When James Hook and his stock manager Andrew Bartlett went in to beef production two and a half years ago, many options were discussed. But having been used to large scale poultry production, they were in search of a process-driven system which guaranteed a good level of profit.
“We thought heavily about finishing store cattle, but with store prices the way they were and still are it would have been a challenge to break even let alone be profitable. Suckler production also had its advantages, but the need for more labour and staggered calving throughout the year didn’t suit us at all,” explains Mr Bartlett, who manages all the livestock enterprises for P D Hook, Barley Park, Witney, Oxfordshire.
Angus cross heifers arrive at Barley Park at 12 weeks old having been reared by one of the dedicated Blade Farming calf rearers. “They stay in batches, which not only suits us from a labour point of view but also means disease is kept to a minimum. These batches will be taken right through to finishing at about 18 months old to produce a carcass weight of 250kg,” he adds.
By adhering to a strict diet programme, predicted growth chart and health policy set down by Blade Farming, Mr Bartlett knows exactly how these cattle are performing. “Calves arrive with a health declaration having been vaccinated for pneumonia, BTV 8 and wormed, so from the start we know what we’re working with.
“We start by feeding straw ad-lib plus 3kg concentrate as well as forage. They move on to a BOCM grower ration at 16% protein which takes them to a liveweight of 200kg.” During this first period we’re targeting a daily liveweight gain of 0.85kg (see table 1).
The plan then is to grow a frame of 450kg which is then capable of producing a 250kg carcass grading O+-R3/R4L, which is the desired specification. Here we’re targeting a daily liveweight gain of 1.0kg through a reduced protein/more starch diet.”
Cattle are finished outside which ties in with the grass and forage fed finishing specification from Blade, along with the help of a beef finisher roll fed via a snacker wagon. “Cattle are weighed pre-turnout, post grazing and before slaughter to constantly measure average daily liveweight gains. All animals are EID tagged, so on weighing tags are scanned and weights are automatically uploaded to our Shearwell Data programme for us to use and for Blade to measure our performance.
Blade farming calf co-ordinator Alex Robinson says: “More of our rearers and finishers are switching to EID. It’s simply where we need to be to monitor performance and identify those cattle that may not be performing to targets at a quicker rate. Our central website which can be accessed remotely – Blade Farm Works – allows us to see everything the rearer can from health checks to weights and finally carcass weights and grades.”
The Blade system is all about consistency explains managing director Richard Phelps, so that means a contract price for calves of a known quality coming on to the farm and finished to a set specification resulting in batches of 40 even, finished cattle going through the supply chain.
And in terms of profitability, the system is equally working to the farm’s favour. Looking at a carcass weight of 260kg and a deadweight price of £2.90, as well as total finishing costs of £262/head, we’re looking at achieving a gross margin of £177/head excluding labour, explains Mr Bartlett.
This guaranteed level of profitability isn’t the only advantage of this system, he adds. “We started with 300 head and quickly moved to finishing 500 head a year. Plans are now on schedule for new housing so we can take numbers to 700. The process-driven nature of the enterprise means it’s easy to scale up without any hassle.”