the 1970s.

There was huge opportunity to start from scratch, with investment available from the estate’s trustees providing I produced a workable five-year plan,” he explains.

The 90 head of Blonde x Aberdeen Angus suckler cows the system had inherited were first to go with the decision taken to select a more manageable type of cow.

“We opted for 100 pedigree South Devon females which were bought in 2002, of which we bred a third pure for replacements and two-thirds to a Hereford sire to market through the Waitrose premium scheme.

“South Devons seemed a natural choice for us because of their ability to work well in extensive systems, their docility, strong frame and growth rates.

Crossed with a Hereford they are producing crossbred steers for the beef trade and a well-grown suckler replacement.”

Following a further reappraisal due to the single farm payment, Mr Allen then decided to change the farm’s infrastructure to suit a more manageable method of farming.

“Our main aim is producing added-value s uckler-bred beef on a low-cost system.

We also sold all machinery and reinvested in new and second-hand modern machinery and began the hard task of rebuilding the poor fencing, water and handling facilities,” he adds.

And taking the cost issue one step further, it was decided to reduce variable costs by wintering the herd, the aim being to calve outside in a 10-week period, he adds.

“With removal of subsidies, it’s vital we look at every way of reducing costs of keeping suckler cows, so choosing the right breed of cattle for this system and managing them with as little interference as possible has to be the way forward.”

Although the land burns heavily in summer, the free-draining gravel soils are ideal for outwintering stock, he adds.

“We broadcast turnips or kale on to a standing crop of wheat, bale the straw and leave bales in the field as roughage in winter, minimising machinery use when cows are outwintered before returning to outside straw yards a month before calving.”

Mr Allan’s original aim was to increase cow numbers to 200 head, providing the land can carry them, but as the system is proving beneficial, there are plans to extend numbers further.

The 121ha (300 acres) of arable land were reduced to just 20ha (50 acres), capable of producing hom-grown barley for beef cattle and reducing fixed costs by making a tractor driver redundant and selling surplus arable machinery.

“To manage the herd extensively, we now strongly rely on red and white clover grass varieties, which are helping save up to 150kg/ha of nitrogen.”

Mr Allan has also been trialling sainfoin because of its nitrogen fixing ability and anthelmentic properties.

It’s also proving to be 20-30% more productive than red clover, he adds.

The move to extensive-based farming practices has since encouraged Mr Allen to convert to organic status.

Conversion began in November 2005 and cattle sold in 2007 will be sold under the Waitrose organic scheme, yielding premiums of up to £2.80/kg, he hopes.

“Providing we meet a specification of 380kg deadweight at 18 months old, our target is to clear 1000 a beast on the organic scheme.”

And for that to happen it’s all about adding value and having a story to tell and when it comes to marketing, farming is no exception, believes Mr Allan.

“Having pedigree status means we have built a strong reputation for producing modern South Devon and crossbred cows, having topped the last two South Devon Society sales.”

Even though Mr Allan has been the driving force behind this improved management style at Portman, his stockman Tim Roberts is the main driving force behind the success of the breeding herd.

“Where bulls are concerned Tim is adamant we select the best in terms of EBV traits, so we’re looking closely at 200-day and 400-day weights to maximise the breeding female, finished steer or heifer.”

Health status is vital to us not only from a management point of view, but from a marketing one as well, explains Mr Allan.

“We’ve been burnt before with rotavirus in a batch of bought-in animals, so now the herd is closely monitored with a strict vaccination programme for leptospirosis, BVD and IBR.

“Other than the purchase of new stock bulls, we are now running a closed herd, which is also giving us extra market power when selling.”