5 steps to a more profitable beef industry

Past winners and finalists of the Farmers Weekly Beef Farmer of the Year Award, sponsored by McDonald’s, highlight five areas the beef industry needs to focus on for a sustainable future.

1. Integration

Our award winners and finalists believe integration within the beef supply chain is key to a sustainable and profitable future.

They said the industry is too disconnected and more needs to be done to mimic practices within pig and poultry businesses.

“There is a huge disconnect between what the beef farmers produce and the end product,” said James Evans, who added that every beef farmer should know their end market and produce beef to market specifications.

The farmers

Mike Powley, Elm House Farm, Green Hammerton, Yorkshire

Runs a suckler herd of 100 South Devon cross Limousin cows. Won Beef Farmer of the Year in 2005.

Paul Westaway, Gamage Hall Farm, Dymock, Gloucestershire

Runs a herd of 220 Angus and Holstein cattle. Also rears calves for Blade Farming. Finalist for Beef Farmer of the Year in 2010.

James Evans, Partridge Farm, Lydbury North, Shropshire

Runs 250 pure Stabiliser suckler cows, selling breeding heifers and bull beef. Won Beef Farmer of the Year in 2012.

Mervyn Thomas, Hollingwood Farm, Abbeydore, Herefordshire

Runs a herd of 100 British Blue cross Friesian suckler cows put to Blonde bulls. Finalist for Beef Farmer of the Year in 2014.

Billy O’Kane, Crebilly Farm, Ballymena, Co Antrim

Runs a suckler herd of 145 Stabiliser cattle. Won Beef Farmer of the Year in 2014.

Neil Rowe, Manor Farm, Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Runs a 150-cow Stabiliser suckler herd. Finalist for Beef Farmer of the Year in 2012.

Philip Jones, Lan Farm, Carmarthenshire

Has 110 Welsh Black cross Limousin suckler cows, which are put to a Charolais bull to produce store cattle. Won Beef Farmer of the Year in 2013.

Simon Bainbridge, Bainbridge Farm, Northumberland

Runs 130 Angus cross Hereford suckler cows. Finalist for Beef Farmer of the Year in 2014.

Sam Chesney, Cool Brae Farm, Kircubbin, Northern Ireland

Runs a herd of 120 Limousin suckler cows. Won Beef Farmer of the Year in 2011.

“Looking at beef production in the rest of the world it is so much more integrated,” he explained, specifically referring to dedicated breeders and finishing lots in the US.

“In America, cattle are killed by 18-months-old. In this country, animals are a lot older. There’s no reason why any animal should be alive after 18 months. It is wasted time and money.”

Billy O’Kane believed a more integrated supply chain was key to achieving this. “It would be better to have good breeders feeding into one really good finishing unit. Better finishing would lead to shorter animal life and reduce the carbon footprint.”

Neil Rowe added that an integrated breeder fattener relationship should be set-up on a retained ownership basis, with both getting a percentage from the abattoir. “That way both breeder and finisher are incentivised.”

Sam Chesney said greater collaboration between farmers was also critical. “There is strength in numbers. Farmers are their own worst enemy. They will go 10 miles up the road for 2p.” He said buying groups offered farmers more power to negotiate prices.

2. Europ grid

Everyone at the round table questioned if the Europ grid was “fit for purpose” and agreed that tougher penalties needed to be enforced for cattle falling out of specification.

Simon Marsh, senior beef lecturer at Harper Adams, said penalties for not producing cattle on spec should not be relaxed when beef is under supplied.

“They should be sending clear market signals to farmers to supply the cattle they require.”

Mr Rowe supported Mr Marsh’s comments by saying abattoirs didn’t penalise heavily enough. He also questioned why abattoirs allowed it. He said farmers who produced heavyweight animals should be hit hard. “Only 47% of cattle hit the ‘golden square’,” he said.

Mr Chesney believed beef prices should be based on meat yield, while Mike Powley said it needed to be linked to eating quality.

3. Benchmarking performance

You cannot make improvements to your business unless you know how you are performing year on year and are measuring yourself against comparable operators.

One of the biggest things holding the beef industry back is the fact very few farmers are recording basic key performance indicators (KPIs), said Mr Chesney.

“Farmers don’t know their COP [cost of production] and they don’t measure KPIs.”

Mr Evans said many farmers “accepted” they were losing money and did nothing about it because they were being propped up by single farm payment (SFP).

Farmers agreed the removal of SFP would force producers to become more efficient.

4. Grassland, soil and manure management

Attendees agreed that farms would be more efficient if they focused on improving grassland and soil management.

Other points raised by the 10 winners and finalists

Red Tractor’s lifetime assurance

In general, farmers agreed lifetime assurance was a move for the better. James Evans said the current situation was frustrating. “Knowing the history of the British beef industry with foot-and-mouth and BSE you would think our industry would do everything in its power to assure its supply chain.”

However, attendees at the round table agreed opposition to Red Tractor Lifetime Assurance was born out of increasing frustration over the growing number of farm inspections.

“People don’t want to spend anymore time filling out paperwork and having inspections.”

He suggested there was an opportunity for ‘cash-strapped’ Defra to align themselves with assurance schemes to reduce the amount of red tape imposed on already fed-up farmers.


Sam Chesney said there was huge potential to increase production from grass, but in fact many farmers were being discouraged to utilise grassland to its full potential through biodiversity schemes.

Mr Rowe said soil was so depleted in organic matter it would take some 17 years to get condition back to where it was. “Agri-chemicals have destroyed soils, with 80% of soil samples in the past year showing low pH. It is a huge problem and organic matter is the key.”

He added that farmers needed to use the resource they had on farm. “The P+K that comes out of a beef unit would cost £18,000/year to buy in a bag.”

Simon Bainbridge said the UK had potential to produce the best grass in the world, but believed there was too much underinvestment in P+K. “For beef systems to be sustainable they need to be feeding and growing as much good grass as possible.”

He also said as a basic every farmer should be soil sampling.

Paul Westaway said there needed to be more on-farm education and sharing of best practice. He reckoned farms could be at least 10-20% more efficient by improving their grassland.

He suggested more farm walks as a way of sharing knowledge. “If you pick up a Niab Recommended List it’s scary, but you can visit farms and learn how to grow protein.”

5. BVD

There was agreement among all delegates that bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) eradication would be an easy win to help drive a more profitable future.

They all called for a national eradication programme and believed a top-down approach was required to get everyone to comply.

Mervyn Thomas said BVD eradication would make a massive difference to the economic sustainability of beef farms.

“If we eradicated it, overall herd health would improve, as would profitability. But we need some form of legislation to make everyone comply and this needs to be across the beef and dairy industries.”

Mr Westaway described BVD eradication as a “free dinner”, but said due to a lack of money in Defra and the AHDB, the demand needed to come from the supply chain. “Nobody has the will to do it. The supply chain needs to demand their suppliers tag and test. You don’t want persistently infected animals in the supply chain.”

All agreed that eradication of BVD would also reduce antibiotic use as the immunity of the animals would be better and would be less prone to other infections.

See more