2015 Farmers Weekly Awards: Beef Farmer of the Year finalists

This year’s Beef Farmer of the Year finalists may have come from all corners of the sector – from calf rearers to finishers – but they each have a firm eye on performance and costs of production as well as their end customer.

Gary Allis, Gary Fitzpatrick and John Toland , Meilir Jones

From left: Gary Allis, Gary Fitzpatrick and John Toland, Meilir Jones ©Tim Scrivener, Richard Stanton, Stefan Hill

See also: Farmers Weekly Awards finalists

Gary Allis

Furze Hill Farm, Bilsby, Lincolnshire

Gary Allis

Gary Allis © Tim Scrivener

Working with all areas of the supply chain means beef farmer Gary Allis is able to produce a profitable, consistent and highly valued beef product.

He is finishing more than 1,300 Holstein bulls for Adam Buitelaar every year.

He now sources 60 dairy calves aged over 21 days every two weeks, mainly from Buitelaar collection centres. On average he pays £100 a calf and is taking them to 232kg carcass weights at just over 12 months old.

All animals are sold on a forward contract, which provides Gary with stability as he knows at the point of buying calves exactly what he is going to get for them at the end.

“Having a level price gives me the confidence to grow the business,” says Gary.

The secrets to his success as a profitable calf rearer and finisher are feeding a high-energy, low-cost diet, having low-cost housing and his attention to detail when it comes to feeding, management and health.

Nutrition

As a KW Compass Farm, Furze Hill gets expert nutritional advice from the company’s nutritionist, Michael Marsden, which has ­allowed Gary to feed an exceptionally low-cost, but well-balanced, diet.

He admits he is a bit obsessive when it comes to rations, as he says his profitability is totally dependent on the price of feed and achieving good feed conversion rates.

“Feed is make or break for this system,” he says.

Calves are fed three litres of milk twice a day for the first five weeks before dropping to once a day for four weeks and then they are gradually weaned. During the first 12 weeks calves are also offered a dry calf pellet, before being moved on to the rearing ration.

Judges liked

  • Exceptional low-cost high-energy diet by using co-products
  • Close relationship with vet, nutritionist and processor
  • Awareness of individual calf performance

Gary says: “We do feed the calves a lot of milk, but early growth when feed conversion ratios are at their best is essential.”

Calves are gradually weaned off milk and on to a moist ration ­(47-48% dry matter) over a period of 12 days. They stay on the grower ration, which has an metabolisable energy (ME) of 12.6 and protein of 17.4%, ­until eight months old. For the last four months they are fed a finisher ration of 12.8ME and 12.2% protein.

Both the grower and finisher rations make the most of co-products such as Trafford Gold, potato peel, pump peel, Ensus ­syrup and Vivergo syrup, as well as other feedstuffs such as maize meal and rape straw. Gary is also feeding yeast, which he believes helps feed efficiency.

The grower ration includes some protected soya and costs £140/t DM. The finisher ration is one of the cheapest farmers will find, costing only £121/t DM due to the inclusion of the co-products. But keeping a keen eye on the market by forward buying also enables Gary to keep feed costs to a minimum.

Farm facts

  • 263ha arable and bull beef finishing operation
  • Finishing more than 1,300 bulls a year for Adam Buitelaar
  • Housed in outdoor group pens
  • Investing in a £180,000 biomass boiler, which will generate £36,000/year from renewable heat incentives

Gary says: “We usually buy feed for the next three to six months to give security of supply. We are constantly looking for cheaper options, but not at the expense of quality,” he stresses.

“You must feed good feed if you want growth, but good feed doesn’t have to be the most expensive, just as long as the diet is balanced.”

Calves are growing at an exceptional rate of 1.4kg a day on the grower ration and are grading mostly O2- at 420-440kg at 12 months old, with a killing-out percentage of 50%.

Gary is also making the most of co-products when housing his bulls. The intensive yard-based system is made up of outdoor pens. Bulls are bedded on gypsum, woodchip and straw. The woodchip is sourced free and creates comfortable, dry bedding.

Health

Sourcing from multiple dairy farms means good health management on the farm is paramount. Gary works closely with his vet, Molly Mackay of Norfolk Farm Vets, who has put together a strict vaccination programme for when calves arrive.

He now has monthly vet visits, with the two staff members, Andrew and Nick, who also care for the calves, involved in the vet discussions.

