FW Awards 2009: Beef Farmer of the Year finalist – Alistair Bull

Profitable suckler beef units finishing their own cattle aren’t always easy to find and in East Anglia, a region renowned for wide open arable fields, they are even fewer and further between. But Alistair Bull, livestock manager for Sir Rupert Mann’s Thelveton Farms, Diss, Norfolk, is one of a rare breed of cattlemen.

While there is no doubt he knows his stock well, he knows his figures even better and can explain the herd’s costings in the smallest detail. “The simple fact is every enterprise on the estate has to pay its way and the cattle is no different.

“That means everything we do is costed and if it isn’t working we look for a way to make it work.” The herd is based on replacements sourced from one local calf rearer AI’d to high EBV Limousin sires as heifers and then put to Charolais sires for all subsequent calvings. The heifer calves, largely Aberdeen-Angus crosses, arrive on the farm at 12 weeks old and are reared on a low-cost system before breeding. Alistair’s figures show replacement heifers cost about £400 to rear to bulling at 15 months old.

“We aim to calve everything within 12 weeks with heifers calving first so they can be managed more closely. Everything is calved inside to aid management of cow condition which is critical to calving success, everything is turned out within 48hours of calving and heifers are fed 1kg/day to keep them going in the first four weeks post-calving.”

These calves are then weaned in mid-November when the bull calves, all of which are left entire, are gradually introduced to a finishing diet to enable them to be finished at an average of 14 months old at about 360kg deadweight. “This is the most efficient way of finishing these high potential cattle and keeps cash flow up. Heifers are fed a store ration to keep them growing and then at 12 months old the smallest are turned out for a summer at grass while the larger heifers are put on a finishing ration to finish at about 280kg deadweight.”

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And, alongside this commercial suckler herd the farm also runs a small herd of pedigree Charolais cows to produce bulls for use on the suckler herd. “AI is the main source of new genetics here, with top EBV sires selected to ensure their progeny produce cattle which perform well in the finishing unit.”

Coupled with this, the farm also finishes 300 head of bulls a year sourced from the same rearer. “These also arrive at 12 weeks old and on arrival are fully vaccinated against a range of conditions and then fed a growing ration until 12 months old when they move onto a finishing ration. TMR ingredients include milled bread, breakfast cereal and rape meal, all bought on forward contract, along with maize and grass silages. Cattle always have access to fresh straw to keep acidosis to a minimum.”

With the herd on the receiving end of a significant bluetongue outbreak in autumn 2007 Alistair is well aware of the need for active health management, particularly when it comes to fertility. “Bulls are semen tested before being put to work and this has helped us pick up one or two sub-fertile bulls which could have seriously affected in-calf rates.”

And with health status paramount when sourcing replacements Alistair is adament no stock are bought from sales. “We want to know their health status from day one and buying privately allows us to do this.”

Sales are also done to avoid the ring whereever possible. “I’m a firm believer in reducing stress for our stock and by selling deadweight to two outlets within a reasonable distance I can be confident our stock hasn’t been unduly upset on their way to the abattoir. It also allows us to get meaningful feedback from our customers.”

Aside from running a profitable beef enterprise, Alistair is working hard within the rest of the estate to ensure its environmental obligations are met, including managing some grassland for the benefit of wildlife, largely through ensuring ESA marshland is restored to a productive yet environmentally-sustainable state. Additionally, Alistair is keen to help other farmers benefit from his experience and hosts several open days alongside his vet to pass on best practice.

Farm Facts

  • 1566ha arable and beef farm
  • 325-cow suckler herd and 300 finishing bulls
  • ]All stock finished on farm

What the judges liked

  • “Alistair has taken time to develop a simple system which suits the estate’s natural resources and has a tight grip on the production costs for the herd. Marketing of all stock is clearly thought through as is the purchasing of by-products for finishing cattle; nothing is left to chance.”


  • Maximising throughput for each labour unit
  • Rearing quality herd replacements economically
  • Using conservation plans to manage ESA marshland sensitively


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