Why suckler herd is downsizing despite adding £374 a cow

A Norfolk family is reducing cow numbers to control winter feed costs and focus on running the herd to benefit the landscape and sheep enterprise.

Richard and Sue Evans of Stonehouse Farm, Thetford, have already halved cow numbers in recent years, and currently run 100 Stabiliser cows, selling weaned calves and breeding stock.

This year, they plan to sell 25-50 females, following a decision to run a herd of 50-75 cows more regeneratively at home.

This should eliminate the need to rent wintering crops from neighbours, which will cut travel times and mean valuable nutrients aren’t being exported off the farm, says Mr Evans. 

See also: Stabiliser trials show best animals eat £22 a head less in 12 weeks

Farm facts: Stonehouse Farm, Thetford

  • 100 Stabiliser cows, plus followers
  • 101ha (250 acres) owned and 1,214ha (3,000 acres) grazed on a range of rental agreements
  • Bulls currently kept entire and sold to a local finisher as weaned calves
  • Heifers sold through Stabiliser franchise
  • 1,440 breeding ewes including high-index Lleyns, Lleyn cross Exlanas and Hebrideans
  • 4,000-head store lamb finishing enterprise

Over the past seven years, the financial aims of the herd have shifted from trying to turn a profit of £100 a cow mated, to wintering a cow for £100 or less.

“We aren’t downsizing because of the cows – the genetics are good. It’s just the spread-out nature of the farm and our system that lets them down. Fodder beet is a good crop too, we just can’t grow it at home.”

Stabiliser cattle graze fodder beet

Stabiliser cattle graze fodder beet in winter © MAG/Michael Priestley

Cow numbers are being cut back because:

  • The family business is going through generational change and is starting to see succession plans progress
  • Sheep are more efficient, and cows have failed to produce enough net profit
  • The business plans to farm more regeneratively and improve soil health by wintering cows at home.

Succession planning

Richard and Sue have four children in their 20s – Emily, Bob, Claire and Katie – who are all keen on farming.

While it’s possible the younger generation will all want to farm, there needs to be cash in the business to allow for diversification and investment.

Cash from breeding stock will be useful as generational change occurs, and the herd can be expanded again in the future if desired, explains Mr Evans.

Meanwhile, a smaller herd lessens the workload, giving the children more time to pursue study, travel and work abroad.

“The way I see it, our cows can be one of three things – an enterprise, a job or a hobby,” he says.

“An enterprise makes a 10% return on capital employed, can afford to pay a wage and achieves growth. Whereas a job makes enough cash to pay you £15-£20/hour and a hobby is nice to have and something to do when you’re not earning money.

“If we could get £100 a cow net profit, then it would be an enterprise. At the moment, we are hoping to run the cows as a job; one that suits the landscape and sheep at that.”

Efficiency and margins

Despite concerted efforts to cut costs and increase output from the sucklers, the cows are not as productive or efficient as the sheep, admits Mr Evans.

A profitability drive back in 2013 saw Mr Evans try to cut costs and increase margins to a combined total of £400 a cow. 

Three years later, the business was £374 a cow better off (see “How the Evans family tried to drive suckler profit in 2013”).

However, to make running a larger herd work as an enterprise long term, Mr Evans targeted a net profit of £100 a cow, but this was never realised.

“A cow cannot compete with a lowland ewe on a commercial basis,” he explains.

“Ewes wean their weight at five months, while a cow can only wean half of its weight by six months.”

How the Evans family tried to drive suckler profit in 2013




Labour costs too high at £161 a cow mated

Employed an apprentice for cattle work

Saved £91 on labour costs

Herd too small to dilute fixed costs

Increased from 161 to 200 cows

Saved £88 a cow on fixed costs

Quality forage limited growth of youngstock

Grew wholecrop silage and improved steer carcass weights to 300kg at 15 months on organic system

Increased income £100 a cow mated

Wintering costs too high at £164 a cow on deferred grazing and silage

Started wintering on rented stubble turnips for 70 days (November to January)

Saved £95 a cow mated



Total: £374

Future considerations

Instead of focusing on diluting fixed costs across 200 cows or more, Mr Evans is placing more emphasis on his passion for farming sustainably to manage natural habitats and improve soil health.