Gary admits managing calf health hasn’t been easy. However, by closely monitoring each of his calves, weighing calves regularly and recording data, he has been able to identify which holdings poor doers come from, which has enabled him to refine his sourcing policy.

He has also passed the information back down the supply chain to inform farmers of the problems. He hopes it will help focus dairy farmers’ attention on good bull calf management.

Meilir Jones

Gop Farm, Trelawnyd, Flintshire

Meilir Jones

Meilir Jones © Richard Stanton

In a short space of time Meilir Jones has built up a thriving intensive beef-finishing business.

After purchasing the 69ha Gop Farm five years ago, Meilir now finishes 1,300 steers and heifers a year, mainly selling to Morrisons.

Data

The intense scrutiny of data, by EID tagging all animals, is allowing Meilir to analyse individual animal performance, and the efficiencies of the different housing facilities, breeds and feeds.

He knows that in order to make a profit animals need to be achieving a minimum daily liveweight gain (DLWG) of 1.1kg, just to cover the cost of feed. So by weighing every 20 days through a state-of-the-art handling system, he is able to track growth rates and sell poorer performers before he incurs losses.

Judges liked

  • Outstanding cattle handling facility and use of data
  • Strong customer relationship with processor and sources of stock
  • Generating added income from green energy, the livery yard and sheep
  • Courage and vision to start a business from scratch

“Raising my daily weight gain average by just 0.1kg equates to an extra £30,000/year,” says Meilir.

By monitoring data, he has identified how daily liveweight gain is affected by certain pastures, different housing, feed quality and cattle breeds. He also knows that animals from certain farms do not perform as well, so he will not source from them.

Meilir says data is crucial to survival. He is trying to feed data back to some of the breeders he sources stock from so they are aware how their stock finish on farm. He is keen to buy cattle bred by high-index bulls and would pay a premium for them.

Local sources

Animals are sourced at 18 months old from a handful of markets within a 20-mile radius. He is mainly buying on frame and favours mostly continental-crosses, dairy-crosses and New Zealand Friesians.

If animals are bought in the spring/summer, they spend about two to three months outside grazing, with a TMR fed in hoppers before being moved indoors. Cattle bought from November onwards will be housed straight away and are put on a transition diet for 55 days, with a high inclusion of silage at the start.

This summer Meilir compared the performance of two groups of cattle on aftermath grazing. The cattle on grazing alone recorded DLWGs of 0.7kg. When TMR was offered at 66% of the normal feed rate, ­DLWGs were boosted to 1.5kg.

From 0-55 days feed costs £1.05 an animal, going up to £1.60 from 55-145 days. He is feeding a TMR consisting of some co-products such as Trafford Gold and bread as well as maize meal, sugar beet and soya hulls. High D-value ­silage is fully costed into the ration at £35/t, and he tries to purchase feed in advance to keep costs down.

Renewable energy

Meilir has also been able to keep running costs low by investing in renewable energy.

He has 150 rooftop solar panels, which cost £80,000, and he rents land to house two wind turbines. He is currently generating £110,000 from green energy alone, which he hopes will compensate for the decline in single farm payments.

Farm facts

  • Finishing 1,300 cattle for Morrisons every year with some earning a Welsh beef premium
  • Farming Connect demonstration farm
  • Extra income from renewable energy, sheep business, livery yard and environmental schemes

Apart from generating renewable energy, Meilir is also in the Glastir Advanced scheme, which generates an extra £3,500/year from meeting certain environmental criteria. He has also installed a bore hole, which has helped cut water costs significantly. In addition, he is working within a site of special scientific interest, and has implemented a grazing pattern that helps protect wildflowers.

Meilir is keen to share information and gather as much information as possible. That was one of the reasons he became a Farming Connect demonstration farm. He hosts five open days a year and is keen to impart as much information as possible.

Meilir’s aim over the next five to 10 years is to increase the number of cattle he is buying from 25 every week to 34. And if he can secure enough land he would also like to look at finishing cattle on a New Zealand-style, grassland-based system, running the intensive and extensive systems side by side.

Gary Fitzpatrick and John Toland

Moss Hill Farm, Aghalee, Armagh

Gary Fitzpatrick and John Toland

Gary Fitzpatrick and John Toland © Steffan Hill

The ability to keep calves sourced from multiple farms healthy and achieve outstanding performance is what makes Moss Hill Farm an exceptional calf-rearing enterprise.

