Managing without beef headage

Autumn prices for suckled calves sold from David Lawton’s 290-cow herd at Greystoke Castle Farms near Penrith averaged 400 each this year, better than many anticipated after subsidy reforms, but still down 25 a head on the year.

Like many units this business is adjusting to life without beef headage payments and tight fiscal management is ensuring dependence on the single farm payment (SFP) and so-called green payments is kept to a minimum to sustain the business.

The SFP will compensate for the loss of headage payments and Mr Lawton acknowledges that environmental income will become increasingly important in future. But a range of management issues including genetics, feeding and marketing remain under review.

“BSE in ’96 hit suckled calf prices a lot harder than the loss of the headage payments this year,” says Mr Lawton who farms in partnership with the Howard family.

“There’s still a commitment from finishers to fill sheds this winter, but they know their limit and realise they’re not going to sell these cattle at 2.50/kg.

“As suckled calf producers we’ve got to keep a lid on costs and squeeze everything out of the system in terms of performance of suckler cows and calves.”

The herd’s spring calving pattern spreads run into June, with half the calves sold in autumn and the remainder held over until late Feb.

The 100 Charolais-sired steer and heifer calves sold this October weighed 350-380kg and averaged 400 and had received only a small amount of creep.

“They’d barely taken 3kg a head since mid-August.

“The later born calves won’t cost a lot to overwinter and they’ll be worth more than they would be if we sold them in October.”

Mr Lawton, like other suckled calf producers, has considered the full gamut of options to cope with the loss of suckler cow premium payments.

Retaining heifer calves for finishing may appear to be one way of taking more margin from the system, but labour costs and pressure on winter housing would erode any gains.

“And if suckled heifer calves are good enough they don’t suffer a big discount when sold to finishers.

“We don’t see a serious shortfall in returns from heifer calves – certainly not enough to drive us into finishing them – so it’s not an option at the moment.”

Running a more extensive system, changing breed and out-wintering cows are all possible options.

But Mr Lawton remains convinced that keeping a tight grip on his current system is more sensible than making major changes.

“We’ve got a system that works and we earned just over 50,000 from suckled calf sales this autumn.

Turning everything on its head would be a backward step,” he says.

Breeding all replacements on-farm is not seen as a way of making the business more cost efficient.

Instead, Limousin x Holstein replacements are bought in as stirks, bulling heifers or even calves.

However, having more influence over cow type makes retaining some home-bred replacements viable.

About 35 cows are AI’d with semen from two Limousin sires selected for high maternal figures and good temperament to produce heifer replacements.

“We want quiet, milky cows, but we also want well-fleshed cows.

“By carefully selecting sires to breed replacements from we’ve more influence over the way they perform and the quality of their calves.”

The remaining cows are put to Charolais bulls, with sires selected on visual conformation and fleshing qualities.

Performance figures play a significant part in this process.

“We paid 7500gns for a bull last year and ideally want sires that fill the eye as well as having good beef value figures as a back-up,” explains Mr Lawton.

The Greystoke herd replaces about 12-14% of its cows each year, but Mr Lawton is in no rush to sell older cows when they’re still doing the job well enough.

“We’ve plenty of cows at 10 years old and older.

“My policy has always been to look at the calf; when the calf is doing well the cow is still doing her job so she stays.

Those are the cows that make the difference at the end of the year,” he adds.