He believes the current wintering system could be adapted to benefit the farm overall, while the Stabiliser cows can continue outwintering in a low-cost system.

Currently, the cows and their heifer calves are outwintered on fodder beet and supplementary hay on a neighbour’s field for 70 days from November to January.

Cows then return home, where heifer calves are weaned and cows are fed hay and wintered on sawdust/wood chip corrals for another 70 days.

Mr Evans says the system works well, but, crucially, he spends too much time travelling two miles down the road each day to shift the electric fence, and every other day to cart hay to the cows in the first half of the winter.

Richard Evans with cattle

Beef and sheep farmer Richard Evans moves electric fencing © MAG/Michael Priestley

At a cost of £20/hour (one hour/day) to shift the fence, and £35/hour (two hours/every two days) to pay for the tractor and fuel, this is priced at £3,850 for the 70-day period.

This winter, the fixed costs at home have been worked out as only £539.58 for 70 days. This is for 15min on a tractor every other day and 10min labour each day.

However, this time does not include the cost of keeping heifers through the winter, which by this point are weaned, but it does mean lower fossil fuel use.

With the herd getting smaller, fixed costs are not shared across as many cows, so the lower travel and labour time will be vital to keep costs low to help margins.

Another benefit of wintering at home is that the muck will remain on the home farm.

Mr Evans has become increasingly interested in bale grazing on deferred grass, while cows have the option of walking back to sawdust/wood chip corrals.  

Stabiliser cattle on sawdust corrals

Stabilisers outwinter and calve without fuss on sawdust corrals and are fed hay and straw © MAG/Michael Priestley

From a regenerative farming and carbon efficiency point of view, Mr Evans is hoping that feeding clover hay on old pasture will increase clover plants in the sward without the need for a plough or drill, and directly add manure without a muckspreader and loader.

This year, a mob of 20 cows is being strip grazed on a 4ha plot of deferred cocksfoot at home. Mr Evans hopes this increases soil organic matter, drought tolerance and sward productivity for ewes with lambs in spring and summer.

Mr Evans knows there is strong demand for woodchip as a mulch or soil improver for gardeners, and will explore this as an additional income stream.

System at Stonehouse Farm

  • The Evans family is one of the few ruminant farmers in an area which is dominated by pigs, vegetables and arable

  • There is no “set in stone” system at Stonehouse because of the nature of the business, which owns 101ha and grazes a further 1,250ha on neighbouring farms and estates. With 15 landlords, the system must be flexible

  • Grazing varies from good pasture and Countryside Stewardship ground, with the cattle playing an important role in managing the important Breckland habitats of woodland fringes and riverside meadows

  • Sandy and low-lying fields can present challenges of drought and flood simultaneously, while only 580mm rain/year can mean a forage crisis in May or June


  • Summer grazing starts in March/April in bulling groups of 20-30 cows

  • Cows graze a 323ha (800-acre) area of unimproved grassland extensively, managing riverside meadows and woodland fringes for sheep to follow. This runs from the farm up a valley to a neighbouring village


  • Calves are weighed in July, and cows with bulls and heifer calves are split
  • Cows are scanned in August
  • Bulls are kept entire, weaned in October and sold to a local finisher
  • Recently, heifers have been kept on cows until the new year
  • No supplementary feed or creep is used, but most cows are expected to reach body condition score four to be outwintered on a forage-only diet


  • Last year, 100 cows with 80 heifers were given access to 11ha of land two miles from home
  • Supplementary hay on riverside grazing and 3.85ha of fodder beet for 70 days from November to mid-January


  • Cows returned home in mid-January and heifers were weaned and housed in a building down the road (away from cows) on hay and straw. Normally, they would be put on deferred grazing or corrals, but none was available last winter
  • Corrals are made in January. They are cheap to make, often from straw repurposed from beet heaps and used sawdust from stable yards  
  • Two corrals, each measuring about 28x18m, need 25-26 bales to make a straw wall. Each straw wall holds about 50 cows. One strand of electric wire is run along the inside by driving fence posts into the straw wall. This keeps cows in and gives a quiet place for calves to creep under to rest 
  • Cows are fed straw and hay dropped in by a tractor for about 70 days and bed themselves on straw. This winter, more sawdust has been used due to the price of straw
  • A 12-week calving period, on corrals and deferred grazing, will start outside on 14 February