Childhood friends Gary Fitz­patrick and John Toland developed the business in partnership in 2008 after realising there was a market opportunity, following a rise in land rental prices (conacre) and a flood of Friesian bull calves from the dairy industry on to the market.

Both men had always reared a few calves alongside their suckler herds, and soon realised that if you could adopt a strict health protocol and feed calves milk ­consistently and at the right ­concentration then they would thrive.

Today the suckler cows have gone to pave the way for a calf unit that sees 5,000 calves reared up to 12 weeks of age every year. Gary and John source 100-120 calves a week direct from farmers and local marts.

They are mostly buying Friesian calves – as well as other breeds such as Hereford and Angus – with their main aim being to source cheap and healthy calves weighing 45kg or more.

Judges liked

  • Strong relationships throughout the whole supply chain
  • Using R&D to implement new technologies and regimes on farm and challenging traditional practices
  • Incredibly low mortality rates
  • Willingness to share information with the wider industry

Calves are on the farm for about 10 weeks and are sold weighing 130-140kg at about three months old. Calves are weighed on arrival, with weights monitored throughout the 10-week rearing period.

The demand for Moss Hill Farm-reared calves is so strong that the animals are already pre-sold at the point of purchase.

Gary says: “We have managed to build up a large customer base because they [buyers] know they are getting quality calves. For a Friesian we will be selling them for £175 for the first 100kg and then £1/kg after that.”

They have even teamed up with processor Dunbia to identify grower-finishers to take on the reared native-bred calves. They are contracted by the processor to supply Hereford calves for Co-operative Food’s Truly Irresistible range.

Their attention to detail doesn’t stop once the calves leave the farm: they are in regular contact with the finishers to ensure calves continue to grow at optimal ­performance. They also get kill data from the finishers so they know how individual animals ­performed.

Rearing process

Calves are reared across two sites in purpose-built sheds, which are designed with optimal ventilation, lighting and feed space. Calves are housed in mixed-sex groups of eight on only the best barley straw, to promote good health and growth.

They plan to erect an £80,000-£100,000 new environmentally controlled calf unit to allow expansion.

Gary says: “We are working with Spanish company Inzar on the design of the unit, which will have automatic humidity and temperature control. That will promote better calf health.”

Nutrition

Feeding quality food is also key to healthy, fast-growing calves. Calves are fed 450g of milk powder a day twice a day for the first two weeks. This is less than what is recommended by many feed companies.

However, Gary and John say that offering them a lower concentrate milk feed and supplying them with good-quality 16.5% protein cereal meal encourages them to eat more meal, which stimulates papillae development.

Once they are past four weeks old, calves are fed once a day and are moved on to a feed blend containing 15% protein.

They make sure every calf gets enough feed and use teats, buckets and even have a nanny cow should a calf not take to the teats or bucket.

John says: “It’s important we look at every calf as an individual to get growth and performance.”

Health

Farm facts

  • Rearing about 5,000 calves a year run across 26ha
  • All calf bedding is fed into a neighbour’s anaerobic digester
  • Rainwater is used for washing down pens; a borehole has cut water costs
  • Plan to build a classroom on the site to encourage school visits

Gary and John work very closely with their vet and have a strict ­vaccination regime, injecting calves with a pneumonia vaccine before they even exit the lorry. A month later, calves are also ­vaccinated with an IBR vaccine for longer-term protection against respiratory diseases.

Housing ­design is also a key focus for Gary and John, to ensure calves are not overstocked and always lying on a dry bed with ample ventilation.

Having success in animal health, feeding and housing, means Gary and John have been able to cut mortality rates from 6% to less than 1%.

Moss Hill Farm has also been involved in a lot of research and development. They have worked closely with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (Dard) on different feeding trials, and are working with a company looking at EID use on the farm.

They also regularly host farm visits to share their knowledge. Their long-term aim is to roll out a calf-rearing blueprint to other farms.

 


Beef Farmer of the Year is sponsored by McDonald’s

McDonalds“As one of the biggest customers of British and Irish farming, the sustainability of the beef industry is crucial to us. This year’s finalists show that attention to detail in animal performance and financial management can deliver sustainable businesses”

Connor McVeigh, supply chain director

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