Right balance for suckler success

For a hassle-free calving with an out-wintered suckler herd, the key is getting cows in the right condition through the summer, according to the Ketley family at Picketts Farm, Fingringhoe, Essex.

“It’s all about the summer period to ensure cows carry adequate condition to get them through winter,” says Gerald Ketley who farms the 300-cow suckler herd as well as 1500 breeding ewes with his two brothers, John and Andrew and son William.

“We prefer to run sucklers outside and finishers inside, so the herd run some distance from the main farm.”

Here the emphasis is on quality grass to build condition in summer before being brought closer to home for winter, he explains. Once winter comes, cows are offered ad-lib grass silage and minerals.

And although the family aren’t strict on body condition scoring and prefer to do everything by eye, getting the correct condition on cows to suit the season is important.

“We start calving in the middle of March, by which time she has come through winter and is in the correct condition for calving, fit but not fat,” he adds.

The family do, however, house first calving heifers to build up extra condition.

“Some of the fine boned Limousin cross heifers wouldn’t cope outside for their first winter with a calf, so we house and feed them silage ready for the following year.

This also means they have a stronger first calf,” explains Gerald.

Coupled with that, William says the free draining soil on the farm is crucial for this system, as feeding can take place in any condition.

“It also means space can be allocated for some of the 1000 cattle we finish a year, which include a large amount of store cattle bought in, as well as progeny from the suckler herd.

And it’s this split in management which determines the family’s marketing strategy.

Over the years the Ketleys have been live market orientated, but with the closure of many local markets, buying in larger framed cattle for the processor has been a required move forward.

“We tend to produce a smaller, lighter carcass from the main herd which will be sold to local butchers at a premium price and a larger framed, heavy bullock from the bought in stores, which are sold direct to Dawn Meats.”

Beef farmers must be prepared to look at all aspects of their production systems to get the best returns for their efforts, believes EBLEX’s eastern regional manager Michael Richardson, who regularly consults the Ketley family.

“They are keeping a close eye on the needs of the market and as a result their animals are hitting specification targets much better than the national average.”

But, for this to work, bull choice is important to the success of the farm, believes the family.

“We currently run Limousin for the easy calving aspect; Belgian Blues to put that bit of extra muscling in and Charolais to increase growth rates.

That way we have something for every market,” explains Gerald.

Both Gerald and William admit they are not fans of basing bull choice on figures, but they do prefer to source bulls from known breeders having studied their pedigree.

“I want a bull with good length, temperament and more importantly good legs, as they too are out-wintered, so longevity is vital.”

Also important to them is buying a bull ready to work.

“It’s all very well buying from the sales, but a bull that has been steamed up for the ring won’t suit our system.”

Two years ago the family took on a redundant dairy farm in Ipswich to house up to 500 fattening bullocks a year aged between 18 and 26 months old for a quick turn around and average carcass weights of 360-370kg.

“The dairy farm was still happy to grow maize, so with straw on site, we were able to feed a total mixed ration to cattle we bought in from local markets, while keeping them away from the rest of the main herd,” says Gerald.

“This way we are optimising all possible market outlets for our stock, as well as providing our customers with the specification and quality they demand,” he adds.